Why this whole "balance" argument was always a crock

The author, showing off his giant "Pinot" in 2000

A revision of a column originally published in Sommelier Journal

For me it was always easy, when word started getting around eight, nine years ago, to dismiss the notion that wines over 14% alcohol or picked “overripe” are somehow inferior, or less “balanced,” than wines closer to 12% or 13% alcohol, which are leaner in fruitiness and higher in acidity. 

Wine, after all, has always been an aesthetic choice, like any other we make in our lives. You might yearn for a man with a body like Arnold and a Denzel face, but no doubt the Laurels and Hardys of the world get their share of love, too. So you prefer curling up to a Harry Potter rather James Joyce’s Ulysses (obviously, far more do), or contemplating a Marvel comic book rather than a classic Monet or Manet? I suppose the Stones vs. Beatles argument still rages on, albeit in different manifestations (Beyoncé vs. Adele?).

In matters of taste, who really cares? 

The whole point of systems like France’s AOC is to recognize the best winegrowing regions, which is why it is no more valid to say Cornas is superior to Côte-Rôtie than it is to say Côte-Rôtie is better than a Mollydooker’s South Australia Shiraz, or that a Mollydooker out-dukes a Stolpman Santa Barbara Syrah. It’s a silly argument because these are all red wines with a grape in common but coming from different regions; and different regions produce wines of different terroir related distinctions, often at extraordinary levels of quality that transcend arbitrary conceptions like alcohol, perceptions of “ripeness,” or even sense of “balance.”

- New Yorker

One man's ceiling, as they say, is another man's floor.

Despite the absurdity, debates rising barely above matters of taste persist, like pesky fruit flies. Charles Olken, who has been publishing Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine since the days when French judges regularly mistook wines like Chateau Montelena Chardonnay for Montrachet – thus, inadverdently making a case for California style fruitiness (how were the French to know they actually preferred fruitier wine?) – once put things in perspective for me by sharing this thought: “Every new generation of wine commentators suddenly discovers that California wines are a little bit riper than their European counterparts. A few of them genuinely like the pert, tighter, high acids they find in Europe, but others simply adopt Europe as a ‘classic’ and thus dismiss all that is different.”

It recently reached a point, Olken also opined, where “if someone points out that balanced wines do, in fact, exist at levels above 14%, that person is branded as a ‘high alcohol apologist’ by people who should know better, and who themselves often recommend wines as high as 15% based upon their own blind tastings.”

It isn’t so much what happens in blind tastings. It’s more a case of people walking around with blinders. Who can ever forget, as it were, the incident at the 2011 World of Pinot Noir; when Siduri winemaker/owner Adam Lee switched a 15.2% alcohol Pinot with a 13.6% alcohol Pinot – resulting in the higher alcohol wine being described as “better balanced” by a well known proponent of low alcohol. Blind tastings makes fools of us all.

The author as the bourgeoning sommelier and wine professional, circa 1978 (with Heather Caparoso)

What is harder to understand is why even experienced wine professionals who should know better cannot reconcile with this simple, incontrovertible fact: that sensory perception is always altered by scale and context, no matter what your avowed preferences or intellectual persuasions. No one is immune.

I, for instance, have always preferred a lighter, gentle, finesse style of Pinot Noir. Line up any two, and I’ll pick the restrained, sharper, balanced wine over a big, “opulent” or “hedonistic” one all the time. I’ll never forget another World of Pinot Noir event, when I tasted a stunning wine that I thought was one particular winemaker’s finest Pinot Noir ever. Afterwards I wrote to him, enthusiastically reporting my finding.

His response? “This was probably our most difficult Pinot Noir to make... we experienced a sudden late season heat spike, and grape sugars soared out of control... the alcohol ended up around 15%.” Needless to say, I hadn’t checked the alcohol content on the label. Does this make me a lousy judge of Pinot Noir? No. It just means it’s a damned good Pinot Noir. A product of its vintage (thanks be to Mother Nature), and a credit to its source (Sta. Rita Hills, if you really wanna know).

Still, I can’t help but think: All this is geek-speak; nick-picky, and embarrassingly self-indulgent. No wonder so many folks wince at the sight of sommeliers. Especially since what really matters is how a wine fits on a table, with food and company. After all, that’s the real job of sommeliers – suggesting and serving wines to go with dishes. There’s nothing like, for instance, classic Hermitage, Cornas or Côte-Rôtie with grilled meats; or, as Richard Olney once famously prescribed, braises of stuffed lamb shoulder. 

In Berkeley with longtime mentor Kermit Lynch (2012)

But take those same grills or braises and finish them with reductions of fruit or in a Port infused demi-glaze, plus beds of onion marmalade or caramelized root vegetables, and I’d wager that a humongous, fatly fruited Mollydooker might actually fare better than leaner, earthier wines of the Northern Rhône. Incorporate exotic ingredients like star anise, hoisin, black beans or chocolate mole, and then lavish, sweet toned, decidedly warmer climate California Syrahs by the likes of Stolpman, Jaffurs, HalterRanch, Betz Family or Ken Wright’s Tyrus Evan might make even more sense.

If some dishes prefer fruitier, higher alcohol, lower acid Syrahs, we should, too!

There’s too much good winegrowing going on out there to dismiss any because of less consequential things like alcohol content or varietal fruit profiling. It’s not even a question of balance, because even those perceptions are debatable. 

It is more a matter of appreciating the differences and diversity of wines from different regions or terroirs, and enjoying them for what they are, not what they’re “supposed” to be.

- New Yorker


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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.