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Bloomberg gets it wrong on Washington wine

Written By | Apr 6, 2013

SEATTLE, April 6, 2013 – recently published a piece about the Washington wine industry that was misleading at best. Its author, John Mariani, claimed he recently visited Seattle and after sampling a few bottles, makes the claim: “Washington Wines Pack High Alcohol Wallop, Little Else.”

Not only is this headline a slap in the face to Washington wine, it’s incredibly misleading. Although Mariani claims Washington wines have a high alcohol level, the article fails to state just how high is “too high.” Is it 13-percent? 14-percent? 15-percent? 16-percent? If he’s going to make such a claim, then he should be able to quantify it with a number – we’re all ears, Mr. Mariani.

Additionally, Mariani never discussed the overall balance of the wines; instead whether or not he liked a wine based on the labels stated alcohol level. His assessment could have been very different had he tasted all the wines in a blind setting.

Alcohol is one of a number of important factors in the overall enjoyment and ageability. One also needs to factor in tannin, pH (acidity) and sugar levels. If any one of these components is out of whack with the others, you can have an easily out-of-balance wine.

To assess the accuracy of Mariani’s claims, I reviewed a sampling from my past eight reviews of Washington Wine. The percentages for these eight wines were:  14.1%, 11.8%, 14.4%, 14.5%, 14.5%, 14.1%, 14.7% and 11.8% – that puts the “average” alcohol level at 13.74 percent, hardly a “High Alcohol Wallop”.

To add further hard data to this, I petitioned the Washington State Liquor Control Board who  monitors all wine production within the state. According to the data supplied by them, the totals for liters produced in 2012 at below and above 14% during the fiscal year of January 2012-January 2013.

  14% & UNDER OVER 14%    
  13,095,069.42 1,055,112.12    

Thank you Melissa Norton from the Control board for supplying the documents – if you’d like to verify this data, feel free to email her:

Is it an honest headline to say: Washington wines “pack high alcohol”? Hardly. One can clearly see that the overwhelming majority of wine being produced in Washington is below 14%

Are there some that are well above 15%? You bet and those exist in about every wine-producing region around the world, but alcohol alone hardly tells the whole story of a wine – it’s all about balance. Not to mention, I’d love to have most anyone blind taste two wines using identical vineyard sources, identical vintage, identical cooperage program and have one of them be 1-2 percent higher in alcohol and tell me which one is higher.

To weigh-in on this I asked some other leading wine critics their take on the perception of alcohol in wine. I asked them:

“In your professional opinion, do you believe most people can tell the difference of 1-2% alcohol between wines in a blind tasting?”

“I’m going to answer it at 2%, the level I feel confident in saying I can identify. Can most people tell you what the alcohol level is, or whether it is unusually high for the varietal? No, most people can barely tell you whether the wine is white or red. BUT ask the question a different way — can people tell that wines with a 2% difference in alcohol taste different from each other — and I’ll say the answer is definitely yes. Most people don’t have the vocabulary to describe what they’re tasting, nor would they necessarily know that the immediately more impressive wine is not going to be as delicious after an entire glass of it. But they would taste the difference between a wine with 13.5% alcohol and 15.5% alcohol.” – W. Blake Gray (The Gray Report)

“In a blind tasting, I believe a professional could pick out the difference between a Cabernet say, at 13% and one at 15% IF the alcohol numbers were entirely accurate, and IF the wines came from the same AVA and vintage. I can’t really speak for the average consumer. A bigger question, perhaps, is which would be the better wine? I would approach such a hypothetical match with no preconceptions. Either wine could be superior, or both could be equally good but in different styles.” – Paul Gregutt (Wine Enthusiast)

“No. Most professionals can’t either. Ask Adam Lee, at Siduri, to tell you the story about Raj Parr and the Pinot Noir.” – Steve Heimoff (Wine Enthusiast)

“The short answer is No, not usually. In fact, I think most experts and pros would be hard-pressed to pick out those differences blind (winemakers tend to be more sensitive to that, in my experience, in blind tastings).

I do, however, think that many people – experts or not – can tell when a wine is out of balance. And that could be a 16% abv wine, a 14% one, or a 12% one. If the acid and fruit isn’t in balance with the alcohol, a low abv wine can seem “hot.” And a balanced wine at 15.8% abv can actually feel lithe and energetic in the mouth. In my experience, people pick up on that lack of balance rather easily, actually: they mind find a wine thin and acerbic, or cloyingly sweet, or heavy, plodding, flat and dull. It doesn’t take any expertise to discern that blind, but it would likely tell you little about the real alcohol percentage.”  – Joe Roberts ( 1Winedude)

My colleagues agree, discerning between slight variances in alcohol is a tricky thing to do – even for seasoned professionals. So I’m not sure that Mr. Mariani’s issue with “high alcohol” is one that’s at all relevant to most consumers – again, he never did state how high is “too high”.

In the end, I believe that the editor of Bloomberg should pull the article, ask its author to do more research and – at the very least – have a more appropriate headline to his limited experience of Washington wine.

I’d encourage everyone to not only try Washington wines but to put them toe-to-toe against any other region in the world. I believe that, overall, you’ll find them to be very well balanced and a good value.


Duane Pemberton

Duane Pemberton is a lifestyle writer and CDNs Auto Editor. Pemberton loves anything that helps bring people together which is why he writes about food, wine, cars, and travel.