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According to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust guidelines, wines are considered to be high-alcohol wines if they are 14% and above abv (alcohol by volume). It has been noted that the alcohol content in wines are rising worldwide. Whether or not this is due to global temperatures rising, or just a winemakers’ choice, is arguable and beyond this post.

But, it is a fact, and has been a fact forever that California is a warm, sunny environment for growing grapes, which produces more sugar, which results in higher alcohol. Plus, California weather has been fairly consistent year to year. The same cannot be said for “old world” growing environments, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, where often there are far fewer sunny days and greater variation in weather conditions year to year. And lower-alcohol wines. “It’s a cloudy world versus a sunny world” debate, quipped one of the panelists at the Garagiste event.

Higher alcohol comes with the territory in California, and it’s created what many call the “California palate,” which I own to some extent. But there have been many disparaging comments about “fruit bombs” and “hot” wines, some of which are deserved, but many of which are exaggerated. Some California winemakers have been pursuing lower-alcohol wines lately, returning to old world practices. I’ve tasted many of these wines and I get what they are doing, and some of them are splendid and, yes, well balanced.

As the Garagiste Festival event showed, the alcohol content of a well-balanced wine — one where acid, fruit, alcohol, and aroma/flavor characteristics are in harmony — can become insignificant to many tasters, including me.

The six wines we tasted, including one from France, had the following abv percentages:

  • Zeppelin Winery 2013 Pinot Noir: 15.4%
  • Flying Goat 2010 Pinot Noir, Salisbury Vineyard, San Luis Obispo: 14.7%
  • Flying Goat 2011 Pinot Noir, Dierberg Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley: 13.2%
  • Cave Yves Cuilleron 2013 “Les Vignes d’a Cote” Syrah: 12%
  • Saarloos & Sons 2012 Family Tree GSM: 14.5%

Michael Gill Cellars 2011 Tuxedo Syrah (Stillman Brown is the winemaker): 16.5%

The correct-guess rate amongst the 35 or so attendees of the panel discussion was rather mixed — as was my rate (I guessed correctly 3 out of 6 times). The Flying Goat 2011 Pinot was the only California wine not in the high-alcohol category, but many in the audience guessed it was. Conversely, several people thought the 16.5% Syrah was a low- or medium-alcohol wine. Hmm.

So what did this prove? Not much, as the panelists and attendees all seemed to be on the same page from the beginning. But it was great hearing three winemakers discuss their processes, show they believed in their wines, and snub their noses at the naysayers who disparage California wines. One thing was apparent to me: a wine that is balanced can have high alcohol, pair well with food, and be a pleasure to drink, just as an “old world” wine can be the same.

I must note that the wine I chose for the dinner party to pair with duck breast was a Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel 2012, and it has an abv of 14.4%, considered high alcohol. It was a perfect pairing. My next purchase will be the above-17% abv Zin that I rejected. It deserves a try.

Until next time, Cheers!