About eight months ago, the rebel in me reacted to a fervent trend in the wine world to lambaste wines that live in the 15-16 percent alcohol range. My stance, then and now, is that you should drink what makes you happy. So I reviewed a great wine that was 15.5 alcohol…just to show ’em!
Since that column ran, I had the great pleasure to dine as a guest of Chris Howell, the longtime general manager and winemaker for Cain Vineyard and Winery. Howell is as much a philosopher as he is a winemaker. This passionate thinker makes a relatively obscure syrah-cabernet blend not of his hands as the center of dinner conversation to illustrate a fine point on winemaking, even though his guest really came to the winery—perched high above the Napa Valley—to find out more about Cain.
Sometimes it can be more enlightening to discover the man behind the wine than the wine itself.
Howell does not make wines that have become known as “alcohol bombs.” His cabernet sauvignon blends tread delicately on your palate and are typically sub-14 percent. You would think that this would make him an ally to the Holy Anti-High Alcohol Alliance (HA-HAA). It takes a three-minute chat over a glass of California sparkling wine, however, to know that Howell marches to his own drum beat.
Howell finds it merely curious that there are wine writers who won’t mention high-alcohol wines, sommeliers who won’t list high alcohol wines and winemakers engaged in campaigns to tone down alcohol levels. Howell does not align himself with this thinking. He sees all wines as an array, with high-, low- and medium-alcohol wines having their place in the spectrum.
“Without alcohol, wine would not be wine,” Howell says. “Alcohol is an essential element in the structure of wine that carries the perfume and holds everything in solution. Our experience of wine includes the warmth and sweetness of alcohol, and, of course, it is intoxicating…. There is no doubt that although there can be too much of a good thing, alcohol is intrinsic to wine; it is surely the “Spirit” and inspiration of wine.”
A glass of wine with Howell can be an inspiration, even as he rationalizes why alcohol bombs tend to receive high scores. (Howell does not submit wines for review, although he made an exception for the purposes of this column. It is not because of unfair or low scores for his wines; it is because scoring a wine seems myopic to him.)
Howell recently recounted in a letter part of our July discussion on alcohol’s role in wine and high review scores:
“People are reduced to relying on a score in order to determine if a wine is good—this includes the wine merchants and the sommeliers. Sadly, they are not only misleading themselves, they are misleading their customers. In the very attempt to avoid being duped, they are led into a trap of deception itself. Most of the wine market is implicated, and it’s difficult to get out of the trap that we have created for ourselves. Few are even willing to acknowledge the problem.
“There are wines made for drinking by themselves and then there are those made to accompany and enhance a meal. There is no doubt that the wines that make the strongest first impression usually receive the highest praise. These will be the biggest, sweetest, fattest, richest wines. In the context of a comparative tasting, they overwhelm wines of lightness and freshness, and they may be judged superior and might even be preferable to drink on their own—at least at first—in the way that we drink Port, outside of a meal, more as a cocktail or an after-dinner drink.”
Cain wines (Cain Cuvée, Cain Concept and its iconic Cain Five) are interesting by themselves, but are superb with food. Howell actually sees a benefit for lower alcohol wines from the alcohol bombs. While he didn’t mention him by name, he aligns himself with William Blake, the 17th century English philosopher who penned the phrase: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” You never know how much is enough, until you’ve had too much.
“To appreciate [a food-friendly] wine, some people need to have first gone through their phase of ‘Big Wine,’” Howell says. “Others, who never did appreciate the big wines, naturally gravitate to wines with a lighter touch, and take delight in exploring a complex and diverse world that transcends scores.”
(Not that he asked, but out of respect to Howell’s philosophy, I offer no score on his Bordeaux blend, Cain Cuvée, pictured above.)
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.