Friday, November 09, 2007

9 November 2007 - Sierra Vista Winery and Alcohol Sanity

John and Barbara MacCready purchased their land in the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1972 -- first crush was in 1977. Their 32 acres of vines produce about 10,000 cases per year, of many different varietals. I brought in two this week a Cote-Rotie-like Syrah '05 Red Rock Ridge (the estate vineyrad) and their basic El Dorado Zinfandel '05. I love these wines for several reasons, first and most important of which of course is that they're deliciuos. Of course, there's more to this story.

The MacCreadys must have missed the memo that decreed all California Zinfandel come in at over 15% alcohol -- and 16% would be even better. In fact, theirs only hits 13.7%. Instead of high alcohol you get loads of character. Ditto for the Syrah (13.9%). Now, an alcohol content of nearly 14% is not particularly light, but compared to the current status quo you could be excused for thinking it is. It's deja vu all over again -- is anyone out there old enough to remember the California Zins and Cabernets of the late 1970s? In the drought years of 1976-77 it was not unusual to see Zinfandels with alcohols over 16% -- one Montevina Late Harvest, I believe it was the '77, checked in over 17%! Yeast cells start to die from alcohol poisoning around 17%.

By the early '80s, the backlash occurred -- consumers stopped buying those monster wines and all of the sudden California wineries got it in their heads that there was a category called "food wine." As if that were somehow a separate designation. To make their "food wine" many wineries just picked unripe grapes or added back acidity -- if the high-alcohol wines were grotesque, these new "food wines" were equally so in the other extreme. Thankfully every day wine drinkers rejected the "food wines" just as surely as they had rejected the monster Zinfandels, and for a couple of decades some sanity prevailed. When -- or is it if? -- sanity again prevails, perhaps it will happen without the "food wine" backlash. Thankfully, the world of wine has grown so much in the past twenty years, we can still find wineries like Sierra Vista that make delicious, balanced wine that's safe to drink near an open flame.