There’s little need for me to rehash the back-and-forth in the wine media regarding alcohol levels: in short, the wheel has turned and we are back in the 1980s when it was fashionable to criticize California wine for having high alcohol.

Here we are again. The difference this time around is that there is a hard number on the lips of the critical: 14%. The narrative being pedaled suggests that wines over this level generally are problematic, inferior, out-of-balance, not true-to-type, lacking: terroir, focus, complexity precision, nuance, etc.

I disagree.

And I’ve commented here and elsewhere that I have noted zero interest in the topic among the visitors to our Tasting Salon. But the “over 14% sucks” meme has a life of its own, it’s out there, it won’t die; sort of like “the President is a foreign-born Muslim.”

Because of this persistent media attention, I figured that it was bound to happen—sooner or later—that one of my guests was going to comment on the “high” alcohol levels on the labels of my wines.

It happened like this. Three nice people came in and tasted through the five wines I had on offer: three Pinots, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style blend and last, a varietal Syrah. They seemed to be enjoying them. After the Syrah one of the guests asked “What’s the alcohol on these wines?” I answered “between 14.5% and 14.9%” and a couple of them started muttering “oh, that’s high—so-and-so won’t drink it.”

I politely asked them if they could have guessed that the wines had alcohols approaching 15% without being told, and each of them admitted “no” they couldn’t have. One commented that “…these wines don’t taste hot.” I explained that ethanol doesn’t really taste hot, but that other alcohols do—propanols, butanols, pentanols, etc. and their esters and oxidation products, collectively called congeners in the distillation biz.

These fermentation products are more likely to be produced by yeast under stress, and high initial sugar as well as high final ethanol concentrations are potent stressors, as are nutrient and co-factor deficiencies. In my winemaking I go out of my way to minimize the stresses on yeast (though not so far as to throw diammonium phosphate—DAP, a source of ammonia—at every ferment) and so the levels of these congeners are low in my finished wines. No “heat” on the palate.

I further explained that in fact few of my wines finish fermentation much over 13.5%-14% but they pick up as much as 1%-1.5% during barrel aging. This is because we have a dry barrel cellar. Inside the barrel there is 86% water and 14% alcohol, while outside there is an average of 30% water and 0% alcohol. To a first approximation, the thermodynamic drive for water to leave the barrel is over 3x what it is for alcohol, and so over the course of 2+ years aging in barrel the alcohol level of the wine inside actually goes up.

A wine made from grapes harvested at “optimal” ripeness and put to barrel at 13.5%, in our cellar may well end up near 15% when it is ready to go to bottle. This is not the same as harvesting the grapes over-ripe. Not only do these wines not taste hot, they don’t taste raisined.

Anyway, the offshoot was that these folks bought a case of wine, and intended to put some of in front of their “I won’t drink any wine over 14% because wine over 14% all tastes the same” friends and see what they think. Awesome.

John Kelly is the owner and winemaker of Westwood Wines, Sonoma California. This blog was originally published on his blog: “notes from the winemaker” on the 3rd of January 2012 at 14h52 to be precise.