My wine writing cup truly overflows at this time of year, with so many people to thank, wines to remember, predictions to air and thoughts for the annual wish list. Among the most hotly...

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My wine writing cup truly overflows at this time of year, with so many people to thank, wines to remember, predictions to air and thoughts for the annual wish list.

Among the most hotly debated topics this year were the trend to screwcaps, the high prices of wines in restaurants, the ongoing legal battle (now resting with the Supreme Court) over interstate wine shipments, and the rising levels of alcohol, particularly in domestic red wines.

Reader Arlette Claussen
sent a thoughtful note about wines with high-alcohol content. “I am French born,” she explained, “and my mother served us a glass of half wine/half water as soon as we turned 9 or 10. I have always appreciated wine, but to me, American wines taste totally of alcohol, are very heavy, and give me headaches.

The first thing I look for when buying a bottle of wine is the alcoholic content, and since American wines usually are above 13 [percent], I have stopped drinking them. I cannot believe I am alone in not liking all this alcohol in wines.”

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I’m with you, Arlette! The average alcohol content in domestic wines has risen dramatically over the past two decades, and it’s a trend that I hope to see reversed. The usual explanation is that today’s vineyard management is better; grapes are ripened more fully and evenly, and hang times are extended. Which ultimately translates into extra alcohol. True enough. It is also true that some high-alcohol (more than 15 percent) wines can appear to be balanced, with tannin and new oak flavors providing strong support for the ripe fruit.

I think that there are significant problems with super-ripe, alcoholic wines, however. Among them: They are fatiguing wines to drink; their strong flavors of sweet fruit and oak obliterate varietal nuances and traces of terroir; and they are difficult to pair with food. Furthermore, they tend to all taste alike, and I suspect that their apparent “balance” will prove ephemeral; they will not age as well as lighter, more elegant wines.

Some wineries continue to fight the trend. Vashon Winery, a 400- to 500-case operation owned and run by Ron Irvine, who founded the Pike & Western wine shop back in the mid-1970s, is one. Vashon’s 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2001 Merlot (both $20) are almost throwbacks to the wines of an earlier time. Light, well-structured and beautifully balanced, each has just 12.5 percent alcohol and displays good varietal character, without sweetness and vanilla.


Screwcaps,
which have become quite common in Australian and New Zealand imports, are now being used by a growing number of American wineries. Ditching the cork is not a simple decision for a winery to make, as they must retool with special bottling equipment. The move to screwcaps is not a cost-cutting measure but a quality-control issue.

The question each winery must answer for itself is this: Is it more damaging for our image to stick with corks, knowing that a significant percentage of our wines will be tainted by TCA? (TCA is a chemical compound that, while not dangerous, imparts a moldy and musty aroma to wine.) Or is it more damaging to our image of quality to use a screwcap?

An aggravated drinker of Laurel Glen’s “Terra Rosa” weighed in with a consumer viewpoint when the winery switched to screwcaps, catching him by surprise. “As the corkscrew easily punctured the top of the bottle,” he recounted in a note to the winery, “I suspected a broken bottle opener. After quick examination I realized the bottle had a screw cap! I was embarrassed and [annoyed]. Screw cap equals cheap, so I don’t know what you are thinking. Screw caps are for Gallo and sweet vermouth, not for entertainment and show.”

Laurel Glen owner Patrick Campbell made the case for screwcaps this way:

“I understand that there is a learning curve with some consumers, as there must have been in Roman times when corks replaced wax seals. But I can only tell you that you are the exception in the marketplace: Most customers and retailers are delighted with the safety, reliability, ease of opening and guaranteed quality of wines bottled with screw caps.”

My view? Changes are impacting virtually every aspect of the wine business. New types of wine packaging include boxes, cans, Tetra Paks and even jugs! Screwcaps, and a host of other alternative closures to traditional cork, are here to stay. It is certainly reasonable to have a preference, however nostalgic, for cork. But be aware that no longer does a screwcap automatically signify cheap plonk, just as pink wine is no longer always sweet.


Perhaps the most frequent question
I get asked is “where can I buy the wines you recommend?” I do a great deal of research to verify that the wines I spotlight are available in Washington state.

I can’t list all the retailers who may be carrying a given wine, but I am listing importers and distributors more often. I suggest that you develop a personal relationship with at least one conveniently located wine merchant.

All wine shops and many supermarkets have designated specialists on hand to assist you. If you ask for a wine that is not in stock, they should be able to order it from the distributor and have it for you within a few days.

Washington residents can order wines directly from Washington, Oregon and California wineries. Most wineries have Web sites and virtually all of them have mailing lists. A quick Web search or a phone call will usually get you the wine you are seeking.


My New Year’s gripe list
remains much the same as in years gone by. Though consumers currently have a good selection of decent, everyday budget wines, there are still too many pricey wines that offer little in the way of pleasure. If you spend $30 or $40 on a bottle of wine, it should be exceptionally good, not just OK. I still see too many brand-new wineries charging top dollar for unproven product.

And while there are more local bistros and chef-owned restaurants putting real effort into their wine programs, too many chain restaurants still have boring wine lists; sell junky California “Chablis” and “Burgundy”; charge more for a 4-ounce glass of wine than they paid for the entire bottle; serve wines too cold or too warm; use wretched glassware and do not support the Washington wine industry. Consumers deserve better!

The local wine industry, which now numbers more than 300, can also do more to help itself. Every commercial winemaker in this state should be a member of at least one tasting group that meets regularly, explores wines from around the world and conducts knowledgeable discussions about wine flaws. Wineries should support programs such as those offered by the Washington Wine Institute, which recently offered its members a free, detailed lab analysis of any of their wines, done by Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratory.

ETS measured such things as alcohol, volatile acidity, SO2 and tannins, and concluded that the 35 wines that had been submitted were well made with no outstanding defects. But only 35 wines were entered. Surely there are more than 35 winemakers in Washington who could use some free, expert lab analysis?


Finally, I want to thank
all of you who read this column, and especially those who take the time to write, whether with a question, a compliment or a criticism. All input is valuable and appreciated.

I leave you with some food for thought — my predictions for the Top 10 Wine Trends (Good & Bad) Coming in 2005:



The creation

of a national wine market, as the Supreme Court overturns Prohibition-era restraints on interstate wine sales.



More and more expensive

wines sealed with screwcaps.



More quality varietal wines

in 3-liter boxes.



A trend change

toward lower percentages of alcohol in dry table wines.



Renewed consumer interest

in un-oaked, food-friendly white wines.



Steeply higher prices

for imported wines (as a result of the falling dollar).



More winemaker focus

on blends, less on single vineyard varietal wines.



A renaissance

of wine tourism in Eastern Washington.



At least a dozen more wines

named after obscure Australian animals.



Innovative

wines-by-the-glass tasting flights and half-bottle offerings in neighborhood restaurants.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com