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16 Sep 2019

Vine Social: How I Grew to (Sort of) Appreciate Over-the-Top, High-Alcohol Wines

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“Katie wine” is a moniker that has followed me for years.

Sometimes it’s said as a joke, as in: “Ohh, that’s a ‘Katie wine.’ You probably won’t like it,” meaning it’s funky, earthy, savory or just plain weird. Other times, “Katie wine” has taken on a more positive definition, like: “I grabbed this bottle of wine I’ve never heard of and want to give it a try! It looked like a ‘Katie wine!’”

Either way, it’s no secret that my wine tastes are fairly specific. At my educational wine tastings, I always try to represent wines that cross the spectrum stylistically. For the whites, there’s always something zippy, high-acid and tart; I also include a round, full-bodied, rich style. For the reds, I’ll show a light-bodied, fresh and fruity wine; I’ll throw in an “old-world” varietal from Italy or France that has some earthiness and a rustic quality; and then to finish it off, there’s the powerhouse: the huge, extracted, over-ripe wine that is about as subtle as Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup.

It never fails: The punch-you-in-the-face wine that resembles motor oil is always the most popular selection of the night.

Honestly, it confounds me. And for a long time, if I fully confess my emotions, it pissed me off. As much as I try to be the poster child for wine tolerance, I wanted to smack my forehead or roll my eyes when guests would poo-poo anything that didn’t have at least 15 percent alcohol and/or didn’t taste more like Jim Beam than cabernet.

During the tastings, once we got to the heavy red, I would hear statements like, “Now that’s a real wine!” and, “Finally, we get to the good stuff!” I would pour silky and elegant pinot noirs from the Cote du Nuits and hear guests comment that the wine was “wimpy” or “it didn’t taste like anything.” As a wine lover, I was exasperated.

It took me a while to realize why I had a personal aversion to high-alcohol wines. And it took me even longer to identify why the average consumer gravitates toward those hedonistic wine beasts.

I try to avoid getting drunk at all costs. I don’t find the sensation particularly enjoyable: Glassy eyes, slurred speech and a wobbly stance are characteristics I don’t find overly attractive. I drink wine for a living. I meet with wine distributors often to taste new wine releases. I’m also a social wine drinker—I don’t care for beer or cocktails—and I very much enjoy having wine with my dinner. But no matter the drinking occasion, I find remaining vertical and awake to be a matter of great importance. If I’m at dinner or a get-together for a few hours, and the only wines available have a-melt-your-face-off alcohol percentage, I’m either relegated to just one or two glasses (no fun), or I’m getting blotto drunk (also, no fun).

Then there’s the flavor issue. Obviously, this is a much more subjective concern, but I stand behind my opinion that if a wine-drinker wants to become a better taster—or have a more adept palate—learning to understand and appreciate lower alcohol wines (read: balanced wines) with subtle nuances is paramount to being taken seriously as a wine connoisseur.

For example: Any idiot with taste buds can tell you what blue cheese tastes like. Its sour and pungent flavors and aromas scream at you from the moment you open the wrapper. It takes much more thought and concentration to identify the delicate caramel and nutty aromas of a mild cheese like Manchego. Wine is no different: Tasting the elusive and delicate flavors of a chardonnay from Chablis is much more difficult than simply absorbing the overt flavors of an overly ripe, forceful chardonnay from California. In short, understated, low-key, quiet flavors take work to identify.

But … who wants to work that hard to taste their drink? Really, I get it.

This brings me to the part where I finally began to understand what makes the average wine-drinker’s palate tick. What was it about the loud, blowtorch-in-your-mouth wines that made everyone get all giddy? Then it hit me: We are a cocktail culture—a cosmopolitan, Manhattan, gin-and-tonic, Jack-and-Coke country. Wine and its subculture came to us after we already had this notion of what alcoholic beverages were supposed to do—taste sweet and get us drunk. The idea that our alcoholic beverage du jour needed food properly paired with it, or the thought that we should be swirling the glass while pontificating the subtle nuances and layers of flavors—those are just not our collective forte. So … when wine bars, and wine tastings, and trips to Napa became all the rage, the natural progression was to simply substitute a glass of wine instead of a glass of bourbon—and the expectation was that your wine was going to be just as robust and high octane as your Maker’s Mark neat. And a lot of wineries complied.

I also realize that as we age, our taste buds become more and more muted. Therefore, it’s easy to understand why wines that have a more concentrated and fruit-forward profile become more appealing. They give a struggling palate more flavor.

I suppose, at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves why we choose wine. If getting drunk is the purpose, there are certainly faster, cheaper and more efficient ways to get there. Perhaps, as the cheeky cocktail napkin would have you believe, wine is simply how classy people get shitfaced nowadays.

I no longer get pissed off at people who demand over-the-top wines, nor do I feel the desire to smack my head when I’m told beautifully balanced wines are wimpy. Instead, I happily pour whatever the crowd-pleasing wine of the day is. And then I go home and open up a “Katie wine.”

Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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