User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

When Wine Goes Bad—A Primer To Help Save Your Palate

By Charles Olken

We all know about oxidation and volatile acidity and cork taint and excess sulfur dioxide as problems that make wine less than enjoyable. But these rather obvious flaws are just the tip of the iceberg. Any trained seal, or bloggist, can recognize them and, because of that, very few badly flawed wines escape our notice. We even have worked out how to return wine in restaurants when we get one of those “bad” bottles.

But what we have not worked out is what to do when we are told that it is not product that is spoiling wine but process. How a wine is made, even how the grapes are grown, can be reason enough for some people to reject certain wines. And that is all well and good when it comes to taste preferences, but, I am beginning to wonder if we have not gone too far in demonizing some wines just because we do not like the look of their labels or because their bottles are too heavy or the wrong emoluments have been applied in the vineyard.

It is time to take a closer look at some of the forces at work in the wine business. Here are five of the most obvious new “problems” that we must confront in our love of things vinous.

Let’s admit it. None of us like to admit that we drink unnatural wine. That would be like admitting that we snack on Twinkies. Natural wine, and those who profess that theirs are superior because they are natural would save us from all that just as my doctor has long tried to save me from eating fois gras. I never quite knew whether it was because he was addicted to broccoli or he did not want me clogging my arteries. The natural wine folks are trying to save us from all those things that winemakers put into wine like yeast and water and acidity. Silly me, I thought all those substances were natural but apparently not. The problem with the natural wine movement is that it is populated by zealouts who brook no discussion about wine quality. Why define wine by flavor and balance and nuance when you can declare your wine superior because you ferment with wild yeast?

If one looks at the biodynamic manifesto and its reliance on cowhorns filled dung, on water that has been stirred to excite the ions, on unusual applications of nutrients and the notions of planting and harvesting by phases of the moon, there is a lot of comedy to be found in biodynamics. But, the theory goes that these practices will lead to better wine. And once again, we are told to ignore the results of blind tastings and instead worship the process.

That, of course, makes me a heretic on the subject. I have yet to see that biodynamic wines are a priori better than those that are not. I will, however, admit to one small ray of hope for biodynamic practitioners. Several of them, who will privately admit that they do not follow all the teachings of biodynamism, and thus must be called ersatz biodynamicists, do say that they now pay far more attention to the health of their vineyards. And, that cannot hurt, even though it is process rather than product. Certainly, all agriculture and the finishing of products for consumption are substantially process. It is just that biodynamics in and of itself is trotted out in a fashion that is meant to suggest that other wines are inferior.

One man’s balance is another man’s acidic wine is another man’s fat and flabby offering. Here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, we will admit that we can, and often do, write a lot about balance and we think, after tasting several hundred thousand wines over the last four decades, we know a thing or two about the subject. To paraphrase a famous quote from the Supreme Court of our United States, “we know it when taste it”. After that, any further attempt to categorize the experience of recognizing balance in wine is a mumbo-jumbo of words.

Lately, a group of learned individuals have tried to convince us that they know the way. Our blog entry from yesterday deals with this issue from the standpoint of lampooning the verbal detritus offered by the group calling itself IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE. What was left unsaid is the problem faced by wines not meeting the standards of this group. Just as unnatural wines and non-biodynamic wines are somehow inferior, so too are wines that are not balanced from the singular standard of this group.

It is not so long ago in California’s vinous history when the use of new oak barrels in the aging of wine was simply not done. We were too naïve, too much trying to recover from the scourge of Prohibition, too far removed from Europe to realize that a substantial influence on the finished product in wine was the barrel. I won’t try to persuade you that one region of the world today has the patent on how much oak to use, but it is pretty clear that the aging of world-class wines very often occurs in oak.

And so it is that oak became ubiquitous in wine country in the last fifty years. That, of course, led to the inevitable backlash in which various tasters and reviewers complained that they could actually taste the oak in the wine. Too much oak is not a good thing necessarily, but those who tell you that California wines have too much oak but not French wines, are trying to convince you that your wines are flawed. Oak may not be garlic, but I surely do want some of the latter in my red spaghetti sauce.

Admittedly, too much alcohol can be a problem. It can make the wine unbalanced (see Balance above). But, alcohol in and of itself is not the problem although some folks would have you believe that lower is better simply because it is lower. Aside from the “balance” folks, whose arguments are really just a smoke screen for their preferred characteristics and have only a little to do with balance which is a hedonistic measure, not a formulaic determination, the favorite argument of the “too much alcohol” folks is you can’t drink very much of ripe wines because you will fall asleep in your plate of pasta before you finish it.

So, let’s look at the math—not to identify some acceptable level, but to see what happens when one drinks wine. Let’s say that you insist that your Zinfandel measure 13.6% alcohol by volume, and then claim that those upper 14% wines will ruin your day, all in the name of science because you have experienced it for yourself.

Oops, here is what really happens. A wine at 15% alcohol is more or less 10% higher in alcohol than one in the 13.5% range. Thus, if you can drink a half bottle of your Zin at 13.5% before nodding off in your spaghetti, you would need only to drink one ounce less of your 15% alcohol Zin to get the same effect. It is not a question of no limits versus very tight limits. Yet, once again, we are told that high alcohol wines are somehow flawed.

1. Drink for flavor, not for numbers.
2. Drink for flavor, not for process.
3. If you like a ripe Zin, drink an ounce less.
4. Don’t believe all the “holier than thou” pronouncements of the various factions in wine country. All too often, they are tooting their own horns for marketing purposes. If you let them convince you that biodynamic wines are inherently better, you will not drink anything else. And if you do, there are bridges in New York City that are for sale.
5. There are flawed wines in this world. You won’t get any argument on that subject from us. We run into them all too often in our tastings. But they are not caused by failures to follow some narrow set of strictures about how wine should be made.
6. Did we say, drink for flavor—according to your own palate? Some of us still like Chardonnay despite the fact that there are those who would convince us that Chardonnay is more than just boring because there is so much of it.


The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


This is just another screed
by KC Phillips
Posted on:4/9/2014 9:38:40 AM

If I follow your critiques (1-4) and follow your ending recommentations, then it appears that the ideal wines are going to be industrially-produced wines (note too your approval of added water, acids, manufactured yeasts and god knows what).  You may end up with flavor, but you won't necessarily get complexity. You spend too much time obsessing over minor voices instead of looking at the overall thrust of these movements (which need not be and are not prescriptive for the majority of us). Artisanally-produced wine is simply more interesting to drink than anything that the big boys plonk out to us.

Big Boys' Plonk?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/9/2014 10:16:39 AM


I am afraid that you misread my meaning, and I apologize for that.

I have no pro or con on any process for making wine save that it does not make me sick or injure the planet.

The sole basis for choosing wine is character. It is not biodynamics or natural or IPOB certified or any other artificial barrier to full consideration of each and every wine on its merits.

To that end, I take exception to the phrase "big boys plonk". Here at Connoisseurs' Guide, we taste them all blind. The worst wines in our tastings are invariably from small, artisan producers. And while I will not dispute that large production items at moderate prices rarely thrill us, we tasted a $25 Pinot Noir last night that outpointed wines from smaller wineries selling at twice the price. 

It is the gratuitous categorizations that need to be ignored. Wine is not better or worse for having been grown biodynamically or raised naturally or having been certified by IPOB. Those are all false currencies and should be ignored.

By the way, small artisan wineries do not all make wine the same way. Their styles vary all over the lot, and the way to find what one likes is to taste them, not to judge them by their labels.

by Kurt Burris
Posted on:4/9/2014 11:35:46 AM

I like the garlic oak analogy, but it reminds of an anecdotal experierience I had in the mid 90s.  I was attending a small crush party at Rasmussen when I overheard two winemakers discussing a Chardonnay (in commercial release, and not made by Kent Rasmussen).  They were arguing fairly loudly over whether the wine had been aged in Never or Limousin barrels.  Besides laughing at how ridiculous they sounded, I said to my wife, "It's like arguing if you have Gilroy or Salinas garlic in your spaghetti sauce.  If you can tell, it's probably too much."

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:4/9/2014 12:05:15 PM

Hi Kurt--

Thanks for the note. I made me laugh at the very thought of trying to distinguish between Gilroy garlic and everything else. Besides, I didn't know that they grow garlic in Salinas.

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.