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When Wine Goes Horribly Wrong

By Charles Olken

I have no dog in this fight—just an amused smile.
Here, as quoted from a report in the Napa Valley Register is the sad story of one man’s quest to make a $200 “cult” wine of sorts. The story is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent and because it is not the people involved but the motives and the results that interest me.

“A vintner is suing a wine consultant for $1.6 million, alleging he was negligent when he failed to produce a new top-quality “cult” wine, according to court records filed in Napa County Superior Court. In 2012, XXX Holdings LLC hired St. Helena wine consultant Jon Boondoggle to create a new wine that would sell for up to $200 per bottle in the company’s new tasting room.

The new wine was to be made at a winery that has a crush facility, using grapes from a vineyard on Mount Veeder. “I wanted to make a strong statement with the opening of my new tasting room,” said XXX. Instead, the wine spoiled and had to be filtered five times, losing the complexity of a top-quality wine, XXX said. “The wine is not of a quality that I can use.”

In truth, I have no idea what happened here. Both winery owner and winemaking consultant are folks with good reputations and track records, but clearly the wine did not turn out as hoped. There are all kinds of good questions to be asked in this case, but I am only interested in one.

How is it that one can set out to make expensive wine and not have to worry about the vagaries of site, weather, technique, cleanliness and just plain old fashioned good luck? Where does one turn for absolute guarantees about quality? How can it be that expensive wines from exceptional wineries do not always turn out to be exceptional vintage in and vintage out?

The winery in question has a good track record. It is not an exceptional track record. The winemaker in question has a good track record, indeed, has made some exceptional wines. But no winemaker I know makes exceptional wine every time out.

I put the question to some winemaker friends and got a bunch of loud snickers. In essence, they said what I said, but with a fair degree of prejudice. As one person put it, “You can try all you want to make $200 wine. Buy expensive grapes from a premier site and then get lucky enough to get the good rows, not the left overs down by the highway. Hire a winemaker with a proven track record. Use the fanciest barrels, the longest corks and put a designer label on the front of the package. But, what you cannot do is prove your success ahead of time.

So, I am officially amused. If it were all that easy, there would be many more $200 wines on the market than there are today. And I would be first standing in line to get construction going because all that is standing between me and $200 cult riches is a guarantee.


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