Bad bottle? Or bad wine?
Last week I was sent a white wine from Paso Robles that I let stand for a day before chilling in the fridge for my daily review tasting. (I’m not going to name the brand because it’s irrelevant.)
As soon as I opened the bottle I knew something was wrong. The color was off: a weird, orange-brown, like diluted root beer. Then the smell hit me: the unmistakable, nasty aroma of a maderized wine. “Maderized” is the term used to describe a wine that has been baked. It comes from the word “Madeira,” the island in the North Atlantic whose wines used to be shipped in ship holds across the ocean to the eastern U.S. Madeira wine is said to have been one of the favorite wines of 18th century America.
I’ve had my share of authentic Madeira, which is very good. But a “maderized” wine is not Madeira. It’s simply a wine that has suffered hideous treatment and isn’t fit to drink.
That white wine was one such. Now, there are any number of reasons why a wine can be maderized, and I didn’t know why this one was. So the question was whether to contact the producer, let him/her know about the problem, and resend the wine. Or to simply conclude that the producer made a bad wine, which isn’t my problem but theirs, and let it go.
I get a fair number of awful wines, but it can be hard to say just why they’re so bad. Are they bad because the producer was incompetent? Sometimes, I’ll look up my past reviews for a wine and see if the current bad bottle is shockingly out of whack with previous bottlings. For example, let’s say a winery whose Chardonnays I’ve given 90-plus scores to for the past ten years sends me a bad bottle. In that case, I’d most likely call the producer and ask for a replacement bottle (or, if they originally sent two bottles, I’d try the second one).
But I obviously can’t call every producer every time there’s a problem with a wine! If I did, I’d be tasting thousands more a year than I already do. So at some point, I have to conclude that, if the producer sends me a bad wine, it’s on them. In the case of the Paso Robles white wine (the producer had sent two bottles, and the second bottle was just as bad as the first), I decided to give it a code “22,” meaning it gets buried deep in the bowels of Wine Enthusiast’s database, where no one except the Tasting Department will ever see it. That seemed the only fit and proper way to deal with that wine.
A little later, the Paso proprietor emailed to ask if I’d received the wine and what did I think? I told him candidly that I found both bottles undrinkable and had given them 22s, so at least he could relax and know that the public would never see my review. He then sent me a long email explaining how the situation had come about.
Simply put, there was some kind of irregularity with the third party shipping company, and the wine was shipped during one of Paso Robles’ worst heat spells in years, with daytime temperatures hitting 113 degrees. Who knows what auto-da-fé the wine suffered in the back of a metal UPS truck, where the heat could have been as high as 130 degrees?
The issue to untangle here is, does a critic have an obligation to notify a producer when a bottle is suspect or not showing well? How about if the wine is ever so slightly corked? What if it’s slightly fizzy? Some wines can be lightstruck. Others can be bretty or have a little v.a. Oxidized wines can mimic maderized wines. Many wines just seem off in some way–you know something’s not right, but you (not being a trained enologist) can’t quite put your finger on it. The list is actually quite long of things that can go bad. In the case of a heat-damaged wine, shouldn’t producers be aware of the weather conditions they’re sending their wines into? Most send via ground, which can take 5 business days, as opposed to the more expensive next day delivery. (Savvy producers, I’ve noticed, are starting to include little ice packs in the boxes that can keep the wine cool for days.) At any rate, a producer ought to check the long range weather forecast. If they don’t, well, who’s to blame and whose responsibility is it to rectify the situation?
Delving deeper, how is the critic to determine if the bottle in question was bad, as opposed to the wine itself being bad? I recently gave this review to a wine: “This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah…has a burnt, overripe flavor suggesting shriveled raisin skins…”. My first thought was the grapes got sun-burnt, but I suppose it could have been a baked bottle, blasted in the back of a delivery truck. There conceivably could be other bottles of the same wine that don’t have that burnt flavor and are perfectly sound. How am I to know? Were I to second guess myself every time a bad wine comes my way, I’d have to clone myself and have a second, third or fourth taster confirm every dreary repeat.
I admit there are aspects of this situation that trouble my conscience. I take no pleasure in giving out bad scores and harsh reviews. But two thoughts comfort me: One, nobody is forced to send me wine at the point of a gun. And two, there really is a lot of bad wine out there–not bad bottles, not bottles that suffered, but perfectly good glass bottles that contain perfectly awful wine.