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Bad bottle? Or bad wine?

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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.

  1. Steve,

    My comment is related, but slightly tangential. During my last trip to Napa I noted that some wineries were mindful of the realities of summer shipping. They would not ship to where I live in Houston TX during the summer months. Instead they arranged delayed delivery, shipped when the temperatures were better suited to ensuring that wine arrived in good shape.

    Jarvis club members are offered terms whereby the winery will only ship during the summer heat if the customer accepts overnight air delivery.

  2. My take on the “bad bottle” is that is an overused excuse for the discovery of a wine that doesn’t taste good. The quality of wine in the bottle is always the winery’s responsibility, irrespective of where they try to cast the blame. If the producer sent the wine to you under those conditions, then imagine what in what shape the wines arrive to their winery direct and wine club customers.

    Consistent quality in every bottle is the mark of professionalism in the wine business. Claiming it was “a bad bottle” is like the murderer who explains his crime, “I made a mistake…and everyone makes mistakes.”

    I would argue that it is a mistake and unfair to your followers to code 22 any wine. I personally would like you to code 22 any wine of mine that scores below 91, because obviously you just got the very rare “bad bottle” and I made a mistake, and you know, to err is human.

  3. Morton, the code 22 is my employer’s policy.

  4. Steve,

    This is certainly an interesting topic, and one that I would not think would be easy to come up with a simple answer.

    From a winemaker’s perspective, if you as a reviewer have an ‘obviously’ bad bottle, I would hope you would give the winemaker the opportunity to submit another one. I’m assuming you do this with an obviously corked bottle, no?

    But from your perspective, it would be difficult to do this with the number of wines your review . . . which begs the question, do you need to review that many wines? Only you can answer that one (-:

    It also raises the question of what happens in the general marketplace with these wines. If you as a reviewer get these, and you have to figure that wineries will treat these wines with kid gloves and get you the ‘best’ that they can, what about similar wines that make it into the marketplace? May consumers dislike a wine or winery because they had a ‘bad’ bottle? Sure – even if that ‘bad’ bottle was due to poor transport, storage, an unfiltered wine ‘gone awry’ or even a bad cork (egads!!!).

    So much is at stake with each bottle of wine that from my perspective, it is a bit ‘scary’ to think of what reactions consumers or reviewers like you may have to any single bottle.

    Curious to hear more thoughts from you on this as well . . .

    Cheers.

  5. Happens on our, (retail) end as well and there have been countless times when I’ve tasted an off bottle, mentioned it to the sales rep and had them assure me that it was in fact fine. “So this is correct? This is how the wine is supposed to taste?” and that’s when I take a pass on ordering it. Always feel bad for the winery though, I’m not the only person/buyer being tasted on that flawed wine that day. But whaddayagonnado?

  6. Samantha,

    That would suck from the winery’s perspective for sure. In these cases, does the rep have a second bottle you can try? If not, can you request they come back later with one?

    Cheers.

  7. Larry,
    They don’t usually have a second bottle, at least not with them and the problem is that they think the wine is fine. Often insisting even so it can be hard to demand they bring another when they swear the first bottle is correct. I for one don’t want to be THAT buyer. That being said, I have asked, after confirming that a wine is corked or otherwise flawed, (and corked seems to be the biggest problem for some of my reps, they just aren’t that sensitive to it and I am massively so) that they bring another bottle if it’s a wine I’m truly interested in stocking. But yeah, totally sucks for the winery and I feel so bad when some green sales rep comes in with a bottle that has clearly been open for a week, trying to sell it to me. Not much I can do though.

  8. doug wilder says:

    This is something I need to consider when I look hard for the positives in a wine and still in my honest assessment assign it “<80" and leave it as that, without notes. In these rare instances I consider what the other wines in the same box are doing. If this wine is really that much of an outlier, with the others scoring 87 – 91 it isn't shipping related because then everything would be cooked.

    Ironically I experinced this recently with a Russian River winery that hand-carried a box of samples to my Santa Rosa UPS store less than five miles. All of the samples tasted flat and attenuated. As my experience with this producer's wines have been positive in the past, I asked for another set and the wines performed as I expected. The first set wasn't corked, or cooked, just flat and boring. If that had been my only experience with them chances are they could have been dismissed. Generally I don't ask for more than one bottle when it comes to samples so if a wine falls flat and it isn't corked, like you I don't have the bandwidth to retaste every wine that underperforms. If I did, I would feel just as obligated to retaste high-scoring wines to ensure they were not over-performing. :)

    Good observations, Steve to know the track record of what you are tasting. BTW, virtually any shipping within CA is overnight which is a plus for West Coast writers.

  9. Two different things.

    Faulty wine is faulted and this includes miss handling that will “Maderize” a wine, I would never review it, but would let the Winegrower know his wine was mishandled between the Winery and my door, if he bottled a run of cooked wine I would quietly dump it and never darken his door again, any cellar rat would catch the scent on the bottling line and point it out to the Winegrower and if the bottles continued to fill, well you get the point.

    A truly awful wine with no fault just unbalanced and no structure would not get a review from me either but for obvious reasons, it SUCKS. I’m not a big fan of bretty CnP, others are.

    I the first case I would let the Winegrower know in the second I would keep my opinion to myself and let another critic be the bad guy.

  10. Hi Steve,
    I do think that critic should let a winery know if he/she has received an off-bottle, if they have time. Any winery would be happy to resend a bottle if they have sent it to you already.

    If you think about it, they’ve spent time/money to send you that bottle, and you are probably on a short list of people they’ve considered to send their wine. Your review counts–maybe in sales, maybe in free advice on how their wine is doing. It also counts for the magazine, I would assume. The more wine you are able to cover and recommend or not recommend, the better you are servicing your readers.

    And, I don’t think that anyone should ship wine in summer months, unless it is overnight and you are aware that the shipment is arriving that day so it does not end up in a warehouse somewhere.

    If a wine has brett, or volatile acidity, etc. I would not feel the need to send it back.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  11. Larry, I do get a fair number of corked wines, but most of the time I can taste a second bottle which is okay. As for the quantity I review, it is what it is — fairly steady over the years, around 4800 annually, which I’m comfortable with. In the end, wine is a perishable, organic product, and unless it comes from a mass production assembly line, as per the giant wine companies, there will always be bottle variation especially given the vagaries of shipping.

  12. Hi Steve,
    We recently started working with a winemaker, Matt Taylor (for the soon to launch Reuling Vineyard), who specializes in Biodynamics. He refuses to ever show a wine or participate in a wine event if it falls on a leaf or root day of the Biodynamic calendar. He says that wines will be flat on these days, and won’t show well, especially when it comes to aromatics. Have you ever experimented with this? In just my few months of toying with this, I’ve found many truths to it. I’d love your thoughts.

    Katherine Jarvis

  13. Dear Katherine, frankly this sounds like religious craziness to me. He should put a warning label on his wines telling people what days to avoid them.

  14. I think it all really comes down to bottle variation, which I believe is a very real thing, and a good thing, about wine. It’s not coca-cola, it is a living thing, and each bottle will be slightly different.

    Think about a pile of apples in the produce department. They all came from the same farm at the same time, and were delivered to the same store on the same truck. but each apple is different, and we smell and squeeze each one before we pick the one we think is best. So each critic will get one random sample. and that might be a good or a bad example of the wine.

    Our 2009 pinot noir received 91-points and ‘editors choice’ in wine enthusiast, then received 87-points from the speculator two months later. I could call it luck, or style, or whatever, but i myself have had very different opinions about that wine depending on the circumstance.

    i think that is why scores, though useful, should always be taken with a grain of salt. while i respect a winery that can consistently produce high-scoring wines, i don’t think one good score really proves anything, and don’t think one bad score would prove anything either.

  15. @gabe, I agree. Every bottle shows differently. Hopefully, each bottle stays within a certain point range. But I can see how a perfectly reputable critic could score a wine 87 one day and 90 or even 91 another day. Of course, the wine has to be tasted blind. If the critic knows it’s Latour from a great vintage it’s going to influence his score. Ditto for Two Buck Chuck.

  16. steve,
    makes sense. it’s just a shame that the 90-point benchmark has become such a hard-line for good vs. bad these days. sometimes i think that the 90-point scale is fine, and it’s people’s responses to the scale that is messed up. other times, i just think the scale is messed up. :0) i always prefer to read your online musing than read your tasting notes and scores, but i suppose each person has their own preferences

  17. With all due respect to every wine critic and every retailer everywhere, a bad bottle is a bad bottle.

    A wine does not become a bad wine until it has been shown that it is the batch and not that bottle or that cork that is at fault.

    Retaste or do not review. It is that simple. If I were a winery owner and a critic told me that he or she was going to write up the first bottle without so much as a glance to heaven and without giving the wine a chance to show that the problem was bottle and not batch, I would not send wine to that reviewer.

    Reviewers have a responsibility for accuracy. Oxidation is one of those one-bottle at a time issues. Excess brettanomyces is not. Reviewers need to know the difference between flaws that might be one-offs and those that cannot be one-offs.

  18. gabe, I don’t think there’s any way of rating or reviewing wine that’s completely fool proof and without problems.

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