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Wine: A matter of taste?


Is there such a thing as “objective” quality in wine? Or is it all personal preference?

I ask because I bought a $22 bottle of a non-vintage white Rioja (I don’t want to identify it) at a wine shop here in Oakland the other day that the floor clerk highly recommended as being “dry, crisp and yeasty.” As I love a good fino sherry, I got it, never having previously had a white Rioja. On tasting, my first thought was, “this wine is too old.” It tasted stale and tired.

But it made me wonder. This particular wine shop is wildly popular with younger folks; the proprietors seem to have their fingers on the pulse of the tastes of their customers in their twenties and thirties. One of their biggest sellers is orange wine. So when I tasted that white Rioja, and hated it, my next thought was, Am I out of touch with the taste of younger wine drinkers?

I’m aware that tastes change. If everyone is drinking orange wine and bretty beer, then that’s the popular taste; if I don’t like them (and I don’t), then I’m out of step. But really, how could an old, tired white wine possibly be considered “good,” no matter how many people like it? Or am I just an old, tired white male who doesn’t get it?

I looked up to see what my former colleague, Mike Schachner, had to say about the wine in Wine Enthusiast. I found there his review of the 2016: same producer, same 100% Vidura. His experience resonated with my own: “A cloudy burnished-gold color and oxidized aromas of briny but stale white fruits get this Viura off to a shaky start. Bold malic acidity lends kick to an otherwise flat palate. This tastes lightly oxidized and briny to an extreme, while the finish is cidery.” Granted, he reviewed the ’16 while my bottle was nonvintage, but still, it might have been the same wine. “Oxidized…stale…flat palate.” There was nothing “yeasty” about it, as the floor clerk said, which made me wonder if she knew what she was talking about (but that’s a whole different story!).

So back to my questions. “Is there such a thing as ‘objective’ quality in wine? Or is it all personal preference?” I have to insist there is such a thing as objective quality. All my reading, all my life experience, all my studying and talking with winemakers for 40-plus years tell me that. Enologists have written books about faults in wine. And yet, I always remember when I interviewed Josh Jensen, down at Calera, about a million years ago. He told me that when he advertised for an assistant winemaker, the first requirement he had was “Must not be a U.C. Davis grad.” Davis, he insisted (and others told me the same thing) taught how to make squeaky-clean wines of no personality or distinction. He, Josh, wanted his wines to have personality. Tim Mondavi had told me something similar: he liked a little brett in his Pinot Noirs, even though the professors at U.C. Davis hated brett.

The idea of personality in wine, as in people, is highly appealing. But could the oxidized, or maderized, quality of that white Rioja conceivably be called “personality”? Kenneth Dahmer had “personality” too, but not one that was particularly appealing. On the second night after I’d opened the wine, I poured myself another glass. Still oxidized, still stale, still tired. But, I asked myself, is there something here, something that could be called interesting or charming or unique or even–gasp–intellectual? I finished the bottle, and thought about every sip. Had I been unfair? Was I so used to clean, fresh, fruity white wines that I was refusing to recognize the qualities of this maderized one?

  1. Hi Steve,

    It’s great to see you posting about wine. I always enjoy your remarks. You’re approach to this wine was exactly right. Instead of assuming your reaction or the response of the clerk at the wine shop was “subjective” you further explored the question. I think in the end what you decided is that this wine is unlikely to draw a consensus from informed wine lovers, even those who enjoy oxidation as a wine making technique. That suggests the clerks opinion was probably subjective. The fact is we usually don’t know whether a response is subjective or objective without a lot of investigation.
    I just posted a column about this at Three Quarks Daily.

  2. An interesting area of conversation! Thanks for your comment, Dwight.

  3. Bob Rossi says:

    I very much enjoyed this piece, Steve. Many years ago at a trade tasting here, I tried a couple of Riojas from a very well-known producer. One was a rose, which was about 10 years old (but their current release?!). I thought it was too old and tired. Then I tried a white Rioja, which was something like 15 years old. It was incredibly oaky and well as oxidized. A friend gave me one of the winery’s old white Riojas last year (he used to work for the distributor), and I haven’t been enthusiastic about opening it.
    This brings me to Jura wines, which have been the rage now for a number of years, especially the oxidized whites. Before they became popular, we spent a week in the Jura, and were not impressed by the oxidized style of wines. Interestingly, the other couple renting a house on the property were from Alsace, and they brought a case of Alsatian whites with them because they didn’t like Jura wines. Whenever I see Jura wines in a wine shop here, the price is always sky high, given what they are. Meanwhile, wines from the nearby Savoie, which I consider to be delicious wines, have not been discovered yet, so their prices are somewhat reasonable. Oh well, to each his/her taste.

  4. Bob, I never claimed to be an “expert” in Spanish wine. But I did read a lot, and I know that the criticism against them for years was that they were too old and oxidized.

  5. We all know that the boomer class is out of touch. Oxidized wine that passes for yeasty; bretty beer; white claw. Gimme a break. This too shall pass.

    But if that is what people want to drink, all the better. That will more for the likes of thee and me.


  6. The great Charie Olken! Fantastic to hear from you, Sir. If you’re ever in Oakland, let’s have lunch.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Late to the party. Let me proffer these . . .

    From the San Francisco Chronicle Online
    (posted September 24, 2019):

    “The mysterious and not fully understandable wine defect popping up in natural wines: mouse”


    By Esther Mobley
    Wine Critic

    — And —

    From Wineanorak Global Wine Journal
    (April 24, 2020):

    “The latest on mouse, the wine taint of our times”


    By Jamie Goode Ph.D.

    — And finally this —

    From Somm360 Online
    (July 4, 2021):

    “The Worst: Mousiness in Wine”


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