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When wine goes bad: a critic’s take on low scores


Most of the time we talk about high-scoring wines and why they got those numbers. Today I want to talk about the poops in the room, because I’ve been tasting a lot of them lately. Don’t know why August is turning out to be such a Monthus Horribilis, but it is.

Not everything, of course. Since the first of the month, I’ve had awesome wines from Chateau St. Jean, Etude, Gainey, Rusack, Justin, Cakebread and others, and the new sparklers from Schramsberg were, well, schwonderful, schmarvelous.

But there have been an awful lot of 80s, 81s and 82s, which under Wine Enthusiast’s system means “acceptable…simple with discussable deficiencies,” and with some of those low 80s, I was tempted to use our coup de grâce, 22, put them out of their misery and bury them.

What makes for an 80, 81 or 82? Most of them bore a California appellation. That tells me (a) the wines contained a lot of Central Valley grapes or juice, seldom a good thing, or (b) the wines were bulked out from producers who didn’t want to bottle the stuff on their own. That’s not a good thing, either.

The low scorers included Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there were as many Chardonnays as all the rest put together. My most common complaint: too fruit juicy. One of my favorite breakfast drinks is an orange-pineapple-mango juice blend I get at Whole Foods. I love it as fruit juice, but as wine, it doesn’t work. Too simple and sweet, and that’s the problem with too many Chardonnays these days. (I could say the same about some Sauvignon Blancs.)

With the reds, it was a different story. They were so thin, there was nothing going on, except alcohol, tannins and acidity. Not a good recipe for a wine. I figure this was due to overcropping in inferior vineyards, where the vines are stretched to give so much fruit, the berries just can’t develop much flavor. This also is suggested when you look at the high production numbers on some of these wines.

At average costs for all these wines at $7-$12, I guess the wine companies that put them out make their profit at this tier; and that profit, I suppose, helps defray the cost of producing higher-quality wine. But it’s dreary to have to review these dullards, and it’s always a challenge trying to figure out how to frame my text, without causing anyone undue discomfort. Sometimes I want to write, “Run! Get away quickly! Flee from this monstrosity!” but of course I can’t say that. So I’ve developed code words: “everyday,” “easy,” “useful,” and so on. Another thing I’ve been tempted to say is, “This is the kind of wine you drink in a paper cup at somebody’s party.” Would that be an insult? Probably the producer would consider it so, but I’ve had wines in paper cups at parties and didn’t feel at all insulted or lessened as a human being or a wine lover. If I had a great time at the party, I didn’t care what the wine was, and if I had a lousy time, it wouldn’t have mattered if the wine were ‘47 Cheval Blanc, served from Marie Antoinette’s slipper.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sommeliers, because last week I went to that big TopSomm 2010 thing in San Francisco, and then somebody sent me the book on sommeliers I blogged about yesterday. Somms and I both have the same job, on the surface: we both taste a lot of wine, and then make judgments about them. But on closer examination, our jobs are very different. I suspect I taste a lot more common and bad wine than most somms. The way I see it, part of my job is to find the silk purses among the sows’ ears that I can happily recommend to readers, who don’t want to have to spend $40, $50 or more for a decent bottle of wine. That’s what makes going through a month like August worth it.

  1. For as long as I have been writing, and that is more years than I like to admit, California has not found the key to making the equivalent of the “good five cent cigar”.

    Our land is too expensive. Our ability to grow pricey wine on all the good land and sell it at top-dollar prices. The problem the low-alcohol wines turn out thin, acidic and green (we are not going to be the land of 11.5%, tasty red wines). It just does not seem to be our “thing” to make inexpensive wine well.

    But, finding the silk purse in amongst all the sows’ ears is our job, and they show up under all kinds of labels. Labels like Bogle, Castle Rock, Cycles Gladiator have been successful at higher rates than Napa Ridge or Dancing Bull, for example.

    Yes, Steve, you are right that there is a lot of shlick out there, but, I don’t find it any more likely in 2010 than I did in 1980. Do you?

    Besides, we get paid to find the good ones. How nice is that?

  2. Charlie, I wasn’t even born in 1980, so could not possibly comment.

  3. It stands to reason that the fighting varietal wines will rarely rise above 82. What is the point of writing about them when you it’s difficult enough, in part because of space considerations, to cover the more notable wines. Let them go. Seek out those exceptions that Charlie mentions. These QPR wines deserve the coverage.

    We non professionals love it when a giant killer is discovered, particularly when it is made by Bronco. Some months ago, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, matched the Franzia family’s Napa Creek Napa Cab against some of the biggest names in Napa Cab. The Napa Creek tied for first with Ramey, Caymus and Buehler against wines that cost 5-10 times as much. Sam’s staff in Chicago tried this wine blind against Shafer and Franciscan Napa Cabs, and the Napa Creek won hands down with Sam’s very knowledgeable staff. It was close to unanimous.

    The same must happen from time to time with expert wine critics.

  4. Of course you just gave every Winemaker, who has sent you a recent shipment of wine, a Heart Attack! Thank goodness for the Defibrillator! Cheers, g

  5. Tom Merle, I had a Hahn Cab Franc that rocked. Nineteen bucks.

  6. Ah but you see Steve, I’ve got a kickass Bourgueil for $15.00. Truly beautiful Cabernet Franc for less money. Gotta once again sit with Charlie here….

  7. I am a bit surprised that many producers of $8 grocery store wines even bother to send samples. Does anybody really care what the new vintage of a 200,000 case $8 wine tastes like? Isn’t it likely to be no different than the last 3 years and the next 3 years, and not any different than the 10 botles on either side of it on the grocery shelf. Or, given the production capacities of the big mass brands, who is to say that they don’t change the blend or the res. sugar or oak in the middle of a vintage bottling run? Bronco bottles up a lot of stuff for other wineries, don’t they? Does KJ or Gallo know in advance how many cases of the newest $8 wine label they are going to bottle and sell?

  8. Charmion, you ask questions I’ve wondered about for years. The only conclusion I can come to is that these scores/reviews do matter, even for that $8 grocery store wine. If they can get a shelf talker or distributor note that says “87 Points/Best Buy, Wine Enthusiast”, I guess it helps sell the wine.

  9. The question of changes in midstream are more of an issue for me than anything else.

    No, wines do not taste the same from vintage to vintage or from producer to producer. That kind of thinking is very far removed from reality.

    I listed a bunch of producers whose inexpensive products I like. I can assure Charmion that those products do vary every year and that they vary from one another.

    Finding the great values amidst a mass of plonk is one of the joys of my the critic’s life. Not all of our readers care, but even for my “nose in air journal”, the wines we designate as GOOD VALUE get us as much good feedback as our 95-point selections.

  10. no one making really good wine is going to sell it for $10 even if that was the intention.
    the good bargains are always sad ones, at the expense of someone else’s misfortune.
    and those in california have a hard enough time making wine good wine that isn’t affordable.
    one of my 5 canons of wine is to buy wine from countries whose main form of transportation is a donkey cart. then you get your good wine at a very good price.

  11. “everyday, easy, useful” Those are the words you use as negatives. Please don’t do that!

    Everyday useful wine should be treasured, if is good solid honest wine. The wines you were describing sounded just bad.

    We reviewers need to have the courage to use “generic” ‘bad” and “bland” in descriptions. And also, scores in the 70s and 60s. And publish those scores in the magazines, so people really know the state of much of the junk being passes off as wine.

  12. Thank you Austin! What’s wrong with everyday? We don’t cook from our Thomas Keller cookbooks everyday, sometimes a pizza is perfect, so why can’t we accept that in wines?
    And Austin’s point about scores is spot-on as well. In reality we only see scores from 80-100, compressing the scale so the perception of an 85pt wine is that it’s barely tolerable. That’s not fair to producers OR consumers.

  13. Yes it’s true that there is a wide world of wine on the shelf in that $7-$12 price point. But as Charlie pointed out (thank you Charlie), there are a number of wineries that produce product with a high PQR. I proudly consider myself a representative of a winery in that category (Hahn Family Wines).

    Most folks out there can’t (or don’t want to) afford the expensive wines that often receive the high scores. And that doesn’t mean they have to drink bad wine. Respectfully I take issue with grapemaster’s position that no one would intentionally sell “good wine” for $10. To the contrary it is possible to produce a high quality wine in California for $10.
    And we sell it for that price everyday. At Hahn we provide a viable option to those who can’t or won’t spend a fortune on their daily sip.

    A hearty “Thank You” to all the critics out there who take the time to taste the good and the bad to highlight those good values out there.


  14. Philip I was tremendously impressed with your latest Central Coast Cab Franc. I think it was the 2008. Great PQR at SRP $19.

  15. Mike in Miami says:

    As the father of a large (wine drinking) family I want to send a big thank you to Hahn and all the wine makers that produce good quality wines at reasonable prices. Yes I have my Camus and Tignanello for special occasions but the cost is prohibitive to drink on a daily basis. I wonder if the wine reviewers had to pay for the wines they review, the less expensive wines would receive better ratings?

  16. Mike in Miami, probably the answer is yes. But then, those wine reviewers wouldn’t have much credibility.

  17. Charlie,

    I take a bit of exception with your statement that “the problem the low-alcohol wines turn out thin, acidic and green”. This is exactly the problem with wine writers today. Making suck overbearing and untrue statements with a generalized stroke. Not all all thin or weak, in fact many I’m finding there’s beautiful aromas and juicy flavors coming from such named wines. I happen to think it’s the future to harvest a bit earlier to preserve the freshness. Besides, you want body and layers, be patient and wait a few 5 years. That’s when these “thin” wines will fatten up from the integrated tannins and the acid will also take a backseat to the bright, juicy fruit that hides till then.

    I’m making Pinot and Cab in the 12% range and they’re quite tasty… just ask my wine club.

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