Brows, Bangs, and a Bad Taste

When is the last time you dug through old photos? Not precious baby pictures or the early courting days, but the really embarrassing ones. I went through mine for a girls’ weekend in the Hill Country. Middle school eyebrows, Pioneer dresses, and bangs. I sported large men’s flannel shirts through the birth of grunge, perms, and belly-button-skimming-acid washed-pleated jeans. (A trend I will not repeat.) I take full responsibility for some of the choices. As if dressing like Laura Ingalls would make me a better educator. In other shots I was merely a victim of being born in the 70s. I was keeping up with the trends. Either way, it wasn’t good.

On our way out west, we stopped at a couple of wineries. My friends have had limited experience with Texas wines and I wanted to give them a glimpse of the great work some winemakers are doing. Our first stop was one of my favorite producers and they ooh-ed and aah-ed. They left gushing, surprised, and with a few bottles.

The second stop was very different. Of the four wines we tasted, only one was palatable. Now, I don’t know if we hit on a bad day, I don’t know if it was not an accurate sampling, but I do know it was not good. One of my friends, a phenomenal baker, posed the following question.

“So, I wonder if they know it isn’t good and serve it anyway. Is it like when you’ve made a cake that isn’t your best and you know it? Or do they think it is good?”

Which got me thinking about the pictures. Was it a bad bottle? A challenging crop? Were they trying to be trendy and pull off something they weren’t ready to pull off? Were they victims of the vintage or did they, like the frumpy student-teacher in the photos, just make a bad decision?

Maybe they enjoy those traits in wine. After all, taste is very subjective. But when does a matter of taste cross-over into a flaw? When is a flaw so egregious that it becomes a fault? What does the winemaker have control over and what happened after the bottle was sold?

Let’s look at the difference between a “flaw” and a “fault.” Basically, a flaw is a minor attribute in the wine that is not generally characteristic and that you weren’t expecting. A fault is due to poor winemaking or storage conditions. There is a lot of great information on these topics and I am only skimming the surface. Here is a common list of “faults” in a wine as listed on Wikipedia.

Acetaldehyde Smell of roasted nuts or dried out straw. Commonly associated with Sherries where these aromas are considered acceptable
Amyl-acetate Smell of “fake” candy banana flavoring
Brettanomyces Smell of barnyards, fecal and gamey horse aromas
Cork taint Smell of a damp basement, wet cardboard or newspapers and mushrooms
Diacetyl Smell of rancid butter
Ethyl acetate Smell of vinegar, paint thinner and nail polish remover
Hydrogen sulfide Smell of rotten eggs or garlic that has gone bad
Iodine Smell of moldy grapes
Lactic acid bacteria Smell of sauerkraut
Mercaptans Smell of burnt rubber and/or cooked cabbage
Oxidation Smell of cooked fruit and walnuts. Also detectable visually by premature browning or yellowing of the wine
Sorbic acid plus lactic acid bacteria Smell of crushed geranium leaves
Sulfur dioxide Smell of burnt matches. Can also come across as a pricking sensation in the nose.

Again, taste is subjective. A great example is Brettanomyces or “brett.” A hint of brett is common in Italian wines and in small amounts can add complexity. If it is too strong, I don’t care for it. But how strong is too strong? Chances are that your idea is different than mine.

One of the samples was a rosé. It started bad and ended like a beer. Not a hint of yeast that you expect from sparkling, but a beer. He tried to tell me that some attributes can come off as yeast. Sure, but this wasn’t hiding as anything. This was in-your-face-licking-rising-dough yeast. I don’t imagine that was the winemaker’s intention. But, I’ve been wrong before. There is photographic evidence.

Maybe you still like your acid washed jeans. I hear they are back in style. Maybe you still rock a perm and it looks fabulous. You may look back on something you wore and cringe, or wish that you’d never given that shirt away. Fashion and beauty are as subjective as taste in wine. The wine that I don’t care for may be one of your favorites. But there is a point where, taste aside, it crosses a line. Does the winemaker always know that line? And which is worse? Knowing the line and crossing it anyway or not knowing?

4 responses

  1. Great post, Alissa. But I have to say that this is a very tough area. When wine is corked, it is universally bad, It is easy to figure out because it is not just the smell, it is also showing in the taste, making the wine rancid and truly insipid. Some of the things, like brett, can make wines more interesting (completely agree that this is matter of taste). But then there are certain things which are truly a borderline for many of us and a matter of the acquired taste. For instance, a lot of Jura white wines are oxidized as part of the winemaking. Some might find it pleasant, and some might just declare them “bad wines”. Then there is a whole gamut of natural wines. Did you taste anything from Frank Cornelissen or Jean-Pierre Robinot? If you can find something from either one of these producers, I will be curious to know what do you think – but their wines don’t taste like anything mainstream, and they have religious following (I can’t say that I’m a fun, but I keep trying : ) ).
    The rose which tastes like beer is definitely not the good wine in my book, but then I’m sure there will be people who will actually say they like it. As I said, this is a tough subject to debate, but I’m sure in one thing – you like what you like, and nobody can tell you otherwise…

  2. Totally agree. That is why I found my friend’s question so interesting. Can I really say they were “bad” or just that I didn’t care for them? Who am I to judge? And yet, there are some concrete standards, right? And then, I thought about the yeast, and thought, “That can’t be right.” My thoughts are just that…thoughts, with no conclusion. Just interesting to ponder, and especially fun if I can throw in some self-depricating humor. :)

  3. I agree with Anatoli, great thought provoking post!

    I am not really sure I understand your distinction between “”fault” and “flaw”: Is one the wine maker’s doing and the other not? Regardless, I certainly think that the vast majority of wine today is not “bad” in the sense of “flawed”. One might not like the wine, but that is a question of taste rather than “flaws”. Having said that, I do think there are degrees of “flawed-ness”: one wine could be more “flawed” than another. The prime example is THC. I have had wines that have been badly corked to the point of undrinkable and others that were noticeably corked, but borderline drinkable. I think there is something to be learned from each bottle.

    The producer that served you the yeasty rosé–had you been there before and liked his wines? Or was this your first visit? When I read your description I first thought of people’s reactions to say, “orange” wine–where it is a style of wine that many do not understand at first (I still don’t know if I “get it”).

    Again, great post!

    • I read several posts on the matter and tried to summarize, but I don’t recognize a clear distinction either. Perhaps when I begin studying for certification it will become more clear. Always so much to learn.

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