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?