Bad Wine, copyright 2004, by Ernest Valtri
Rotgut. Plonk. Weed killer. Call it what you will, wine comes both ways… good and bad. Sometimes super extra bad.
If you’re a newcomer to wine and without reliable information about specific wines you’re interested in, how do you know what’s good and what’s not before opening your wallet? Certainly asking people whose opinion you trust is a good start. This has the distinct advantage of allowing you to complain to the person who suggested you buy a wine that turned out to be a loser. Of course, be liberal with the compliments when they’re deserved. Next, read! Read wine industry specific publications and websites. Sure, they recommend so many wines that you can’t possibly try them all, or even find them all. But you will soon discover one or more critics you come to trust. Regardless of the source, understand that taste is an undeniably subjective matter and even a source that consistently provides winners is going to lay a few eggs now and then.
There’s a general rule of thumb I consider quite reliable. If it’s advertised, it’s lousy. Now I’m not talking about wine industry publications, which naturally advertise wine and related products. I’m talking about television, radio, billboards and non-wine-industry publications. If you hear, see or read about a wine in one of these media, don’t waste your time. The exceptions are extremely rare, probably because the producers of the good stuff know not to put their names out there beyond the recognized wine industry avenues.
Why do the better wine producers avoid general advertising? I think it has its basis in something the wine world is well known for…snootiness. Not that producers advertising in wine-specific media are necessarily snooty. It’s just that they have recognized the most popular (and inexpensive) wines sold in America, which represent the vast majority of all the wines sold in America, are also those wines of lesser quality. Naturally the higher end producers do not want to be associated with what they consider to be the lesser suppliers. The level of quality I speak of is certainly a subjective judgment, but a well documented, well supported subjective judgment, given by experienced wine critics in many books, magazines and websites. Of course these professional critics have varying opinions, but reading their reviews regularly will steer you generally in the right direction. And that direction steers clear of those advertised stain removers, lighter fluids and machine lubricants masquerading as wine.
A microcosm of this phenomenon can be seen in nearly any newspaper advertisement by a wine retailer. At least 90% of their ad, and often 100%, will promote your basic bug juice. They are smart marketers, knowing that their typical customer is looking for a wine they can enjoy immediately that doesn’t cost too much. This typical customer is not particularly well informed about wine (let me be sure I don’t hurt myself falling from my high horse) and is much more likely to make a purchase influenced by an ad in the newspaper than one in a wine specific publication. These are the same people who snicker in wonder at the patron leaving the store with one case of wine and a $612 sales receipt.
Do not be misled into assuming cheap means bad and expensive leads to the wine cellar trophy case. Finding those great values is always exciting and rewarding! I have plenty of examples of wines from $6.00 to$15.00 that are terrific. I’ve also had my share of expensive duds too. And there are lots of examples of very good wines that remain over priced.
A second rule of thumb just as reliable as the first; if it’s made from something other than grapes, forget it. You’ll find winemakers using all sorts of funky fruits, including plums, boysenberries, raspberries and kiwis. (Okay, I’ve never seen any kiwi wine, but I suppose it’s out there somewhere.) Mix these products with rubbing alcohol and baking soda and you’ll have a sweet smelling disinfectant. But wine? No. They’re flat out awful. If you like the juice from these fruits, buy fruit juice. And unless your intention is to find an alternative to hot chocolate or cider, avoid wine with spices added, even if the wines are made from grapes.
Enjoying wine is the key. If you enjoy the puddle slosh, I suppose it doesn’t make much sense to pursue anything beyond those advertised jug wines. However, if you want to experiment with wines that are clearly a
step up in quality, take the time to find out about them from well informed staff at your wine retailer, from friends in the know, from taking classes and attending tastings, or from wine specific publications, both printed and online. Check out magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and The Wine Advocate. And enter “wine” into your favorite search engines to find various websites, including winebid.com, corkscrewed.com and pawineandspirits.com. You may pleasantly broaden your horizon for much less expense than you’d expect.