Slippery Slope

Why most writers don’t write about bad wines


“Why don’t you wine writers ever write about bad wine?” a woman asked at a recent trade show. Then she added: “I’d rather know what to skip than to buy someone’s recommendation and then not like it.”

Fair enough. She does have a point.

She’s correct also that if I taste a wine that I think is not good — or eat in a restaurant that is mediocre — you’ll not read about it here.

Why not? We believe most people want to be steered toward something worthwhile rather than away from something bad.

There is one exception that I rarely invoke. If a big name in wine — let’s say Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars or Chateau Haut-Brion — produces a really bad wine, I will write about it.

In fact, I did that with Haut-Brion in the 1990s when they released a wine full of a nasty fungal aroma, and very imbalanced.

Another reason I don’t lean into what I think is bad: It’s a big slippery slope. Trying to keep separate what I like from what I don’t like is about my personal tastes. If a wine is flawed in some way it has nothing to do with my taste and is fair game.

Most people would prefer to be steered toward something worthwhile rather than away from something bad. If I taste a wine I think is not good, you’ll not read about it here.

Take for example, the highly popular Toasted Head Chardonnay. Is it flawed? Absolutely not. Is it badly made? No. Is it a good wine? Yes, but to my personal taste, it is way too oaky flavored. It recalls for me the late Los Angeles Times wine writer Robert Lawrence Balzer, who upon tasting an oaky chardonnay asked: “Why do I feel as though someone just stirred my mouth for a few hours with a No. 2 lead pencil?”

The other wines that I rarely write about are high priced reds, many of which I consider to be a different kind of  “offenders.” These tend to be “trophy” market wines, big California and French names that at release sell for $100 or $200 a bottle.

I am sure there must be some gems among them, but I can’t say I’ve ever had one. I tasted about six of those in the last year that are just plain awful. I’ve nicknamed these “autopsy wines.” So jam-jar thick reds, almost purple in color, and fruit so ripe as to be almost unidentifiable without reading the back label to see what the coroner thinks it might have been, and then overly dosed with oak.

I would guess that the majority of those big reds are purchased to sit in cellars, and other than Robert Parker Jr., most wine writers I know hardly ever get to taste them. And when they do, they come away scratching their heads.

If there is a value and “sweet spot” for buying good wine — and there’s a lot out there — it is in the range of $18-40. There also very good wines in the $10-20, but that’s more of a hunt.

Here are a couple of examples:

2010 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja: Crianza ($16): Light Rioja, full of stone fruit flavors, with no oak aging! It has a nice, clean, and soft finish. A great red for fall grilling.

2011 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon: Alexander Valley ($26): It has ripe cherry undertones, and lean, structured, earthy aromas — and is more “Colder Climate” in styling than the Alexander Valley from whence it came.

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