How To Understand Really Stupid Wines

stupidThe wine was a 2006 Grenache from the Barossa Valley in Australia.  It clocked in at 18.5% alcohol. It was carried to me by a good Aussie friend who purchased it in New York. The wine was absurd in every respect—in its size, in its lopsided nature and in its imposing heat. The alcoholic mask worn by this wine was complete in every way. What lurked underneath the heat was a blueish fruit. But it was hard to either notice or care about the fruit. The first task at hand upon tasting this wine was abandoning it as soon as possible.

Shoving the wine aside, I simply couldn’t stop wondering what the winemaker was hoping to accomplish by producing this thing. For that matter, I’m not sure what the thought was in letting the grapes get so ripe (likely over 30 degrees brix) as to produce an alcohol level of 18.5%. The final wine did not have to be so high in alcohol. It could easily have been watered back and the alcohol brought down to a level merely “very high” instead of absurdly high.

The producer of this wine is extremely well-regarded. Their wines are accorded “cult” status, snapped up at high prices and praise is generous. This particular wine received 94 points from a publication of importance.  So I assume the makers are not idiots. In fact I have to assume they wanted to make a wine that showcased the flavor and aromas of alcohol, with small hints of blue fruit.

For quite some time I’ve been one of those wine lovers willing to entertain the idea that quality is relative; that “good” wine can be defined in any number of ways and that any challenge to this relativistic notion of “good” would be difficult to muster. So maybe my reaction to this disaster of a wine is unwarranted. Maybe there is something else to this wine that I wasn’t understanding.

By this relativistic theory of what amounts to “good”, I’m forced to assume that the production of this wine wasn’t merely a matter of one winery being really hopeful that there are lots of people willing to ignore outlying wines of such weird proportions and embrace them (while certainly getting wildly drunk). Under the Good-Is Relative Theory of Wine I have to assume that this wine was not only aesthetically viable, but also economically viable.

Still, if I were responsible for rating and reviewing this wine, I would dismiss it as ridiculously flawed and probably rank it somewhere between 65 and 72 points with an “AVOID” recommendation.

But here’s the kicker: The wine culture in the U.S. has evolved to such a degree in the past 20 years that today you can make a wine of such stupidity and still find enough palate’s to embrace it and appreciate it and, presumably, pay the $60-$70 this wine currently demands on the secondary market. This kind of palate diversity is weirdly encouraging, despite being, to this wine drinker, unimaginable.

Posted In: Rating Wine


10 Responses

  1. Kurt Burris - September 30, 2013

    Not that hard to fine out the wine you referred. Hint, hint. Bi=ut I totally agree that 18.5% is crazy

  2. Thomas Kruse - October 1, 2013

    What if you tasted this without knowing that it was a Grenache, supposed to be a table wine, the producer etc. Would you have dismissed it as easily or might you have guessd that it was a poorly made poor and not have been so critical?

  3. Robert - October 1, 2013

    And now you understand why high end Australian wine is tanking in the market. It went even further down the rabbit hole of excess than Napa itself. FWIW, the same criticisms could be laid at much of what is coming out of Priorat. That region, however, still seems to benefit from the halo of coming from a European wine region among many somms and merchants.

    I eagerly anticipate reading your future stinging condemnations of similar abortions in a bottle such as Turley Zin, Kongsgaard Chardonnay or any number of Napa Cabernets whose true alcohols probably approach (or exceed!) 16% in a given vintage.

    Therein lies the fundamental difference between you and Steve Heimhof; Steve will take Napa itself to task for making these kinds of wines from a standpoint of constructive criticism. You merely find some obscene imported straw man to knock down rather than taking on the much more difficult task of addressing the behemoth of excess in your midst.

  4. Tom Wark - October 1, 2013

    Thomas, had I tasted it blind, I would have recoiled at the alcohol level. But I honestly could never have identified it as Grenache…and it would have been thrown down the sink for the simple reason that I have numerous other bottles of wine to open.

  5. Tom Wark - October 1, 2013

    There are far more differences between Steve Heimoff and I than just what he and I are willing to write about, condemn or review. For example, he has far ore tattoos than I. His palate is better than mine. He’s a wine critic and I am not.

    That said, I’ve never tasted a Napa or CA wine that struck me as such an abomination as this one did. That’s not to say there are not any. And my point was not to knock Aussie wines. My Aussie friend also brought me a revelatory 2001 RWT from Penfolds that was simply stunning.

    My ultimate point was this: Such a wine could be made today for the simple reason that the wine culture has evolved and expanded to such a degree that this wine had an audience that would pay very good money for it, rather than being an example of a wine that would run the winemaker and winery out of business.

  6. barnaby33 - October 1, 2013

    I feel like America’s wine culture is still in it’s teenage years and so I’d add the context that while the only constant is change; I wouldn’t base my views of the market on a single or even a few vintages produced. If they are still producing it in a decade, then there is a market. Otherwise it’s just a successful winery throwing the umbrella of it’s name over a new product that may or may not succeed.

    Tom you obviously don’t have any college girls to feed wine to!

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  8. KayJay - October 2, 2013

    Tom, I am totally in your camp on this one – and what I also detest is the downline effect that this type of supposed power/quality perception has on both producers and daily drinkers of what one would hope could be enjoyable, pleasant, food-friendly bottles every night. Stores are loaded with taste bud walloping malbecs and garnachas even in the $9-$12 range (or in casual restaurants at $7 – $8/glass), over-extracted juice bombs that themselves pack a (stated) 14.5%, let’s say, and make zero real sense as a post-work cocktail or to go with a lighter meal. The average consumer is led to believe that the best wine is the one that seems to stuff the glass with the most fruit and alcohol for the money…rather than to be enlightened about how lovely an experience might be had with a nice cab franc, pinot, casteleo, even an under-loved merlot…it’s like battling the NFL, or WFF, of our gentle, right-brained industry.

  9. Roy Cook - October 3, 2013

    As a professional wine-maker myself this wine at 18.5% alcohol sounds completely one-sided and by definition therefore unbalanced. The best wines have their various components in balance and in harmony so that tannin acidity and alcohol form a harmonious blend. Conversely a poor wine has one of these components in excess, exactly as this wine does.
    One thing the author may be incorrect about is the following sentence: ” It could easily have been watered back and the alcohol brought down to a level merely very high instead of absurdly high.” In the European Union the wine regulations strictly forbid the addition of any water. Not 100% sure about Australian regulations, but they could well be identical. In which case the only way to prevent such a one dimensional wine would be to pick the grapes earlier well before the potential alcohol content became so high.

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