Extreme Wine: The Worst?

What’s the worst wine in the world? Not the worst type of wine, varietal or style (these are matters of taste and degustibus non est disputandum here at The Wine Economist). And let’s rule out the worst idea for a wine, too, because Miles’s dump bucket cuvée from the film Sideways (shown above) is the clear winner.

No, I’m talking about the worst professionally made (amateur efforts are another category), commercially sold wine — the wine with the most serious objective flaws that was released to the market despite its potentially reputation-ruining qualities?

Corked and Screwed

In terms of a single vintner economic impact, it was probably the 1985 David Bruce Chardonnay that George Taber talks about in his excellent book To Cork or Not to Cork? David Bruce is known today as a maker of fine Pinot Noir but back in the 1980s their Chardonnay was a big hit. A hit, that is, until the 1985 vintage was plagued by massive incidence of cork taint that almost destroyed the winery by ruining the reputation of its most important wine and effectively drove it out of the Chardonnay business.

Turns out the faulty corks had been rejected as tainted by Robert Mondavi and the cork importer sold them off to David Bruce rather than having them destroyed or sent back to Portugal.  A big economic hit indeed. But I need to rule out cork taint for this extreme wine competition because it is so utterly unexceptional. Virtually everyone who bottles wine with cork will experience cork taint — 3-5 percent loss is the figure usually cited.

Bad Wine Uncorked

I had the opportunity to understand what really bad wine is like last week when I attended a professional wine faults workshop organized and taught by Amy Mumma, director of the innovative World Wine Program at Central Washington University (profiled in this recent Yakima Herald-Republic article) .

Amy’s background is in biochemistry and wine business and this gives her an unusual ability to detect and analyze wine flaws and advise wineries (something that the legendary Emile Peynaud was famous for).  To steal a line from Ghostbusters, Amy is the answer to the question “who ya gonna call?” when something goes wrong with your wine.

Amy led my group of about 50 wine professionals through a tasting of twelve wines that illustrated different fundamental flaws ranging from what was probably a simple shipping problem (“cooked” when its shipping container got too hot) to a palate-destroying example of a badly corked wine. When retailers are suspicious that a wine on their shelves may be faulty, they call Amy and, if the problem is bad enough, she buys the bottles for use in her classes. All of the flawed wines we sampled were purchased through normal retail channels.

Worst of the Worst

The worst wine we sampled was a real dog (no offense to canines intended). It was a Columbia Valley Merlot plagued by the thankfully rare combination of reduction, oxidation and Brettanomyces.  It looked bad, smelled bad and tasted (gasp!) horrible.  Certainly one of the worst wines I’ve ever tried. Why in the world would anyone put their label on this wine and send it into the marketplace to represent them?

Drawing upon her science background, Amy was able to explain to us how this awful combination of defects occurred, but the question of why anyone would try to sell it remains. Ignorance? Incompetence? Arrogance? Cash flow demands? Hard to say. Some wine flaws (like the “cooked” wine) can happen after wine leaves the maker’s control, but many of the flawed wines on retail shelves were already in bad shape when they left the warehouse. No excuse for this. Reputation is critically important in the wine business and it is established (or destroyed) one bottle at a time.

You May Not Want to Know the Answer

Amy’s class was great — she’s a wonderful teacher — and gave us a lot of useful tools for detected and understanding wine flaws and for dealing with related trade and consumer issues. Amy answered all our questions but one: who made these awful wines? She kept the makers secret, so I can’t report them here (although I have a guess concerned one particularly  nasty white wine that was clouded with silky black strands of dangerous bacteria).

What’s the worst wine you’ve ever tasted, I asked Amy. You may not want to know her answer.

The worst wine ever sampled smelled and tasted like somebody urinated in a tin can of clams.  Seriously.  Absolutely disgusting.  It was a process of putrification caused by high levels of bacteria and was a Washington State Cab Sauv.  And it was at retail price in wine shops. I think some of the worst have been high levels of mercaptans or those with excessive ethyl acetate that you can’t even get near your face without your eyes watering.

I’m trying to imagine who would sell a wine like that!  I wonder what consumers thought when they brought home the bottle and pulled the cork? I imagine that some of them probably thought the wine was supposed to taste like that. You can scratch that customer off your mailing list!

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Watch for a future post on the World Wine Program at CWU, a unique approach to educating wine business professionals.

[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

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10 responses

  1. It is interesting to note that there is a second layer of protection for the consumer in that most retailers also value their reputation. Wine clubs offer a third layer, because not only does their reputation depend on selling fault-free wine, but on selling well-selected “good” wine. And here, “de gustibus non est disputandum” does not hold. I’ve returned “bad” yet unflawed bottles more than once to my wine club with the simple explanation “I didn’t like the wine.”

  2. You and Amy could provide a service called “Identify the Defect.” My wife and I were in So California two weeks ago and bought a $15 California Zinfandel (red, not “white”). It tasted exactly like the effluent from a petrochemical factory. Strangely, the odor wasn’t particularly bad, sort of smelling vaguely grapey with no other particular scents. If I hadn’t poured it down the drain after one sip I would be glad to share it. This would be my first choice for last choice.

  3. I certainly have encountered more than a few horribly flawed wines over the years, and Amy’s class (I’ve taken it twice) has been a terrific asset in helping me to identify what’s gone wrong. The question you pose – how can such wines be marketed and sold – is one that has puzzled me forever. It’s worst when the wines in question, horrible though they may be, are sporting fancy price tags. This too I’ve seen more than once or twice. When I encounter such wines I do not review them, but notify the winery that their wines failed to be of commercial quality, and I suggest they send samples to a qualified laboratory for professional analysis.

  4. I’ve read other sources stating that cork taint* afflicts up to 8% of all wine-that’s effectively one bottle per case! The chemical involved, tri choloro anisole is v strong and can be detected in the low parts per million. Another reason for wholesale adoption of stelvin caps.

    *strangely, I have never experienced this with sparkling wine/champagne

  5. I’ve been tasting wine (in the biz) for 15 years, and I always find that winemakers/owners are blind to any flaws in their wines as they have spent too much time with them. Even when a wine is out of balance (over oaked, too much alcohol) they always seem to find the good things in the wine.

    But really, in today’s age, there is no excuse for releasing wine that was defective before it left the winery.

    I’ve actually had a bottle of bubbly or two that was corked. Very weird.

  6. Mike, glad to hear you got to check out this class. I didn’t hear about it until the last minute and wasn’t able to change my plans. Sounds like a great class. Will keep an eye out for the next time its offered.

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