A wine club is a way for wine lovers to get current releases from wineries they like and to experience a broad spectrum of wines – regardless where they live. Many look forward to their periodic shipments. They don’t deserve to be disappointed.
Over the course the past six months or so, we’ve received some wine shipments with flawed wines. I suspect that people making these wines knew they were problematic. Yet, they released them and they were sent out to customers. And that is just a bad business decision.
The first wine came in my wife’s club shipment from a prominent Santa Barbara County producer which is one of two in the AVA owned by a larger, state-wide, portfolio of brands. They make very good Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from their vineyards on the Santa Maria bench. The problem wine was a half-bottle (375 ml) of estate, vineyard-designated Pinot Noir. The wine tasted cooked, and blatantly so. This was not the case with the full-size bottles of the same wine. A few months later, another half-bottle of this same wine arrived with a different order. It also had minimal and dull fruit, stale caramel and what can be described as maple leaf tea aromas and flavors – leading me to conclude that the lot of half-bottles of this wine was badly heat damaged.
My suspicion is that other club members must have complained about this wine but emails to the club manager regarding this problem (sent in January) were not returned. (Emails were sent from my redwinebuzz.com address, my Yahoo account and my wife’s Hotmail account) During a recent visit to Santa Barbara County, a conversation with an employee of the company (who said local staff was aware of the problem) indicates that, at some level, the staff of this company knew about the flawed bottles. The wines are sent from a northern California warehouse, so one could defend the situation by saying that there is a breakdown in communication. Even if that is the case, it is not an acceptable excuse.
The other wine is a dry Riesling from an independent, family-owned winery in Edna Valley. They have an eclectic assortment of varieties, the most unusual being their estate Teroldego. This winery usually makes clean and enjoyable wines. Six months ago, this 2007 Riesling was dark golden, tasting of bruised, bitter apples and stale nuts. No bright floral or fruit aromas. Last week, another bottle had the same problem. I am inclined to say the wine is grossly oxidized, although the nuttiness may lead some to say it is maderized. The owners of this winery have not yet responded to emails regarding this issue.
This wine received a Bronze Medal at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. I was hoping that I just had an off bottle the first time around but that proved not to be the case. The argument could be made that the wine showed much better during the competition than it is showing now. It is possible that it became oxidized between the competition and the time I tasted it, but the severity of the flaw makes me doubt this. It is quite possible that the wine is being sent out precisely because it got a medal in some competition.
I don’t know if the problem with this wine is a more damning indictment of poor skill on the part of the judges who gave this wine a medal, the value and meaning of a Bronze Medal or of the apparent cynicism on the part of the winery in sending a flawed wine, assuming that customers will accept it since it got a medal in some competition.
It stands to reason that a wine club is a way for a winery to move a considerable part of their inventory. It is also a way for consumers to stay connected to producers whose wines they previously enjoyed and expect to continue enjoying. The former should not come at the expense of the latter.
Most flaws – cooked, maderized, oxidized, mercaptans and TCA-taint – are unpleasant. Even if most of your club members can’t articulate the flaw or problem, they still are likely to not enjoy the wine.
As an aside, one argument likely to be made in defense of these flawed wines having been sent out would probably hinge on the myth of “subjectivity of wine”, which asserts that quality is subjective and “different people like different things” and that “one person’s perceptions of a wine are vastly different from those of other people’s”. The topic at hand is a perfect illustration of how and why this myth is so insidious and pernicious: These statements are true only to a very limited extent and with numerous qualifications and caveats. There is much more commonality to the human sensory experience than some would like to accept and there are absolute benchmarks of quality (independent of personal preference or marketing)- to the chagrin of those tasked with promoting and selling a less-than-stellar product.
It’s a tough situation when something goes wrong in the winery and an entire lot of wine is spoiled. I know the economy is putting the squeeze on many producers. Once a wine is made, a producer must recover their investment by selling the finished wine. That notwithstanding, If a club member’s dissatisfaction with their shipment is frequent or intense enough, they will cancel their membership with a quick click of a mouse.
As tempting as it may be, a problem wine should not be swept under the rug – in cynicism or desperation. A flawed, unpleasant wine should not be passed off as a clean product. To do so, puts a brand’s reputation, following and, ultimately, livelihood at stake. Never mind that some may see sending out a defective product and billing the customer’s credit card as unethical, to say the least.
Besides, it’s insulting.
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