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There's No Room for Flaws in 'Classic' Vintages


Recently I have come to realize that some so-called "great" wines, praised by influential wine people, are pretty strange and far from classic.

Moreover, I wonder whether some of these influential wine personalities aren't doing consumers a disservice by cooing and gurgling over wine that is eccentric, if not downright flawed. I wonder whether they aren't educating the public to like styles of wine that are atypical, not truly great at all.

Some of the wines I question have a tiny flaw I feel shouldn't be there, considering the high price; in other cases I've found the flaw to be so strong that it covered up whatever grace the wine might have had. Wine with the aroma of wet earth, rotting meat, nail polish or skunkiness is not my idea of fun.

Some evaluators who taste the wines within sight of the labels, and thus know what the wines cost, give expensive wines very high scores on the theory such a high-priced wine simply can't have much wrong with it. Thus extraneous aromas and flavors can't be flaws. (Moreover, to mark such an expensive wine with a low score might prove embarrassing.)

Yet when I've done blind tastings of famous name wines, I occasionally find extraneous elements in them that are so strange as to make the wines unrepresentative of their type and thus not in the "classic" category at all. Often, recently, the most expensive wines have had serious flaws. I wouldn't drink a couple of these wines if they were given to me, and I'm outraged at paying $50 to $75 and more for wines that are dull or even downright bad.

Nick Ponomareff, editor/publisher of the California Grapevine, noted this trend in the April-May issue of his privately published wine newsletter. Ponomareff, a mild-mannered aerospace engineer, in a most atypical (for him), strongly worded commentary, wrote that in the 15 years of publishing his newsletter he has not commented on a winery's pricing policy.

Yet he said that a number of expensive wines evaluated blind by the Grapevine panel were not very good and not worth their high prices. I concur.

Recently I tasted the 1985 Guigal Cote-Rotie "La Mouline," which sells for about $200 a bottle. I found it to have a horsy, wet-leather kind of smell about it, sort of like meat aging in a meat locker. This aroma was probably generated by a yeast called Brettanomyces (Bret for short) that some people like. I don't, not when it's as strong as it is in this wine.

This has been rated a perfect wine by some evaluators. Perhaps they are not bothered by this wet horse-blanket aroma, but California wine makers who tasted this wine with me said they didn't like it, either.

Clearly this is a matter of taste, but to rank the wine as perfect seems a little odd.

A similar problem, Brettanomyces, seems to infect other wines, like 1985 Phelps "Eisele" Cabernet and the famed Dominus wines; traces of it appear to be in the 1985 Stag's Leap Cask 23. These wines are all expensive, ranging from $40 a bottle to $75 for the Stag's Leap.

Am I being a purist, a technician, when I say the aroma should have no "Bret"? I think not. Not at these prices. And many wine makers agree that this level of "Bret" is unacceptable in wines of this price.

When wines get this lofty in price, they should be as clean and as classical as is the 1985 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet, one of the truly magnificent wines of the last few years.

Moreover, other flaws irk me. The Dominus wines and the 1985 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet are examples of wines I feel are so tannic it may be decades before they're ready to drink. The 1987 Diamond Creek Cabernets are bizarre wines with aromas and flavors I don't associate with Cabernet. The Stag's Leap Cask 23 has a foul weediness I dislike.

Even the acclaimed 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet bothers me, as it does the Grapevine panel. In various blind tastings, we have detected a certain musty quality. It may well fade into the background with time in the bottle, but today the wine has scored poorly in blind tastings. I spoke with Joe Heitz about this and he denies there's a problem with the wine.

Fortunately, none of the California wines listed above is flawed because of intent to deceive on the part of the wine makers. I feel that in some cases the winery was simply unaware of the problem; in other cases the winery liked the wine so much, as it was, they hoped no one would see the flaw as a flaw.

Bad wine isn't always an honest mistake. Fraud in the European wine trade is fairly common, and by no means new. Fraud has occurred for centuries there, fueled more by greedy merchants than scurrilous producers.

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