The other day I was talking to a friend about wine and he kept going on about how many wines "out there" were "bad." He was concerned that winemakers or grape growers were simply not doing "their job."
Of course, this is a very broad stroke of the brush and not at all what I am encountering in new releases, especially wines from Oregon. I told him that I thought quite the contrary, that winemaking and grape-growing have had enormous leaps in quality due to much diligence and study as well as winemakers and growers being open to new ideas. He went on and on about "big" reds and "over-oaked whites" as well as other aspects of wines he simply "could not stand." The picture began to emerge that he was not at all talking about "bad" wines but wines which were not the style he preferred; we are talking about a big difference in meaning and perspective. Let's look at the difference between what is truly a bad wine and what style means in wine appreciation.
A "bad" wine is a wine that shows flaws in any number of ways. I try to tell my wine appreciation students to think of wine as food. The same criteria holds with both; if it does not look, smell or taste like what normal expectations dictate, there is something going on which should not be. An example of this is when we see or smell "old" seafood. It could be that the chef prepared the seafood correctly, but the raw material was flawed. A parallel to this is grapes mistreated in the vineyard, or weather-related problems making the raw material unsuited to good wine regardless of what the winemaker (chef) does to them. This has nothing to do with style or preparation, this has to do with poor quality of material.
Secondly, if the raw materials arrive in sound condition and the winemaker allows microbial issues to arise, this is poor execution of a good raw material and, again, has nothing to do with style but everything to do with bad wine. It then becomes okay to say that, someone, somewhere or weather caused the wine to be "unsound" or not meet the obvious criteria for what the varietal should show.
The term "style" has to assume that grape growing and winemaking are fundamentally sound. Metaphorically speaking it is not unlike looking at a new car. Yes, mechanically, it is sound, everything is where it should be, but perhaps the ride is a bit bumpy or the lights look uneven or the paint job is garish. This is the same feeling with "style" in wine appreciation. The sense of "bad" or "unsound" really has been transcended into nuance and form.
This being said, there are wines being released in huge quantities at very low prices which are appreciated more for price than for quality in taste. I can understand this and the wine industry has been floated in marginal, very ordinary yet drinkable wine since ancient times. The bottom line in all of this is to try to be clear between badly made wine and wines that you simply do not prefer. Also try to understand what is driving you to a category of wine. If you are driven by bargains, if price is your goal, then I think you will find more poorly made wines at rock bottom prices. Years of wine experience have told me that there is truly a natural selection going on with wines and price hikes. Generally, one gets what one pays for in the wine world.
Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and works there part time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.