What do you do when a bottle of wine is "bad"? Here's a scenario: A server comes up to me at a function and says that three of the last five bottles of wine they've poured are corked. What the fuck? I'm alarmed. I run over to check this out. None of the bottles are corked. I ask the server what brought this on. "I poured the wine for the guest, and she said, 'This wine is bad.'" Holy fuck, I just about shit my pants. I'm pissed at myself that these peeps working for me don't know what a corked wine smells like. I'm pissed at them because they've opened and poured three bottles of wine looking for one that wasn't "corked." And I'm pissed that this woman has just categorically turned down a wine as being "bad" when it wasn't... necessarily.
I'm sure there are those who will disagree, but: Truly "bad" wine is rare! We may not like a given wine, but seldom is a wine "undrinkable" because it is spoiled or faulty. With so much investment usually on the line to produce a product with as few surprises as possible—one that'll appeal to a broad spectrum of palates—much of what might be construed as questionable or faulty is removed from mass-market wines. I try to deal with these kinds of wines as little as possible.
But the wine industry is moving toward a less manipulated, less processed, more "authentic" style. With this, more drastic variations come to the fore: between bottles, between varietals, between appellations, etc. I fucking love this! We forget that wine is a living thing—that even when we've filtered and fined and used cultured yeasts, doing all we can do to minimize surprises, it is still something that has a life cycle, that will go from youth to maturity, and during that time go through fits and starts of dormancy and wakefulness.
But if a guest says to me, "This wine is bad," I don't argue with them. I get them another bottle—maybe something different, or, if the wine is bad, another bottle of the same. But it's also my job to let people know what they are getting into when they order a bottle of wine that is sailing the seas of "natural" or is somehow unusual. Example: "I know this bottle says 'Hermitage' on it and you're thinking big-ass Syrah... but this is from Dard & Ribo. Have you ever tried their wines? They're FUCKED UP, in the best way! It will not be at all what you might be expecting..." This isn't because I want to be a douche (and it is a delicate line between douche and not douche), but because I don't want to disappoint you, and I don't want to pour wine down the drain, which means drink it with staff later (okay, yes, I do want to do that).
There are three main things that can make a wine truly bad—and two are rather general, and a matter of expectation and perception. Here we go:
Corked wine: This is a real fault in a wine, brought on most often by a natural cork infected with trichloroanisole or "TCA," also known as "cork taint." As one of my associates said, "I love the smell of corked wine! It reminds me of my grandmother's basement!" 'Nough said. If it's got grandma's mustiness, it's probably corked, and if it's corked, it will become more corked as it sits in contact with the air.
Brettanomyces: Also known as "bret," this is a yeast that principally lives in oak barrels, especially new and toasted ones. And yes, bret can be a real fault, but it can sometimes be considered an expression of the grape or place (terroir)—people use words like barnyard, honey, lilac, smoke, spice, horsey, sweaty, cheesy, etc. to describe it. Are those things "bad"? Depends on expectation and perception.
Oxidation: This is the presence of oxygen in the wine-making and -aging process. In some wines, like sherry, oxidation is expected and is integral to the wine's character. In others, varying degrees of it are considered good, moving toward not good, and at a certain point render the wine unpalatable. How can you tell when a wine is oxidized? The appearance goes golden/orange moving toward brown; the scent goes toward toffee, almonds, orange peel, vanilla bean. Again, "bad" can very much be in the nose of the beholder.
Here's to good wine—especially the barnyard stuff and the sherry!