Wine Cynic Tells All

Advice on avoiding seriously bad bottles

By Boris Wiedenfeld-Needham

The vast majority of wine sold in our country is complete and utter garbage. Let me clarify how, by vast majority, I mean the bulk of volume, not labels. The huge factory labels sell incredible quantities of schlock, more than offsetting the many great smaller wineries.

I was leafing through the latest copy of a big, ad-driven wine magazine — let’s call it Wine Speculator — and looking through the glossy ads, I was struck by the realization that almost all these wines had one thing in common: They’re terrible.

“This one’s awful. That one’s god-awful. Wouldn’t cook with that one. Wouldn’t use that one to gargle with.”

Seriously, they all sucked. How do I know? I used to represent many of them.

I have been in the industry for quite some time in many different roles. I’ve worked in high-end retail, worked for a multi-billion-dollar distributor for years and even made wine. Currently, I own a non-snooty wine shop with ambitions to build it into a small regional chain. Of course, I have been a wine consumer all these years, too. There aren’t a whole lot of dirty secrets I don’t know, and, sadly, there are many.

You wouldn’t be surprised that most mega-production $5 bottles are garbage; after all, you get what you pay for, right? You would be correct. While they tend to have romantic-sounding names and picturesque scenes on the labels, many are produced in tanker truck-fueled refineries that look like something you’d expect if Halliburton operated in Mad Max’s world.

The problem is that so many of these major wineries’ $30-to-$150 bottles are nearly as bad. When you work long enough in the business of big brand luxury wines driven by a sales culture that makes “Glengarry Glen Ross” look like a heartwarming rom-com, you quickly realize one thing: Almost none of the people selling these wines would ever drink them.

In fact, so many times, I, like many of my colleagues, would visit a local shop before returning home, pick up an inexpensive, honest wine, and drink that, pouring the high-priced, high-alcohol free Napa Cab down the drain.

The commodification of higher-end wines has reached a level never before seen. Practically gone seem to be the days of the winemaker’s vision of a place and a wine defined by it. The “glossy ad” wines are usually made by market research, focus groups and critics’ palates, so many of whom seem have burnt out their taste buds years ago and now need nothing short of meth-infused, ultra-concentrated rocket fuel to get them going.

Some of the most successful ones also stem from pure ignorance.

I was once in a meeting with the owner/winemaker of a very famous set of California wineries, some of whose wines are approaching $200 a bottle. He was speaking to a room filled with many of our state’s most seasoned wine professionals. At one point, he told us the secret to his top-tier wine’s success was that he “left the grapes on the vines so long until they had lost almost all of their natural acidity.” I remember my friends and me chuckling, waiting for the punchline. Then, with horror, we realized he was serious. Face plant! There wasn’t enough beer that evening to wash away the shame we felt for having to sell that awful hooch.

Now, how does this relate to Oregon wines? Here is the feel-good part of my column: It’s all about size. At least at this point, so many of Oregon’s wineries fall into what I consider the sweet spot, and that is an annual production of 5,000 to 50,000 cases.

Are there excellent producers smaller than that? Absolutely — and some amazing ones as well. However, this is also the realm of the semi-amateur wineries, the vanity wineries making some straight-up atrocious wine. Rarely does a week go by when I don’t see a tiny new winery trying to sell me their wines. It’s de rigueur for retiring surgeons, dentists, lawyers or businessmen to buy a vineyard and start a winery at their McTuscan castles. Many of these wines are a combination of bad, overpriced, technically flawed and “are-you-effing-kidding-me?” Again, there are several notable exceptions, some of whom are owned by good friends of mine.

Yet, I think the future is bright for consumers of Oregon wines. Over the years, our industry has grown competent and skilled enough to really know what we’re doing, and yet, mostly remained authentic and dedicated to a no-compromise way of making very high quality wines.

Big money has made inroads and acquisitions into Oregon lately. Some of it is welcome, adding world-class producers and talent to our scene; some of it is the opportunistic gobbling up of something that might be the next big thing for big corporate wine.

Before you get all outraged and indignant when some family winery sells to a larger supplier, ask yourself this: Say you spent the past 30 years working your tail off to make ends meet, slowly building your winery into a sustainable business. Is taking the money and enjoying the kind of life in your retirement that running a vineyard and winery never allowed you to really such an “immoral” choice?

My advice for wine buyers boils down to this: Skip the wines you see advertised in glossy full-page ads in the big magazines. Give the little, new wineries a chance, and if the wines are good, keep buying them; if they are not, then don’t. And most definitely, stand by those “sweet-spot” wineries large enough to be great at what they do and small enough to still retain passion and character. 

Would you rather have a wine made by the likes of Jason Lett, John Paul or Stephen Hagen, or one designed by a focus group in Omaha?

I rest my case.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Oregon Wine Press.

Boris Wiedenfeld-Needham is the CEO of Bo's Wine Depot, a budding mini-chain of unpretentious wine stores in the Southern Willamette Valley. In his free time, he writes and speaks about wine, and serves as Archbishop of Oregon in the Universal Life Church.



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