For all the folks that stick their heads in the tasting area and say things to us like “I want your job” or “… must be nice” we like to offer up a little perspective every so often. First off, don’t get us wrong, we love what we do. We meet interesting, passionate people. We get to try a lot of things most people won’t, and learn something every day. Plus being in a wine shop is considerably safer than putting out oil rig fires, logging, or catching crab in the North Pacific. We know that.
But for those that think all we sit around and do is taste First Growth Bordeaux, rare Grand Cru Burgundies, and limited production California Cabernets, it’s not the case. In 40 years in the business, I don’t ever remember saying anything like ‘what ‘aia’ should we taste next…Sassicaia, Ornellaia, or Solaia.’ That simply isn’t our world. But we do put our palates on the line every day to protect your table by finding the best wines and wine deals we can.
Fortunately there is very little bad wine in the world any more. But there is an ocean of passable, insipid, or manipulated juice that someone is tasked with trying to sell us. We could go on a rather extensive rant at this point about the appalling lack of professionalism that exists in the industry, but we will save that for another day. Simply put, we love nothing better than finding that proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’. But you have to sometimes go through a rather dreary haystack to find it. Sometimes you go through that haystack and there isn’t a needle at all. Sure, there are great days, but also a lot of not-so-great days. But we have chosen the task of being a filter for our customers.
There are many ways to find wine, including traveling to large, far away comprehensive shows to see mass quantities of labels all together. There are also brokers that work the ‘back side’ of the business, helping some producers who made some bad marketing decisions on the front side of the biz, to move out some juice. This particular sample came from one of our more trusted ‘back door’ purveyors from whom we have gotten some pretty killer deals in the past.
All we are going to say about this wine in terms of identity is that it is a Paso Robles Zinfandel from a winery whose juice we have sold before. As we always do, we didn’t look at any of the ‘stats’ before we tasted this wine. We simply took a quick whiff and a sip to see if there was enough there to look deeper. As it was, there was a curious combination of elevated acidity and volatile acidity, two aspects that are typically mutually exclusive. So for curiosity’s sake, we did some light digging.
Wine chemistry can be pretty boring to most folks outside the cellar and it is not something we talk about in depth as a rule. But in this case the chemistry was the story. The label stated 16.9% alcohol by volume, which will be disturbing to some folks, especially considering there is a bit of leeway on that alcoholic statement by law (as much as 1.5%). So now there is a possibility it could be pushing 18%! We have had wines with some pretty high alcohols that were balanced, but that is extreme.
Reading on, the stat sheet noted that there was still 1% residual sugar in the wine as well. That means there could have been another .5% alcohol on top of the searing amount the was already there had it totally fermented (the yeasts that drive fermentation often die at these advanced levels of alcohol so they don’t finish the job). These grapes must have been closer to raisins.
In cases of over-the-top ripeness there is a natural tendency for the acidity to drop precipitously. A ballpark standard measurement for ph in red wines runs somewhere between 3.4 and 3.7. At this level of ripeness, there could well have been a ‘4’ in that number naturally, presuming the wine didn’t collapse on itself altogether. Odd enough at face value, this wine should have been goo, but curiously was not. As we read further, we noted that the stated ph in this wine was closer to 3.1, more akin to a German Riesling than anything else.
This alcohol/acid balance does not occur naturally in nature, which suggests some mad science. In most cases California winemakers would acidify the wine back to more appropriate levels by adding tartaric acid (yeah, they do that), maybe even add a little water. It would take a pretty big tweak to get this wild thing back to normal levels, but given the finished ph the poor winemaker must have dropped the whole bag of tartaric into the vat.
There was still time to abort. Sometimes the creativity in dealing with uncooperative fermentations can have remarkable consequences. In effect, the whole ‘Prisoner’ saga started with an unfinished fermentation that was blended with other lots to create something unique that became a market sensation. In this case, however, the winery chose instead to bottle this bizarre brew under their own label.
In the sell sheet we got, the claim was made that this wine had never been sold for under $38. That is entirely possible as it isn’t far fetched to presume that this odd duck probably sold very little if at all! There were places along the way where a different decision would have made this wine work in some manner. But that didn’t happen. Now, this scary ‘Frankenwine’ is on the selling block at a hugely reduced price. Brokers will ultimately find a way to move this along. Then it will be out there, somewhere, most likely in some sort of ‘wine club’ scenario where it all gets mailed out at once. Be afraid.