Poor wine. Every day, it wakes up and checks itself out in the mirror, then presents itself to us drinkers with no ambition other than to bring pleasure and relaxation, perhaps a little bit of intellectual intrigue, into our lives.
And in return, what do we say to our wine?
You’d be so much nicer, if you didn’t have any flaws.
Perfection is unreal
A wine flaw is a deviation from the expected, which comes from the winemaking process. Brettanomyces, for example, is an ambient yeast that produces aromas that brewers love in beer, but conventional winemakers hate when it appears in wine. Volatile acidity is caused by bacteria that produce acetic acid, which gives vinegar its characteristic smell. It’s also found in top Italian wine. Mousiness is a microbiological spoilage coming from a whole bunch of compounds that can make the final wine smell like caged mice.
Why is it that we demand our wine be totally free of flaws, when nothing in nature is without imperfections? Lately, when I hear people obsess over flaws like Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, ethyl acetate, or mouse taint, I picture myself as a 14-year-old, alone in my bedroom, paging through a glossy magazine and wondering why I couldn’t look more like the actresses whose dieting regimes were published alongside photos of their bony thighs.
As a natural wine drinker and maker, I am calling for a new way of thinking about flaws. Any winemaker at the start of their career is terrified of putting out a bottling that might have flaws. From the moment grapes are harvested, every possible thing is done to avoid the appearance of flaws: constantly sniffing the fermenting grapes to detect any trace of volatile acidity or ethyl acetate and its scent of rotten apples; punch downs are performed daily on the cap that forms atop fermenting grapes to ensure that neither of these two nasty compounds appear. The pressed juice is generally protected from oxygen to prevent oxidized flavors. But sometimes, these measures are not enough. And other times, the winemaker does everything right, and the wine gets mouse taint anyway.
Maybe you’re thinking, why should I spend my hard-earned money on a flawed wine? But imagine a young winemaker on her first vintage. She’s borrowing equipment, harvesting grapes for her wine at the break of dawn, before going to her part-time job managing a restaurant. One of her ferments goes slightly awry during vintage, and suddenly begins smelling of nail polish remover — ethyl acetate has crept in.
Petrified of releasing a flawed wine on the market, this novice winemaker adds sulfites in desperation, hoping that it might correct the situation. It won’t, but she’s trying anything she can. Maybe she adds other things: some citric acid to give the impression of brightness, or perhaps some tannin product to balance out fruitiness or hide unwelcome flavors. A bit of Botox, to fix things up. Maybe there were no flaws at all, but the winemaker has heard that it’s safer to add sulfites and a bit of this-and-that just to be sure the wine will turn out OK. The end result is a doctored beverage that might taste relatively all right — and looks perfect in that airbrushed way models often do — but which is lacking in originality and singularity. As well, the result is a winemaker who lacks the confidence to experiment or to let a wine run its course without interfering.
For young, emerging winemakers, the reality is living in fear. Many winemakers starting out would be interested in pursuing a hands-off, natural approach, but if they mess up and release a so-called flawed wine, it could damage their reputation for years to come. The stakes are high, too, given the cost of grapes, bottles, and shipping. I’ve heard of winemakers chucking barrels down the hillside when a ferment didn’t turn out well. That’s a huge financial loss, especially for someone just starting out.
Could we be more forgiving, so as to encourage young and emerging winemakers to put their heart and soul into their first few vintages, without trying to make perfect wine?
For all the demands for perfection, some flaws are accepted or even celebrated in certain cases — notably, when Brett appears in top Rhône wine. Same thing with oxidation — a flaw in regular wine, but the main attraction in Sherry, where it is intentional and controlled. Other so-called flaws, such as volatile acidity, are beloved in other products — would any kitchen be complete without vinegar? It’s not that our palates resoundingly reject these flavors. It’s that we are taught, through books or mentors or sommeliers wearing their Court pins, that wine should be perfect, not unlike the way that young women learn from magazines that their thighs should have gaps.
To make things personal: Just as I began writing this essay, I opened a bottle of my 2020 Cabernet Franc, a wine I made with my own hands. It was ever so slightly mousy — likely due to having gone through a lactic refermentation a year after bottling. Mouse is a flavor I truly do not like. Whenever I discover that a wine is mousy, I make sure to let the server or retailer know so that, ideally, they can set the wine aside for a few months to see if it sorts itself out, which can happen with mouse — it just disappears with time. That’s not an easy thing for a retailer to do financially, but if you’re going to support a producer, isn’t it the right thing to do to embrace their struggles and mistakes along with their crowd-pleasers?
Flaws can make a wine less enjoyable, I admit. But it’s also unrealistic to expect winemakers to turn out perfect bottlings, all the time, every year, unless we accept that they might very well manipulate the wine to make it look perfect. I was disappointed that my wine is mousy, but I cannot ask my wine to be perfect, any more than I can expect myself to be.
When you sip a wine and say, “It’s Bretty,” is that so different from observing a person and immediately commenting that their abs are flabby or their hair isn’t as straight as you’d prefer? Instead of remarking that a wine has some volatile acidity, maybe we could emphasize that the wine is unique, vibrant. We could share that it was the maker’s first vintage or marvel that it was made in a difficult year marked by forest fires.
Instead of focusing on flaws, let’s see wine as something as real as we ourselves are, a product of time and place, a mixture of nature and nurture, a drink that when allowed to show its true colors, is absolutely spectacular. I’ll have my wine flawed and imperfect, rather than altered to meet consumer expectations, any day of the week.