Lesser-Known Influences on Our Appreciation of Wine

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Grapevine“Oh my! This glass of 2016 southern Rhone Valley wine smells like I’m walking in a forest in the fall, the pungent essence of decomposing leaves, the ethereal fragrance of a carpet of earthy mushrooms.”

“Oh my! This glass of 2016 southern Rhone Valley wine smells like I’m walking through a barnyard of maturing hogs, horses and goats, the heat of the beating midday sun creating pungent aromas everywhere.”

I’ve participated in and conducted numerous wine tastings during my wine career. At each of them I invariably hear the polarized comments on wines such as those above. Perhaps not the same descriptive terms, but polarized nonetheless.

In past columns I’ve discussed the uniqueness of our individual palates. Our olfactory and taste receptors are a function of our personal physiology and the embedded opinions built up via numerous wine-drinking experiences. Beyond these cerebral messages transmitted to our physical senses, there are certain traits that exist in the glass before they ever exist in/on your palate.

What may be more difficult than discerning whether a wine is flawed or is merely appealing to divergent human senses is assigning the cause of a particular defect to a discernable factor.

How so?

There are conditions created in the process of growing grapes and producing wine that are directly influenced by the techniques and practices employed during the life cycle of wine, for better or worse, before it reaches your table. Under the supervision of a fine winemaker, negative conditions are avoided and never exist in the ultimate bottle of wine shipped from a winery. Under the auspices of diligent and conscientious shipping companies, distributors and retail shop owners, a bottle’s journey from the winery to your table is uneventful and it retains the characteristics and structure created in the winery.

However, there are numerous steps in the creation and distribution of wine that can go awry. Flaws in wine may be created during this process that are avoidable in many, if not all, instances.

The most common flaws relate to oxidation, reduction, microbes/bacteria and transportation.

A fault in a wine may be introduced at several stages in the life cycle of wine. Herewith, a very perfunctory analysis of several major flaws:

  1. In the vineyard. Poor choices of the rootstock of vines that are planted and how they are trellised can result in an environment that is conducive to disease through insect infestation and/or fungal growth. Both will affect the health of the vines, and therefore, the vigor of the grapes as they develop and mature. Grapes with undesirable molecule formation entering the crushers at harvest and fermenting in vats provide a breeding ground for disease. The resulting wines may emit aromas similar to a barnyard.
    Yeast and bacteria naturally live in symbiosis with vines and grapes. Watering, tilling and pest control practices may alter the characteristics of otherwise inoffensive aromas and tastes naturally transmitted by certain yeasts and bacteria. The result? Aromas of freshly tilled earth – or, at its worst, wallowing barnyard animals.
  1. In the winery. One of the greatest threats to wine is the presence of oxygen during the winemaking process. Overexposure to oxygen causes fruit to turn brown and metal to rust. Once the skin of a grape is crushed, fermented and aged, oxidation is a continuing threat. Overexposure to oxygen during any of these stages produces acetic and acetaldehyde acids, tainting a wine with off-putting aromas such as nail polish remover.
  2. From the winery to your table. Transporting wine in less-than-ideal conditions can be just as devastating to a wine as any issues in a vineyard or winery. Lack of proper refrigeration in an oceanic shipping container, an over-the-road trailer or a local delivery truck can “cook” a wine exposed to the heat of the sun, raising its temperature to a point where it may have stewed fruit or intensely caramelized flavors.

Wine is an evolving product of nature. As such, it is imperfect and highly variable. Winemakers may attempt to control its evolution and influence the outcome, but they don’t always succeed.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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