It was late in the afternoon. Sunlight hung in the air like a thick amber fog. It was so golden and warm, I forgot for a moment the dinner rush soon to be barreling through the doors. I took in another deep breath of what I was sure smelled like dirt.

“Is this supposed to smell like this?” I asked.

Riccardo looked up and smiled. “I know, right?”

“It smells like pure, wet dirt! Does that mean it’s bad?” I asked again, amazed that whatever makes dirt smell like dirt happened to be red and swirling and forming legs in my glass.

“Well,” replied Riccardo, “the wine rep told me the previous cases were good because the juice was from Italy. The vineyard ran out of estate juice and ended up using juice purchased from vineyards they have in a completely different region.”

I sniffed again. “But is it bad?” Riccardo, then my manager, laughed.

None of the wine was served that night, and I’m sure the restaurant was credited. But this experience changed me forever for while this wasn’t the first time I had bad wine, this was the first time I could actually tell. Then again, it was also around the time I first smelled “barnyard” in a wine. In that particular instance and ever since, the barnyard was a good thing, something suggesting what I hadn’t yet understood to be Old World as well as that catchall word, “earthy.”

There are numerous sites as well as books and articles and probably even performance art on the major causes of wine going bad. Wine.com succinctly highlights the culprits: corked, oxidized, cooked, malolactic, and sulfury. These words all have explanations of what happens chemically. From mousy (yes, this is a socially sanctioned term in the wine world.  Horsey is as well) to wet dog to nothing-but-caramel aromas suggest certain problems have happened inside your beautiful bottle. Cloudiness is not a good sign either. Chunks of leaves and seeds and stems – all considered “sediment” – do NOT indicated bad wine, by the way.

These terms and their descriptions will greatly help you to make that painful decision to abort mission or – if at a restaurant – do the unthinkable and send back your bottle. Both scenarios require a certain type of muster for it’s not only your book smarts you’re gathering together from reading absurd articles such as this one as well as taking in some local post-modernism dance conveying the sorrows of unwanted malolactic fermentation.

What’s also needed in this perilous situation is the use of your schnoz and your taster or to use a more appropriate parlance, your taste buds. What’s difficult about this is that for many – including me and at the time, I was around wine tasting opportunities several times a week for years – is that it does take years to tell the difference between not only similar varietals but the difference between good and bad wines because sometimes when a wine is going bad, the indicator is very subtle.

Corked wine can be very hard to detect. Most often, the wine still has “wine” smell but it is very subdued. It’s also so balanced you can’t get any specific fruits or other details that woo you like dry dark chocolate or herbs or violets. And then if you give it time, you should also smell something akin to wet cardboard or some other paper product. The culprit here is the soaked cork and chlorine. SNL covered the perils of cork soakers a few years ago, the creation, no doubt, of one of the writers who knows quite a bit about wine and probably wine that’s had a bad soaked cork.

Old wine is also something that should be on any list of things to look out for. Most restaurants do not have a nitrogen system to keep wine fresh. Therefore, whites will slowly start to sour or fade and reds will inch ever closer to that caramel-port-vinegar oblivion. What’s most tragic about this is that while you are dining and busy talking with your fellow tablemates, you’re not in detective mode; you assume the wine you just ordered will be good.

Tim Alick, a wine specialist working for Okoboji Wines, once shared with me that one of his accounts won’t put a wine on the list if it doesn’t last for five full days without nitrogen or even vacu vins. Most restaurants don’t do this.

As for in-home consumption, try very hard to drink your red wine within the first couple of days and take special note of how it smells and tastes in its first hours to day one and so on (refrigerated white wine will last closer to five to seven days, especially if you vacu vin). Employing such rigor will greatly pay off. Otherwise, you might be training yourself to associate wine-gone-bad with what it means to drink wine.

In the end, what constitutes bad wine is wine that actually tastes bad to you. The point of wine drinking is for enjoyment. There are no other liquids on earth that have such complexity and such life. From the second you pop the cork, the wine begins to die, and in that death, the wine explodes with all sorts of aromas and flavors. It’s in this dark, humble process all contained within our glass that we can easily enjoy the light within the dark, even if it sometimes smells like dirt.

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