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What happens if a winemaker creates a bad wine?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Wine, a handcrafted food product, involves substantial chemistry know-how. Similar to cooking or baking, not every wine will turn out perfectly. But what happens if the winery ends up with a bad wine? Here's what you need to know.

sommelier smelling a cork

What is bad wine?

Before getting into the details of why a wine might be bad, it's helpful to know what would qualify as a ’bad wine’.

Bad wine can be divided into two general categories: out of balance wine, and faulted wine. The first category, out of balance wine, is largely within the winery’s control. Careful monitoring throughout the winemaking process and adjustments to the wine can help make sure that the wine is in balance, maybe not stellar, but at least of adequate quality.

Faulted wine, on the other hand, can be caused by any number of problems that might happen through the winemaking and bottling process. You can tell that a wine is faulted when something seems off about the aroma or flavor of the wine.

Why would wine end up bad?

Here are some of the more common problems with wine that fall under the umbrella term of bad wine.

Out of Balance

Wines go through fermentation and then a period of maturation for a few months. At that time, the winemaker will go through and taste the wines doing a sensory analysis to determine if the wine is balanced. They're checking for alcohol, acid, tannin, flavor, and aroma intensity, trying to determine: Does the wine have a harmonious composition? Most wines need some level of adjustment. How can you make bad wine taste better? Blending! At this point, the winery will go through blending trials with their wines to create that perfect bottle.

a wildfire near a vineyard

Smoke Taint

Unfortunately, smoke taint is a more common flaw of recent in wines from California. Smoke taint can be a risk factor towards the end of the growing season right before harvest. Wildfire smoke gets into the grape skins, and through the process of fermentation, the smoke molecules create ashy notes in the wine. The winery has two options. They can try to blend away the ashy flavors in the bad batch of wine with larger batches of unaffected wine, or they can try to treat the wine using specialized equipment that can separate the smoke molecules away from the base wine. This process is expensive and is really only an option for larger producers.


Oxidized white wines will have a deep yellow tinge, and maybe even a little browning to them; oxidized red wines will come off as a muddy brown. You may find these hues in older wines naturally, but young wines should not look this way. Oxidized wines have muted fruity aromas. Wines become oxidized through exposure to oxygen in the winery. Maybe a tank was accidentally left open, or there were holes in transfer hoses, or something happened on the bottling line and oxygen got into the bottles. Once a wine is oxidized, there's nothing you can do … except go and find a different bottle!

wine fermentation process

Incomplete Fermentation

Wine yeast convert the sugar in grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide through the process of fermentation. The process leaves the base wine dry. However, there are certain occasions when a wine doesn't complete the entire fermentation process. There may still be a very small amount of what's called residual sugar (leftover grape juice) in the wine. Sometimes the amount is so small that it's undetectable. If the winery doesn't know that there's residual sugar left over in the wine and they don't stabilize the wine properly, it's possible for fermentation to restart in the bottle. This can lead to problems. Every so often, you will read about wines being recalled after incidences of exploding bottles on store shelves or in consumers’ homes. This is incomplete fermentation. The CO2 creates so much pressure in the bottle that it explodes. Whoops!

Notes of Matchstick

Wines rely on sulfites as a preservative. Occasionally, your wine may be over-treated with sulfite. Maybe the winery employee miscalculated the total sulfite additions. It happens. This comes off as a matchstick type of aroma in the glass. It won't hurt you, but may be off-putting. Of all the faults and flaws, this one is manageable. Take your glass and swirl it vigorously. The sulfite compounds will blow off and you can enjoy your wine.

Cooking mussels with white wine

What to Do with Bad Wine?

If you happen to have a bad wine, all is not lost. Just like the winery, you can blend the wine to help improve it. Sangria and spritzers are always popular options.

Can you use bad wine for cooking?

There’s a reason we call it ‘cooking sherry’. The sherry’s quality isn’t quite there for drinking, but just what you need to add a little kick to your dish. If you’re not up for drinking your wine, divvy the bottle up in your ice cube tray and freeze the wine for broths, sauces, and gravies.

Thankfully, if you're a Gold Medal Wine Club member, you won't have to worry about receiving bad wine. All of our featured wines were carefully selected from reputable winemakers and tasted to ensure that they embody the standards that we aim to maintain. That means you'll have to look for your cooking wine elsewhere! Cheers!

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.