Nightmares of a Wine Enthusiast

     You know, no matter how aggressively you go about it, there are a lot of wines out there you’ll never taste. And that is probably for the best. Because in keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of them are crud.

     As an avid sampler of wineries and their wares, I’ve had some crud in my years. I’m not proud of it, though I sometimes wonder if having survived it entitles me to a decoration of some sort. But of course, one does not deliberately return to the crud. One notes its awfulness in the Avoidance Logs and moves on, hopefully to something better.

     Having said that, allow me to present you with what might be the funniest thing ever written on the subject of bad wine. I stumbled across it some time ago – I forget where – and inasmuch as I’m about to spend the afternoon unpacking and racking up six cases of newly delivered wines, I thought my Gentle Readers might find it a delightful (??) diversion from the excessively heavy fare I usually load this dump with.

     What follows is the entire original text of Dan Atkinson’s “Contains Sulfites.” Enjoy.

Contains Sulfites

     “I’m on the Night Train, and I’m ready to crash and burn. I never learn.” -A. Rose


     (Following the purchase of the name “Oregon Voice” from the State of Oregon, the Oregon Commentator Presents: Oregon Voice ran this parody of the real OV Wine Review, from their previous issue. This article was first published January 18, 1999.)

     The bottom shelf of the wine section is uncharted territory to the average student. Many regular and heavy drinkers of Beast Ice and Busch Lite turn up their noses at cheap wine. Why? Is there really a difference in quality between these fortified and sulfite-laden potions and the industrial suds so many of us drink?

     The difference is psychological. The implication is that to kick back with a liter of Night Train is to be a wino. No one wants to be a wino. Winos are dirty and vulgar and lacking in teeth. There’s death on their breath and evil in their eyes. Right? Maybe. Bur most of the winos I’ve met were decent people. One escorted me to an ATM at 3am, didn’t mug me, and sold me a suede jacket. A couple others down by the river one night offered my friends and me a couple hours of life-affirming insights and dirty, dirty jokes. It was the least they could do after grabbing our whiskey bottle and slobbering all over it. If winos can be decent people, then their wines could be decent, too. With that in mind, I spent a little money, drank a lot of wine, and hammered out this wine review. All of the wines are from Albertson’s; in parentheses are the quantity, price, and alcohol percentage.

     I drank the following three bottles of wine in and around Corvallis during Civil War weekend-a smelly, dirty, brutal couple of days. By the end, the back of our U-Haul was plastered with mud, I had been arrested, and the Ducks had lost twice in one game.

     My empty jug of Fairbanks “Port” (1.5 liters, $5.99, 18%) went through it with me, and it shows. The label’s shredded; the once-clear glass is spattered with mud and blood (from our proud Publisher’s shredded eyelid). This port is a study in contrasts. It opens fast, round and sweet-pixie stick, buttercup, whispers of Diet Rite. The finish, though, is a battle of green pennies and bug repellent, with lead paint darting around the edges. Fairly sulfury throughout.

     Manischewitz’s “Loganberry” (750 ml, $3.59, 10%) was a spendy concession to our Kosher readership. As the sun went down on the Friday before the game, I twisted off the top and started guzzling-I’m told I was celebrating Shabbat. Assertive and sweet-Sugar cane, overripe plums, a rumor of clover and a puppy’s warm lick. Despite a touch of cedarwood, it is one dimensional and insulting. Even so, this sugar-water proved bearable during the dirtbag small-town high school playoff game we crashed. In full monsoon conditions, the Regis Rams stomped the Monroe Dragons into the midfield bog, 38-0. I was impressed, and I hope they went all the way this year.

     Carlo Rossi’s “Vin Rosi” (1.5 l, $3.99, 9.5%) I drank on an empty gut, just like a wino. Sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to counteract the offensive lack of flavor. It had all the zest of a rhubarb pie sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool, with a mulchy aftertaste that faded fast.

     I concluded my research at home. Rounding up five bottom shelf picks, I had a formal wine tasting with fellow OC hacks Mike Atkinson and Brandon Hartley. We smelled and sipped each wine, taking notes on nose (smell), palette (taste) and finish (aftertaste). The following reviews summarize our notes and discussions.

     Boone’s Farm’s “Sun Peak Peach” (750 ml, $2.99, 5%) billed itself as an “Apple Wine Product;” thus it is to wine what Easy Cheese is to cheddar. Damn near fell off the chair when I read the alcohol percentage. Nonetheless, since so many insist on calling it “wine,” we had to sample it. It had a humid, moldy nose with notes of Yoplait, Daisy Dukes, Jojoba shampoo, and intimations of a northern Washington savannah. The palette opened yellow and sharp like a lady’s slap, but soon sank into lulling Massengill freshness. There was no discernible peach flavor. It could go well with scrambled eggs. Notable for being the only “wine” to feature nutrition facts on the label, it packed about the same buzz as a fruit salad.

     Thunderbird’s “Serve Cold” (750 ml, $2.79, 17.5%), “The American Classic,” was a complex and aggressive wine from the first sniff. “The stale farts of an aging Times Square hooker,” noted Brandon, seeking vivid metaphors for the barbaric attack, “or the odor of vomit-soaked sewer grates.” Mike found the nose urinary with a hint of Windex. To me, it was a quivering bouquet of Nyquil, rotten grapefruit, and horseradish. The odors were heavy like sun on a headache, like varnish on an open sore.

     The flavor was hauntingly scolding, like Mom’s cooking sherry. Quick and staccato, without subtlety, the flavors attacked: Vaseline, allegations of lime, Triaminic and bacon grease, a pile of bum yak on Burnside, a diesel train crashing into a baby duck, rancid Mountain Dew, a backalley dumpster’s burnt caramel apple. My God, the horror! It was like waking up in a tire fire.

     Each sip ended with a hydrogen peroxide sting that made you cringe and wonder if the next sip was worth it. When the glass was drained, the flavors cooled to a slow evil burn, like the lingering itch of jalapeno diarrhea. But at last we had a buzz.

     Richards “Triple Peach” (750ml, $2.69, 18%) was no picnic either-or was it? In my notes I have scrawled “Little Johnny at the church picnic puking Kool-Aid on your shoes.” This was the last wine we tasted with our senses fully intact. Its fat, spiny nose rose boldly into our sinuses, burgeoning into a sweet yet horrible symphony. Peaches in formaldehyde. Napalm-charred ginger in the hills around Khe Sanh. Festering fruit salad. Methane. Urine from a rat with a thing for pear juice.

     We had to quit sniffing and drink. All the sweetness of the nose vanished with a taste. Brief, delicate hints of sandlewood in the front soon too had gone, as the palette unrolled like the greasy bedroll of a backalley burnout. It was a sharp, tart, and cumbersome parade of demonic flavors and textures. Vinegar on Fruit Loops. Sweat licked from a southern belle’s humid butt-crack. Sun-baked alkali. Hail falling through smog. The crotch of a CBA player’s postgame drawers.

     The worst thing about it, it wouldn’t let go. It was a goblin, lodged in the throat, clinging to your tongue with barbed pinchers. In Mike’s notes, written large, is a single word: “BILE.”

     MD (Mad Dog) 20/20 “Banana Red” (750 ml, $2.69, 13.5%) was just what we needed. The color of grapefruit juice, it is just barely more of a wine than Boone’s, but it didn’t matter. What a relief, what a candy-ass carnival ride it was after Thunderbird and Triple Peach.

     This must be what the winos drink to relive the high points of their childhood. The nose comes on rich and festive-bubble gum, boardwalks, Banana runts. Gusts of cotton candy. But when one searches for subtlety-perhaps a rumor of Disney cartoons, maybe a funhouse undertone-it is absent. Brandon detected something sinister beneath the fun, suggesting the wine smelled “very like the liquid peppermint sedatives a pedophile pediatrician might give a toddler.”

     The apparently innocent fun continues on the palette. Sugar-free lollipops from the dentist, Christmas tree lots, Kool-Aid with a twist of Hubba Bubba. The flavors never really hit the mark, but instead seem false and shallow, like a swim in the 4-foot pool at Motel 6. “Boring,” concluded Brandon. It was the last legible word he managed that night.

     Night Train “Express” (750 ml, $2.79, 17.5) is the king of the bottom shelf, the best of the worst. It has been immortalized in song and literature, most memorably in Guns’n’Roses’ classic “Nightrain:”

     “I’m on the nighttrain Bottoms up I’m on the nighttrain Fill my cup”

     We unanimously agreed it was the best swill of the night, and I think it’s the best of the lot. By the time we got to it, though, we were legally unfit to taste. In my notes under ‘nose,’ I wrote “I can’t smell a thing! Wait-in the distance! Primrose Hill!” I don’t get it either. Brandon had degenerated to drawing cartoons. He left before finishing, and later reported waking in his own vomit. Only Mike was able to rationally pin down the nose, calling it “Essence of Presbyterian communion grape juice.”

     Like cheap brandy in a Taco Bell cup, the attack was tart enough to wring water from a stone. It soon evened out, becoming slow, smooth and long, with hints of mango, touches of sugar cane, and a stray sulfur note. A dry, bitter finish; wormwood softened by guava. Pretty damned good, we concluded as we split Brandon’s share.

     You can have a lot of fun swilling wino juice. But watch it. I was in a drunk tank in Northeast Portland last night, commiserating with some fellow Black Sabbath fans about the horrible twist of fate that had befallen us. Round about midnight, a pair of Sobriety-Impaired Native American Citizens were brought in and promptly fell on the floor. One was by the bathroom, and I damn near stepped on him. He raised his head about an inch to look at my knees.

     “Um guh kill you,” he said. That was the last straw. I was pissed. I started yelling at him about every single thing that had gone wrong with my birthday so far, including him and his putrid, snoring friend. After a couple minutes his closed his eyes and let loose a wave of loud, phlegmy laughter. On his breath, I smelled the unmistakable napalm odor of Richard’s Triple Peach mingled with vomit and death.

     I turned away, disgusted. I had been so wrong. What they say is true. Winos are filthy people. No one wants to be a wino.

     (Dan Atkinson, a junior majoring in Journalism, is Managing Editor of the Oregon Commentator)

     There, now wasn’t that…refreshing?