Internet detective work tells me that Korbel moves more than a million cases of their product every year and is the twelfth largest wine producer in the US. I think that's unlikely to change as a result of the story I'll share, and be warned: it's not for the squeamish.
If you haven't guessed, this is not going to be a particularly kind review. Korbel seems to be particularly beloved (almost inexplicably so) in Wisconsin, where it is a key component of a brandy old fashioned—a cocktail substantially different than any other variety of old fashioned. I mention this only to say that apparently there are people in the wild that like this stuff, ask for it by name, and drink it cheerfully.
Good on them. To me, based purely on the sample I had, Korbel smells like vomit. I don't mean that as just some general, pejorative term for "bad," and I don't say it simply as hyperbole. I mean that the major thing I smelled when I took a big whiff of this brandy was human vomit.
Often, aromas can transport us back to a particular time and place, and for me, it transported me to a few hot summer days on a school bus in the early 1990s. As a student who rode the bus home, there would be a few days a year when some kid with a stomach flu—or maybe just some unlucky kid who happened to take a bump the wrong way—would pitch his half-digested lunch onto the floor of the bus. These buses were not air-conditioned. In fact, the floor of the bus was often hot metal or plastic, so they worked almost as a hot skillet in the sense that they amplified the smell of anything that happened to be spilled.
I'll also share this horrific detail: if a kid barfed, we would have to lift our backpacks onto our laps and sit Indian-style as the flow of chunky liquid ran underneath our feet, snaking its way up and down the aisles in response to acceleration and braking. Eventually, the bus driver would catch wise of what had happened—probably sixteen kids saying, "EWWWW!" every four seconds was a decent clue. He'd then pull over to the side of the road to empty us kids out and pour that pink sawdust stuff on top of the goop so that it could be swept up. When we got back on, the barf was gone, but the smell certainly wasn't.
Enough about the smell?
Well, okeydoke, I suppose something approximating a review is in order. If you drink this like you'd eat a really smelly piece of brie cheese, you might appreciate the fig and butterscotch flavors in ample supply. Like most of the US-produced brandies I've had, Korbel is also pretty juicy and fruity, thanks in large part to the use of California grapes. That said, the finish is grape-heavy and artificial in a way that's not particularly pleasant, as I was reminded of grape Robitussun, grape-flavored candies, and "purple drink." Not my favorite things in the world, those.
I've said before, "I don't really mind what a spirit smells like, so long as the taste is good." I suppose it was only a matter of time before something came along that would prove me wrong. But hey, I'm a silver lining kind of guy, so I'll say this: thanks for the memories, Korbel!