Corked Wines: Bad Wine, Good Manners   Leave a comment

It used to be that when I got a corked wine, I simply assumed, as many people do, that well, this is just part of the experience.  I have no doubt that I have happily consumed many a corked bottle.  Then it happened– one day a bottle so corked, that there was no way it was intended to taste like this.  And it seems the more wines I taste, the more my sensitivity to this fault.  Perhaps this simply the fallout from my paying more attention to what I am drinking.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but it seems that as I taste more wines, I am more keenly tuned into this phenomenon than most wine drinkers. 



But what is a corked wine and how can you be sure?  The chief cause of cork taint is the presence of the chemical compounds TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) and/or TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole) in the wine.  Though there could be other causes and if you’re truly interested there are plenty of internet sites that provide information about this.  Frequently, TCA is transferred to the wine from the cork.  Corked wine containing TCA has an odor sometimes described as moldy newspaper, wet dog, damp cloth, or damp basement.  Often, especially in very slightly corked wines, the taint presents itself as a suppression of the expressiveness of the fruit.  For us it has a distinctively rotten apple odor owing to a wine that Ms. R once described as smelling like apples.    She seems to have a more TCA sensitive palate than I do so when I’m not sure, she is my go-to arbiter on this matter.   Once she smells apples, I am out.

Is this a common problem?  Depending on your sources, the incidence of cork taint can be as low as 1% or as the Wine Spectator once published 7%.   My personal experience seems to run a little bit higher than the 1% quoted.  Let’s face it, if you had, say a 1% failure rate with any other agricultural product, like say, milk, it would be scandalous.  So why do we tolerate this?  Is environmentally unfriendly plastic the solution?  What about glass enclosures?  I have only seen this once in a Gruner Veltliner I had.  But it seemed to work well enough.   And there are those who would argue that cork imparts other favorable qualities (a certain liveliness for lack of a better term) to wine that plastics cannot. 

There also seems to be a difference in quality amongst cork available on the market with lower failure rates associated with– wait for it–  more expensive cork.  Of course, this increases costs of production and wine producers may not want to do that.

So you and your favorite super-model pop open a bottle and there you are with corked wine in hand.  First things first, what else do we have to open?  Hopefully you have anticipated this and have a back-up bottle of the same stuff.  This serves two purposes– first and foremost, the party must go on.   Second, the back up serves as a benchmark against which to measure the corked bottle– unless it, too, is corked.  Personally, this has not happened to me, but now that I have said it…

Returning the bottle. 

For reasons that are about to become obvious, do not, as many people do, simply dump it in the sink. 

Now, if you acquired this bottle via mail order, physically returning it may be an issue and usually the selling party will simply send out a new one if that is available or grant a credit.  Winery based clubs are especially good at taking care of their customers in this regard.

What about retail purchases?  

Return Policies Vary.  But one thing that I always do is maintain a copy of my receipts.  Not all shops ask for this.  However, especially if you are not a regular customer, it is helpful to have a record of the transaction. 

One thing pretty much all wine shops ask for is that you return any of the unconsumed wine.  Note, it’s always a good idea to return at least 1/2 of the bottle since it’s difficult to say that you didn’t enjoy the wine if you’ve drained the bottle.  Also, some retailers will take the bottle and return it to the distributor for credit. 

Although some retailers forget this, remember, unless you live in a one-horse town, they need you more than you need them.   There’s a lot of competition out there for your business.

As for the return policies themselves, the best from a consumer’s standpoint, is the “No Questions Asked” policy.  The presumption here is that you are not a happy consumer that just shelled out $10 or $100 for a bottle that can’t be drunk.  Two retailers I deal with follow this approach since they understand that no good can come of questioning their repeat customers on matters of taste.  There are limits, of course, and you don’t want to be making weekly visits to  return wines unless the wines are truly and clearly defective.  But that does not apply to anyone reading this blog.

Next best is the “Verification” policy which is distasteful (sorry about that) because it pits your palate for cork sensitivity against that of a staff member in the retail establishment.  The implicit message: “I don’t trust you.  I think you are not as sophisticated a wine taster as I am.”  The retailer’s tacit strategy: If I make it uncomfortable for you to return wine, then you won’t even try.  Another sizeable wine retailer, in Portchester, NY. (you can look them up if you care to), that I have purchased from uses this approach.    At one point, I returned a clearly corked bottle which the then floor manager took from me and went off by himself to taste while I stood by the checkout counter holding my you-know-what while waiting for him to render judgment on my corked claim.  He returned and announced that he was in agreement.  Huzzah!  And just a few days ago, I had a similar experience with another member of the floor staff there.  The $10 bottle that I returned was not overtly corked judging by the nose.  But is had a discernible mustiness that caught in the back of my throat.  This time, I asked to sit with the taster while he assessed my claim.  With one sniff, he immediately pronounced it as NOT being corked in an almost “Ahah!” moment.  (“Dude!  There are degrees of corking!”)  I tasted along with him and explained my objection to the wine.  Then, he wasn’t so sure.  So he took a glass of the stuff to another member of the staff for his assessment while I waited at the tasting counter this time.  (A small upgrade to waiting by the registers.)  Surprise!  Full refund.  But it’s all about how you make the customer feel, folks!   Had he come back and said, “No, this wine is fine.”  What would he have gained from that?  A loss of a customer to be sure.  As it was, I boycotted this store for a long while after the first episode.  And while I may purchase from them on occasion in the future, they are not my regular “go-to” wine merchant and have no hopes of being that if they don’t relax their return policy.

Worst is the “No Return” policy which transfers risk of loss to the consumer.  We do not buy from these stores.   You should not either. 

Corked wines in tastings. 

I was recently in one of my favorite stores for a tasting of Rhone wines.  When we got to a wine that I had actually tasted in the past, I immediately pegged it as corked.  There was a gentleman standing next to me at the tasting table and he said he wasn’t so sure whether it was corked– though he admitted that he wasn’t so sure what to look for, either.  The person pouring told me that the staff, a group of experienced tasters, had a disagreement (2-1 in favor of it being corked) over whether this particular wine was corked.  In the end, for whatever reason, democracy lost out to commerce, and they decided to pour it at the tasting.  But he did the right thing and immediately opened another bottle.  Unsurprisingly, the new bottle tasted much better.  And I received the concurring judgment of my now better-educated fellow taster.

Corked wines in restaurant settings. 

The approach to take may vary depending on who is paying for the wine and who seems to be enjoying it.  Before I go on, a little advice to restauranteurs and retailers alike:  The paying customer is always right.

Recently, at dinner in a restaurant with another couple we know, we each brought along some wines.  The wine they brought was clearly rotten apple corked as evidenced by the immediate and furious under-the-table-knee-knocking-between Ms. R and me.   Yet, our friends seemed happy with it.  What did we do?  Nothing– remember, different palates have varying levels of sensitivity to TCA.  They happily  quaffed gulps of the stuff and quickly polished off the bottle while we drank our red.  Had one of them said, “This tastes funny”, I might have ventured that it was corked.  But they thought it was delicious.  Who am I to question that?  (I hope she does not read this post!)  Moral of the Story: They pay and they like it– I keep my mouth shut. 

At a business dinner in Las Vegas a few years ago, our table ordered a bottle of wine.  While opening it, the cork broke while the waiter was opening the bottle.  (Note to self– if the cork breaks while opening, reject the bottle!)  Initial tasting of that wine revealed a slight mustiness which I thought might “blow off”.  I told the waiter I was not sure that the bottle was untainted, but we would give it a go.  It did not blow off– and more than half way through the bottle I decided to reject it as undrinkable as it was sitting in my glass and most everyone else’s for that matter.  The restaurant manager actually came over to argue that the wine was fine.  With 5 expensive servings of filet mignon sitting on our plates, I’m not sure that was the best tactic he could have employed.  I stood my ground since, after all, I had mentioned warned the waiter that the wine migt be tainted.  In the end, the wine came off the tab and we ordered a different bottle which was quite delicious.  Also, our waiter came by afterward and told us that in an  assessment in the kitchen, there was agreement that the bottle was tainted.  Not that I blamed him for his manager’s bad manners, but yes, he was tipped well.  Moral of the Story: My company pays and I don’t like it, I send it back.  But first, check with the others at the table especially if you allow the wine to be poured out in everyone’s glasses.  Moral No. 2: if you’re not sure, either reject it outright, or let your server know that you may have a problem with the wine that may or may not disappear.  Had I not fired that warning shot, I don’t think that I could have returned the bottle. 

A few weeks later while having dinner with my parents, you guessed it, the waitress opening the bottle broke the cork.  I immediately rejected the bottle.  The waitress was incredulous that I would not even taste it.  This is a restaurant that we went to regularly and the manager called her off.  While I do not for a fact know whether the wine was tainted or whether the waitress simply screwed up the opening of the wine and carelessly destroyed the cork, I will never know.  The bottle was replaced with a fresh one that was uncorked without incident and delivered a nice experience.  Moral of the Story: I’m paying and don’t like it, for whatever reason, I send it back.  And her attitude did impact her tip. 

What do you do if you are a guest and your host tastes and accepts wine that you know is clearly corked?  Smile a knowing smile.  Complement your host on a good choice.  Drink it.  And pray that the next bottle is better.

Have a funny story to tell about a corked wine you had?  Leave a Comment.

Posted November 17, 2011 by Sybarite Sauvage in Wine Etiquette

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: