Wine Articles

Wine Articles --> The Wine Industry's Dirty Little Secret

The Wine Industry's Dirty Little Secret
The Wine Guy's Fourth Annual Corked Wine Tirade!

Where are the Screw Caps?

I had just come home from taking inventory, never my favorite day of the year… after six of us spent eight hours counting all this stuff, I had once again realized that I have way too much inventory. Luckily this is the wine business. It doesn't go out of fashion and if it doesn't sell, we can always drink it. If I were still in the apparel business and my stock turns looked like this, I would be forced to fire myself.

In any case, when I got home I was certainly ready for a glass of wine. I went to the cooler and pulled a bottle of Villa Mt. Eden Chardonnay. I gently swirled the Riedel glass and sniffed the rim, and it was eau du dirty sweat socks or maybe damp, moldy newspaper found in a forgotten corner of the garage. Back to the cooler for a bottle of Frei Brothers Reserve. Out comes the cork, into the glasses, and it smells okay... but after a few sips Linda wrinkles her nose. If we had not just had a really bad bottle, we might not have noticed the very subtle musty aroma and flavor of TCA. Down the drain it went. The third time was the charm, the Casa Lapstolle was just fine. However, the following evening lightning struck a third time. I opened a bottle of Peter Lehmann's Clancy's Barossa and was again greeted with wine that smelled like my son's gym bag!

Enough! I know that "bad bottles" are a big problem that has been around as long as winemakers have been making wine. But, this is the 21st century and they are still using a 16th century closure... Virtually all of the problem could be eliminated by the use of screw closures, yet no one except a few of the Aussies and Kiwis are doing anything about it. Every time I get a bad bottle, I always wonder how many of my customers catch a tainted bottle and think the Wine Guy must have lousy taste. How many of my customers who are not familiar with "cork taint" will not buy another bottle of a wine after they get a corked bottle because they think that's the way it was suppose to taste? Is there really any excuse for any bottle of wine under $20 being sealed with natural cork?

Note to the Beringer's, Columbia Crest's and Kendall Jackson's of the world.. two to five percent of your products are being ruined by the closure. Why do you, and we, tolerate that ? All it will take is one of you big guys to take the plunge and everyone else will follow. Come on guys... stop shipping us bad wine!

A Brief Explanation of Cork Taint

Ever wonder where all that restaurant wine presentation tradition came from? All that cork sniffing and tasting is designed to identify tainted bottles. Wines that have been damaged by cork taint can leave a wine smelling and tasting like moldy cardboard. Corked wine is a BIG problem. Cork taint is caused by a chemical called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, "TCA" for short. TCA arises from the molds on natural cork when chlorine is used to bleach and sanitize them. TCA is harmless but has a potent, musty, moldy smell and can give wine a bitter taste. Concentrations of TCA as low as 3 parts per trillion can taint a wine! I have read estimates that say 2% to 5% of all wine is tainted in some way.

Based upon the number of undrinkable bad bottles we experience, I put the number at about 2% here in the United States, and it used to be much higher. Proponents of screw caps, or Selvin closures, like Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon Winery, feel that screw caps can eliminate the problem. Many others worry that without the slow transfer of oxygen that occurs with cork, cellared wine will not mature properly, a concept debunked by the retired chairman of Folie a Deux winery, and former Technical Director at Gallo, Dick Petertson. And I quote, "Good corks DO NOT breathe, regardless of that old wives' tale about aging the wine. Show me a cork that breathes and I'll show you a bottle of vinegar."

Since most everyone has been using cork to seal wine bottles for well over 400 years, I would not expect this debate to end any time soon. However, the next time you open a wine bottle and find a screw cap, remember the winemaker isn't being cheap - he us trying to protect your wine experience. So, what to do when you get a bad bottle? First make sure it is really corked. Many French and Italian wines have a pronounced earthiness, often with barn-yardy aromas. Tainted wine can range from an absence of fruit that leaves the wine muted, to undrinkable corked wine that reeks of moldy cardboard. The moldy cardboard is easy. In a restaurant, simply tell the server that the wine is corked and send it back. At home, pour it back in the bottle and return it to your wine merchant. Unfortunately the subtler problems of bottle variation are more difficult. You really can't send back a wine that just tastes a little flat or doesn't live up to it's review. We once opened a bottle of Bonny Doon Barbera (pre screw cap) that Wine Spectator had rated an 88 and wow - was it ever mediocre. No mold - just mediocre! A few weeks later we tried another bottle from the same case and it was beautiful! It was just bottle variation, probably a slight cork taint. There is not much you can do about a subtly tainted wine other than give it another chance.

Cork taint aside, remember the variability of wine is the very characteristic that gives it its charm. If every bottle of Cabernet tasted the same it would be like drinking Diet Coke. Wine may be one of the few products left in our lives that can keep surprising us with its infinite variability and complexity. We just need to eliminate cork taint as a variable...