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A third annual Wine Guy TCA rant


So here we were in Bar Harbor, Maine last month in a wonderful little wine bar and bistro called Thrumcap... we had dinner reservations for 7 pm, but so did everyone else. Ever notice that in a tourist town, no one ever turns down a reservation for 6:30 or 7:00 because they know they will be empty by 8:00 otherwise. Luckily we took the only two seats at the tiny wine bar and immediately struck up a conversation with Tom Marinke, the owner. While we waited, we ordered a flight of Rhone whites and selected a 1994 Arrowood Cabernet in Tom's special cellar for dinner.

By the time we were seated around eight, we had bonded with Tom, who was opening bottles of Vouray for us to try while we compared notes on Italian reds. Then, while Tom opened the Cabernet came the topic of screw caps and corked wine... "how could I possibly be in favor of using screw caps!" Tom exclaimed. He thought that screw caps and synthetic corks ruin the romance of wine service in a restaurant. Besides, he has so few bottles sent back that he can't believe that it's a problem. Luckily the Arrowood intervened. Tom accepted a sample, and the conversation turned to Sonoma Cabs. I left wondering just how many people wind up drinking bad bottles because they are not aware of what's really wrong with it.

The next evening found us is in The Rose Garden, another really excellent, if a little over-decorated, restaurant at the Blue Nose Inn. We selected an old favorite the 2000 Penfolds Bin 389 (now sold out in Indianapolis). The glasses were poured. I tasted, hesitated and passed the glass to Linda, who took one whiff and pronounced it corked. Eau du Moldy newspaper with overtones of aged broccoli. "Sorry but the bottle is bad, TCA contamination" I explain to the waiter. He whisked it away and returned with a fresh one accompanied by the manager.

The manager apologized for the interruption and asked if I could explain to him what was wrong with the bottle. "No one ever tells us why when they reject a bottle, and it happens so seldom that I assume that they didn't like it and let the staff have it." So I set about explaining what TCA is and what it does to the aromas and flavors of wine. It seems he is not much of a wine drinker, so I asked him to pour a taste of the new bottle and take it back to the kitchen to do a side by side comparison with the corked one. Halfway through the appetizer he arrived back at the table, now a believer, and talked wine with us until our entrees came.

The next night, staying in Camden, we dined at Atlantica. The server opened two singles of a Kenwood Sparkler before dinner and lightning struck a second time. Mine was corked, and Linda's was fine! Our twenty-something server didn't get it either, sending back a single serving bottle of sparkling wine seemed a little strange until I asked her to smell the two glasses side by side.

Does anyone else remember the movie "Network"? You know, where the news anchor asks all his listeners to go to their window and shout

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!!!" That's kind of how I feel right now!

Winemakers! Don't you realize that 2% to 5% of your products are being ruined by the closures... You can do something about it!

You can help. Don't let bad bottles go! Send them back in restaurants! Return them to your retailer! Life is too short to drink bad wine. And, if you have never experienced TCA contamination, here is how you tell...

The Nuts and Bolts of TCA Contamination

Wouldn't you think that an industry that knows 2% to 3% of its products are being ruined by the packaging would take the problem a little more seriously? "Bad Bottles" are a problem that has been around as long as wine has been made. Virtually all of the problem could be eliminated by the use of synthetic corks or screw closures, yet with the exception of Randall Graham at Boony Doon and the folks in New Zealand and Australia, no one does anything.

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 molds, yeasts and bacteria 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! Based upon the number of 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 synthetic corks and screw caps feel that synthetics can eliminate the problem. Since most everyone has been using cork to seal wine bottles for well over 2,000 years, I would not expect this debate to end any time soon. However, the next time you open a wine bottle and find a synthetic cork or a screw cap remember the winemaker isn't being cheap - he us trying to protect your wine experience. S

o, 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 on the nose but taste just fine. 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. Linda observes that Brad's gym clothes, brought home on the last day of school, have a distinctly fresher aroma! 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. This can also be cork taint and there is not much you can do about a subtly tainted wine other than give an another bottle a chance.