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Speed It Up!
The Wine Guy's Fifth Annual Corked Wine Tirade

Nothing like inventory time to set me off on a corked wine rant – $874 worth of bad bottles that we had accumulated since I cleaned them out the last time a few months ago. And they were all customer or staff returns ... almost four cases worth. And I’m sure it’s still only a small percentage of the tainted bottles that passed through the store.

Wines from, France, Spain, California, Oregon, Australia, South America ... everywhere but New Zealand. And why, you ask? Perhaps because they are the region with the least history and tradition and the most common sense! They almost universally use screw caps!

It’s getting better. I’m guessing that 10 percent of fine wine is now under screw cap. And Alcoa’s new glass stopper, the Vino-Seal, is beginning to make inroads with higher end wines like Whitehall Lane Cabernets and Sineann Pinot Noirs. But it’s still not quick enough ... literally, as I wrote this piece, Tom brought me a sample bottle of the new Alexander Valley Cabernet that the Sebastiani Winery sent us, and it was all wet newspaper and sweat socks.

I keep using this analogy to wine makers “What if you were a dairy and five percent of the milk you produced tasted and smelled like moldy newspaper. How long would you stay in business?”

Unfortunately, wine lovers seem immune to the problem. They just shrug and dump bad bottles down the sink or just fail to recognize the problem and never buy the offending wine again because they think they didn’t like it. To make matters worse, the three-tier system of distribution almost insures that winemakers never hear about the bad bottles that do come back. It’s just too much trouble for most retailers to return them, and I know that the distributors don’t bother much after that. They just take my list, issue a credit and tell me to dump them.

Speed it up! The 16th Century is over, and it’s time for a change. Come on guys – stop shipping us bad wine!

And just in case you are wondering just what I am talking about, here is a primer.

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 three parts per trillion can taint a wine! I have read estimates that say two to five percent of all wine is tainted in some way.

Based upon the number of undrinkable bad bottles we experience, I put the number at about two percent here in the United States, and it used to be much higher. Proponents of Stelvin closures (screw caps) or the new glass closures believe that they 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 à Deux winery and former technical director at Gallo, Dick Peterson. 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 barnyardy 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 its review. 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.