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Bad Wine 101
How to tell the difference between bad wine and a bad bottle

Bottle Variability and Corked Wine

Over the last few weeks, I have had a number of bad bottles returned to the store and opened yet another on my own. 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, since he told them how good it was supposed to be. If you have never experienced a really bad bottle, here are some guidelines on how to recognize one.

Regardless of what Beringer would like us to believe, wine is not an exact science. The same wine varietals vary wildly between regions, wine making styles and vintages. Why else would there be an entire magazine industry devoted to the reviewing and rating of wines. And talk about variability, you can find just the right bottle and still be a victim 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 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! I have read estimates that say 2% to 5% of all wine is tainted in some way. Based upon the number of bad bottles we experience, I put the number at about 1% here in the United States, and it used to be much higher. Proponents of synthetic corks, like Tom Mackey at St. Francis Vineyards, feel that synthetics can eliminate the problem. Many others worry that without the slow transfer of oxygen that occurs with cork, cellared wine will not mature properly. 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, 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 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 products left in our lives that can keep surprising us with its infinite variability and complexity. A couple of bad bottles is a small price to pay for that.

Comments from readers on last week's "Bad Wine 101"
Thanks to Jill and Jim for their comments!

Jill Ditmire hones her descriptive skills... The following are excerpts from a note I received from Jill Ditmire, host of Channel 20's "The Good Life." I enjoyed her graphic descriptions of corked wine so much that I had to share them with you. I never thought of rotten broccoli as a descriptor, but it works...

I too recently opened a much-anticipated bottle of what should have been a spectacular wine (not to mention it was a PURCHASE not a buy!) only to find---yuck.

THANK YOU for letting readers know what to SMELL for in the wine... And for adding the information that some good wine does smell like a barnyard, it just doesn't taste that way! There just aren't enough people out there who will describe the smells and tastes...but that is what people can relate to! For corkiness I would add mildewy- smell-like when your basement floods, then dries; opening the trash can when a bag of old vegetables or vegetable skins have been sitting in it for a few days (especially broccoli); opening the door to an attic or closet for the first time in 6 months that was filled with mothballs to keep out bugs; a swampy pond. Graphic...I hope so.

Jim Mathias, local wine maven, checks in with his two cents worth... As far as my own two-cents' worth of input to the discussion on tainted wines:

If you taste or open enough bottles of wine, you WILL find a bad one every once in a while. Life is like this. You will also occasionally receive a "flat" glass of Diet Coke in a restaurant because their gas tank ran out. It's not the end of the world. Wine is a very live thing. It's born, it has a life, and it dies. Sometimes it "dies" prematurely.

Wine in a bottle can go "off" for any number of reasons - TCA contamination being one. When suspecting you've received a bad bottle in a restaurant (unless it's REALLY nasty), I always ask my dining companion(s) to validate my palate's impression before calling the wine steward for his/her opinion.

If, after your thorough examination of a bottle of wine in a restaurant setting, you feel you need to send it back for either another bottle or an entirely different selection, don't feel badly about it! You deserve to get what you pay for, and the restaurateur will be glad you brought it to his attention.

I base my degree of critical review on how much I'm paying for what's in the bottle. I'm much more critical of a $75 bottle received in a restaurant compared to the $5/bottle of a '95 Chard in my own cellar I got on a close-out case deal 2 years ago.

A cork can tell you a lot about what to expect in its bottle. ALWAYS ask for the cork before you taste the wine. Look at it carefully. It should be firm when you squeeze it, it should not have any cracks or "barky" sections which run down its length, it should be supple and not dried out, the wine should not have penetrated through its length, it should be free of obvious mold, and it should not smell musty. Some caveats to those points might be that in long-cellared reds (8+ years) the wine's penetration through the cork will be higher than a younger wine and some European (typically, French) wines occasionally have some mold on the outside (top) of the cork under the heavy metal foil because of typically damper storage conditions there. There also might be some "wine crystals" coating the inside (bottom) of the cork. These many times will not affect the taste of the wine at all.