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Bad Wine 202
Where are the screw tops?

Where are the screw tops?

An open letter to Beringer, Columbia Crest, Chateau St. Michelle, Chateau St. Jean, Rosemount, Mondavi and anyone else who will listen.


This is intolerable... Don't you think that an industry that knows 2% to 3% of its products are being ruined by the packaging should take the problem a little more seriously.

Last Thursday night, after taking our annual physical inventory all day, Linda and I decided that even carry out was too much work. So, at about 8:30 in the evening, we found ourselves in one of our favorite casual restaurants, Kabul. If you've not visited, it is a delightful Afghan restaurant located at 86th and Ditch that even features a reasonably decent wine list. Playing it safe I ordered the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 1998. Our appetizers were being served when Linda took her first sip and I saw her nose curl. You try it, says she, wondering if she has developed a hypersensitivity to the presence of TCA in wine. She was right. There it was, a subtle odor of moldy newspaper, just enough to taint the flavor of the wine. What to do? It's not like I could ask the owner to taste it since he has religious issues with wine. In the end, I was just too tired to try and explain "Cork Taint" to the local Afghan community while dinner got cold... so we drank it.

Fast forward to New Year's Day... We are sitting down to enjoy a traditional New Year's dinner of slow simmered corned beef and homemade German potato salad. I open one of my last bottles of the Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 and fill the glasses while Linda serves the food. Seated for dinner, I gently swirl the Riedel glass and sniff the rim, and it's eau du dirty sweat socks or maybe damp, moldy newspaper found in a forgotten corner of the garage. Linda observes that Brad's gym clothes, brought home on the last day of school, had a distinctly fresher aroma! Another bottle down the drain...

I know that "Bad Bottles" are a big problem that has been around as long as men have been making wine. But, this is the 21st century... You know that virtually all of the problem could be eliminated by the use of synthetic corks or screw closures, yet no one does anything. I understand the argument that "the slow exchange of air through the cork in the cellar helps the wine to mature properly." But think about it, how many bottles of Columbia Crest Merlot are being cellared long term?

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. Don't you wonder how many of your customers who are not familiar with "cork taint" will not buy another bottle of Columbia Crest Merlot because they think that's the way its suppose to taste? I keep hearing about the new screw closures, but where are they? Is there really any excuse for any bottle of wine under $20 being sealed with natural cork? All it will take is one of the big guys to take the plunge and everyone else will follow. Come on guys... stop shipping us bad wine!


Douglas Pendleton
a/k/a The Wine Guy

The Responses

Last week's "Where are the Screw Tops" letter seems to have been subject to a great deal of forwarding and brought a storm of comments from readers and wine business professionals alike. I found it all pretty interesting, but if it's just more than you ever wanted to know about "Cork Taint" and "Screw Tops" just skip to the recipe, its a good one!

From California, here are some very authoritive comments from winemaker Dr. Dick Peterson that debunks the idea of corks breathing! Your open letter to several wineries was forwarded to me by Mike Stepanovich of the Bakersfield Wine Society and I found it very interesting. High time somebody started pushing wineries to do something about bad corks.

I am retired but still chairman of Folie a Deux winery in Napa Valley. I have been a professional winemaker for 44+ years, including Technical Director at Gallo for almost ten years (a long time ago). But I did study corks back then and other closures as well. Other places I served as winemaker were at Beaulieu Vineyard immediately following Andre Tchelistcheff (1968-1973), The Monterey Vineyard, Atlas Peak Vineyards and Folie a Deux. I still consult for many wineries in Napa Valley and elsewhere, but that is not the subject of this note.

My memory is that steel Crown caps of the kind used on soft drink bottles and beer that require a "church key" for opening form an almost perfect seal against oxygen leakage into a bottle. The same is true for a well formed, sound cork for as long as it remains pliable -- good corks DO NOT breathe, regardless of that old wives' tale about aging the wine.

We actually measured penetration of gases through cork and I once wrote an article "Show me a cork that breathes and I'll show you a bottle of vinegar" to make that point. But fashionable fairy tales are persistent and that incorrect belief in corks' breathing will last a lot longer than I will. None of the various screw caps were as good as sound corks or Crown caps but most screw caps were, in fact, good enough to protect table wine for several years OK. Certainly good enough for most white wines, but, maybe not any of the reds that expect to get aged.

The main weakness of screw caps, as I remember, was that they were made of Aluminum with various types of plastisol liners under the cap. During rough treatment (shipping in a truck or rail car) the aluminum was a little "springy" and if the liquid inside the bottle bounced around at all it would occasionally hit the inside of the cap hard enough for the aluminum to spring away from the bottle top a small fraction of a millimeter -- and for a fraction of a second. This "water hammer" was sometimes enough to allow an instant leak of a small amount of air into the bottle. Enough of these small leaks and the wine was affected negatively.

I remember thinking that, for a screw cap to be really effective over long term aging of wine in a bottle, the screw caps should be made of steel (same as crown caps) rather than aluminum. Steel isn't springy. I suppose a firmer, less springy alloy of aluminum might be OK, but the process that turns aluminum discs into caps requires the aluminum to be soft and extrudable, so that would have to change.

In short, you can count me in on the side of using closures on all wine bottles that make a perfect seal, yet are absolutely free of TCA and other off odors or flavors that might spoil the flavor of wine. But I'm afraid this may not happen soon because of the natural resistance of winery owners to modernization and to their paranoia about not wanting to be the first to break with tradition. Wine sales people are deathly afraid of anything that might upset the glamorous image of wine. I look forward to reading your newsletter regularly.

Dr. Dick Peterson

And from Bill Marsano, a California freelance writer and screwtop advocate.Greetings, my foul-tempered colleague, I myself am a screwtop advocate, now writing an article on the same for Hemispheres, United's in-flight magazine. Frankly it's the winemaker's fault and cowardice, I think. The New World is the growth area of wine consumption. It accepts innovation. It is full of people who have cracked 187mls screw tops in coach and not gone into shock. The air-safety issue can be a portal for 750ml screws: the FAA forbids even flight crew to carry corkscrews aboard (those mounted on galley bulkheads are OK--but that's on international flights only. Opening wines pre-flight is not an option. So why don't the airlines just demand screwtops for their 1st and business class wines?

Actually I've heard but not confirmed yet that several Aussie winemakers are now providing 750 ml bottles with screw tops for airlines; will advise. An apparent difference in Australia is that many wine writers there supported the idea. Here it doesn't generate much interest. Even faux corks, which to me combine the worst of both alternatives, get more press.

I must confess that in thinking on this subject I'd forgotten the retailer--he too has his reputation at risk, no? People may think he doesn't know enough to store his wine properly, or that he stocks only bum stuff.

As far as winemakers go, maybe you can help with a problem. Although I suspect you didn't receive a reply to your open letter you may be able to steer me to a notable winemaker (someone with a marquee name if possible) who will speak on the record regarding how tainted corks affect winemakers. I've phoned a couple guys already and the conversation is fine until I pop that question, which is followed by the kind of long arid silence more commonly associated with 800-number help lines. Any suggestions will be appreciated. (Any notable winemakers out there who wish to talk on the record can reach Bill at> WG)

I'd like to discuss an item of nomenclature (something that fascinates me and is important to me as a writer). You use the term "bad bottles," and I'd like to see it scrapped, for the same reason I try never to say I "sell" stories (I 'license' them instead, and also try to refer to myself, with a straight face, as a 'businessman,' not a 'writer') and frequently yell on malt distillers who keep saying they 'blend' their casks. The reason is this: the term misleads more people than it informs. Inevitably there are more people who don't understand it than people who do. So if what we're trying to convey is that the wine was tainted by a bad cork, we haven't succeeded. And by not succeeding we provide 'cover' for the culprit and steer blame to the innocent. It's a real problem that there is so much cork taint and at the same time so few consumers are aware of it. I think we'd all be better off--in time, of course--if the only term for cork taint was cork taint.

Right now you have customers coming back to complain of bad wine, and you have to educate them. Better they should begin coming back complaining of cork taint. Eventually they'll bypass you and begin writing letters to producers that are just like yours. Then the producers won't have you to do their explaining and apologizing any more. Which is devoutly to be wished.

Otherwise I agree completely: All we need is one brave big guy to take the plunge.

Enjoyed your letter, Best

Bill Marsano

From Brad and Melissa, about what a pain synthetic corks are to remove... I see your points re: synthetic corks, but I have terrible trouble with/ them. We love Rosemont blends and they all have synthetic corks. About half the time, our corkscrews goes in....then pulls right back out through the cork, leaving the cork stuck in the bottle. What am I doing wrong??

and, my reply I agree they are difficult... I'm waiting for the screw tops. In the meantime a good, two step waiters corkscrew is the answer for stubborn synthetics...

And finally, from wine judge and writer Mike Stepanovich One slight technicality I thought I would mention involves the use of chlorine. I wrote a column about this a few years ago - and I confess that it isn't in front of my so my memory may be a bit foggy - and if I recall correctly, all cork is treated with chlorine to sanitize it. The problem comes when it is not cleansed of the chlorine properly after the treatment. In other words, when shortcuts are taken. Another part of the problem, as I recall (although this one has been addressed somewhat), is that due to demand, bark from cork oaks are being harvested too soon. Another shortcut. Although the corky-bottle problem is better than when it was 4-5%, it's still not good. We find corky wines all the time in competitions. From Jill Ditmire, host of "The Good Life" on PBS Channel 20, some more descriptive terms for "cork taint" odor For your review-- dead mice... mothballed winter sweaters left too long... wet cardboard is the easiest to reproduce smell... and NEVER drink a bottle that smells like that on the first and second pour -- KUDOS to you!! And to our readers... If you have never experienced a really bad bottle, here are some guidelines on how to recognize one. Corked Wine 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! 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 is trying to protect your wine experience. Oxidized Wine Oxidation is what happens when oxygen leaks into the bottle, usually from a leaking cork. The usual tell tale is evidence of leakage around the foil capsule or a low fill level in the bottle. Oxidized white wine will often have a dark yellow color and both red and white wines will have a strong aroma of sweet sherry. 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 or oxidized wine is easy. In a restaurant, simply tell the server that the wine is corked or oxidized 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. There is not much you can do about a subtly tainted wine other than give it another chance.