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Cork: The Wine Industry's Dirty Little Secret
The Wine Guy's Sixth Semiannual (sort of) Corked Wine Tirade!

I arrive at our Rodney Strong wine tasting on Saturday afternoon, Tom and Brian have set up while I was at the store. I looked at the table and one of the stations is missing a bottle. It's a bottle of the $62, 94 point 2007 Rockaway Cabernet, the new vintage that will not arrive for another week, the one we only had two sample bottles of to taste with 75 people! Corked says Brian, and boy is he right... it smells like wet, mildewed newspaper. In this business, people just shrug and open another bottle because they are so used to it.

The next day, Sunday lunch, Linda and I have made shrimp tacos and I open a bottle of Catena Chardonnay. Unfortunately, I take a sip without smelling it first, there is nothing like mouth full of musty wine to whet your appetite. It must be getting better, I have not felt the need to vent about the subject for almost three years. A lot more wines are now being sealed with screw caps and glass closure, even the cork industry has been working to clean up their act now that they have competition. The truth is that TCA contamination is not going to go away.

When will it end? The Stelvin closure, the modern screw cap, now has a proven record and the new Alcoa glass closures like the one's Sineann and Calera are using are classy and effective. Why are we still opening so many bad bottles? The cure is here, but, two to four percent of wines are still being ruined by natural cork. It's the wine industry's "dirty little secret." If milk cartons were ruining two percent of the milk, how long would the dairy stay in business?

This is the 21st century and they are still using a 16th century closure... virtually all of the problems could be eliminated by the use of modern closures. More than 15% of our inventory now has a Stelvin or glass closure...the problem is that 85% doesn't! 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?

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 glass closures, like Peter Rosback of Sineann, feel 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 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. Recently we opened a bottle of highly rated wine and wow, what was Wine Spectator thinking when they gave it that 90 point score. No mold - just mediocre! A few weeks later we tried another bottle and it was great! Bottle variation, probably a slight cork taint is to blame. 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...

PS: If you want to know what cork taint smells like just ask the next time you're in. We always keep a few bottle around to use as examples.