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Cork Taint Is Sadly Still With Us

7 percent of wines tasted in our Napa office were corked
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 4, 2010 2:22pm ET

The other night I opened two corked wines back to back, a 2006 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir and a 2004 Schrader Cabernet.

As much as I'd like to believe that the cork industry is solving the cork issue, I'm afraid our experiences with TCA-tainted corks in Wine Spectator's Napa office indicate otherwise. Last year we tasted more than 3,000 cork-finished wines and 6.9 percent were judged to be tainted by TCA.

I won't bore you with the details about cork taint. It has been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam by most of our editors. And the industry as well is divided on cork's merits. Many wineries have turned to twist-off caps so their wines can't be corked.

A few years ago, when we began tracking cork-tainted bottles in our Napa office—bottles that were flawed by TCA taint—the figure ran around 7 percent. It peaked at 9.5 percent in 2007 and then dropped back to 7.5 percent in 2008. At 8 percent, that means about one bottle per case is spoiled by cork taint, a level most people should find wholly unacceptable.

Cork taint remains a huge consumer concern, since billions of dollars' worth of wine are at stake. While there are purists who value the traditional cork closure, too many wines, even the most expensive bottles, are ruined by cork taint. In some instances, the wines are horribly corked and smell like moldy newspapers. Many other times, though, cork taint can be barely detectable, since people have different levels of tolerance to TCA. And when TCA is at a very low threshold, it can mute a wine's flavors and, in effect, strip the wine of its flavor without revealing the taint. That's one reason people sometimes disagree on a wine's quality. Someone who tastes a slightly tainted, or muted wine, can wonder why others get so excited about the same wine that isn't tainted.

The good news is that we continue to see more wine sealed with twist-offs, especially on wines meant for immediate consumption. And producers should stand behind their products and replace defective bottles.

None of us wants to face a bad cork. It can ruin a special bottle set aside for a momentous event, or simply interrupt the pace of dinner. But TCA taint is still with us, heading into 2010, and cork producers' claims that the problem has been solved and TCA taint is gone is highly debatable.

Brian Clouse
Philly —  January 4, 2010 6:06pm ET
A Kosta Browne and a Schrader corked on the same night? I would have cried.......
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 4, 2010 6:20pm ET
Amen! Florid cork taint--the telltale whiff of wet cardboard as the cork comes out -- is realtively uncommon in my experience. Maybe 1 in 30 bottles (although 2 in a row on Christmas...fortunately they were much less expensive wines than your Schrader or Kosta Browne). The more sinister issue, as it were, it the muted, stripped wines. I am certain this is more common but is ultimately harder for a "recreational" wine drinker to recognize because we seldom get 2 shots at a wine (I always wonder about my tasting room purchases...was my palate shot or is the bottle "subtly" corked as the explaination for why the wine does not taste nearly as good as I recall--this happens about 1 bottle per case more or less, consistent with your figures). This leads to my point -- how much business do wineries lose when this happens to the average consumer? Clearly this cannot be good for word of mouth or repeat sales! Personally, I am now deflecting more and more of my smaller and smaller wine budget to wines sealed under cap. if we all did this, then we could be rid of that infernal 17th century invention!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 4, 2010 8:28pm ET
OUCH! Can you name the specific wines from each? I have bottles from both wineries in those vintages. I know you are very sensitive to taint, but I find myself less so. Hopefully my palate can remain blissfully ignorant...
Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  January 5, 2010 1:49pm ET
Jim,

I know I've asked this question in the past, but was the figure quoted just those bottles that have obvious TCA issues? And if so, was this corroborated by more than one taster (knowing each person has a different level of sensitivity to TCA)? Also, what about 'off' bottles due to the cork - ie muted aromatics, pre-mox bottles, etc . . . Did you include these as well?

And for those of us who might be interested, any noticable percentage of reduction in bottles under screwcap?!?!?

Thanks again for sharing!

Cheers!
Ted Henry
Napa, CA —  January 5, 2010 4:03pm ET
I don't think the cork producers are claiming the problem has been solved but rather that it has been reduced through new technology and better quality control. The exception being technical corks (glued together little cork bits). Some producers claim these are at the zero TCA level.

I've done long term tasting trials with Napa Cab under natural cork and screwcap and for me the cork was a clear winner(blind). By all means, if its not meant to age- use a screwcap. I'm just not so sure on the effects of long term aging.

Jim- have you done this experiment yourself? (Plumpjack comes to mind...)
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  January 5, 2010 4:19pm ET
James,
Seldom,if ever, have I disgreed with your tastings. I owe you a big Thank You for the wines you have recommended. However, I am having a difficult time with the 06 Mt Eden Estate Chardonnay that you gave a 96. I bought 8 bottles & have tried 3 & been dissapointed with each one. There was a very slight sulfur smell & the wine had little flavor. I have called the winery & they have offered to replace any off bottle. I bought these from a very reputable wine store ( K&L) that I trust completely. In fact they offered to replace any bottles that I did not like. (They get an A+ for customer service) It may be a wine I just don't like. Any thoughts?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 5, 2010 4:34pm ET
Jay, sounds like you did have off bottles. Winemakers sometimes say there are times when a bottling run begins that some wines may have more sulfur and certainly I've had plenty of wines that show real bottle variation, regardless of the cause. If I can get another bottle I'll give it a try. But the bottles I had were phenomenal and among the best from this estate.
Dave Mcneilly
Vancouver, BC —  January 5, 2010 5:47pm ET
I found the book by George Taber, "To Cork or Not To Cork", an excellent presentation of the problems and benefits associated with many different bottle closures as well as other sources of TCA/TBA.

Recent bad experience: bottle of 1999 Tyrrell Vat 1 Semillon - horribly corked!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 5, 2010 7:31pm ET
Ted -- For whatever my humble opinion is worth...I did the 1997 Plumpjack experiment myself with 6 properly stored bottles total; 2 upon release, 2 after a few years and 2 in 2007. Tasting blind, I could not tell the difference at any point -- all were exceptional.
Brendan Fitzgerald
Boston, MA —  January 5, 2010 7:35pm ET
James,

Do you have an opinion on the "cellar life" of a screw cap wine? I have a few bottles left of a Mollydooker Carnival of Love 06 that I am trying to save until June 2010 for a special occasion but I am worried it has seen better days and not aged like a well corked wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 5, 2010 7:45pm ET
Ted and others, will do the Plumpjack tasting again ASAP. Somewhat funny aside: several years ago we WS editors tried the cork vs. twistie in a blind tasting at an editorial retreat. Naturally, one of the cork-finished bottles was corked and the other two both showed well, rendering an inconclusive result for the two good bottles (except one bottle was corked). I've found twisties age as well as cork- finished wines and there is plenty of evidence to support that. That said, the biggest variant in wine quality (or bottle variation) is storage, or how the wine is kept. There's a reason so many producers are turning to twisties (the evidence supports their effectiveness as closures) and plenty of reason not to (consumers balk at what they perceive as 'cheap' wine). And yes, Taber's book weighs the evidence, pro and con. Worth reading. See our book review online.
James Gordon
Napa, CA —  January 5, 2010 11:42pm ET
Jim, do you have any way of tracking how many of the TCA bottles could have been cellar taint vs. cork taint? I know you and the magazine have covered this issue in depth.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  January 6, 2010 1:36am ET
I have to agree with Jay in questioning your rating of the 06 Mt Eden Estate Chardonnay. I did not find it to be the wine you described. While I did not detect any sulfur notes, it seemed to have a thin tart peach lemon mineral taste. It would be interesting to hear what others think of this wine.
Longboard Vineyards
Healdsburg CA —  January 6, 2010 10:45am ET
Jim,
Sorry for your bad experience.. when I wear the wine consumer/lover hat on I know how much a bad cork can sour an evening. Putting on the winemaker hat now... you are in a unique position at your office to help the industry with some phenomenal data - if it is collected and recorded correctly (cork manufacturer, grade,age etc. Are you interested in making this a year long scientific study?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 6, 2010 12:05pm ET
Dave, can't explain the differences in opinion with this wine, unless you're talking about the 2006 Saratoga Cuvee, which was only very good and rated 87, I believe.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  January 6, 2010 1:02pm ET
James, my bottles are not the Saratoga Cuvee. The bottles I purchased from a local retailer are numbered 11027 thru 11032 from the 06 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Bottled wine. The bottle I opened was number 11030. I can only hope that my bottles did not come from a bad part of the bottling run and the others will be better. Do you think bottle shock is a possibility and they may improve with a little rest?

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