Cork taint can be a can of worms.
Several readers have accurately addressed most of the questions posed here since Friday's blog entry, "Corks Worse Problem as Price Increases."
Chris addresses the moldy newspaper character that often accompanies badly corked wines, and the fact that detection is a matter of thresholds (as are many things in wine, whether it’s perceived flaws such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity, or excessive oak, acidity, tannins, bitterness or sweetness). Some people pick up TCA at impossibly low levels; some only when a wine is undrinkable.
Frank says that cork taint occasionally manifests as an herbal, green olive or earthy flavor, occasionally confused with terroir, the good kind of earthy. TCA tastes very bitter and chalky, like biting into an aspirin.
Brian and others correctly point out that we have several ways to measure cork taint, which isn’t always TCA. We’ve used labs—I’m guessing that the number of tested bottles is in the hundreds—most of the time the tests have indicated some level of TCA. Other times they have shown other taints.
At Wine Spectator, we taste multiple bottles, and when one wine is corked and the other fine, that seems to demonstrate that the cork, and not the wine, is the issue. We also can smell corked bottles when they’re opened (by our tasting staff) and for a long time, when we’ve encountered corked wines, we smell the cork itself, which usually points to the problem. Indeed there are many instances when the combination of brett and bad cork makes it a coin toss as to which is the worse flaw.
Chris also is correct that poor corks can lead to oxidation, yet by tasting a second (or third) bottle, we can determine whether cork might be to blame, or eliminate cork entirely.
To Michael and Bill: I'm not sure if automation or machine-loaded corks are a factor, nor am I sure about whether the more expensive corks are tested; this varies from winery to winery.
I'm not sure either how random TCA taint is. I'm aware of the problems encountered years ago by David Bruce (as chronicled in George M. Taber’s book, To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle). And winery owners have told me they’ve had 25 percent of an entire vintage ruined by what they described as TCA-laced corks (yet they’ve still stuck with corks). But as I understand it, it’s not likely you would find more than one corked bottle per case, unless the entire lot of corks had been exposed to taint.
Jay, those of us who review wines know that bottle variation, regardless of the cause, can explain why one critic may rave about a wine that others might simply think is ordinary.
I also believe there is still some cellar-related TCA taint in wine. Many old cellars have plenty of molds and have been cleaned using chlorine, which can create the ideal conditions for systemic TCA taint.
Jonathan, the time a cork spends in a bottle doesn’t seem to be a factor. I’ve tried wines submitted as barrel samples that were bottled that very day that were tainted by TCA, meaning that it happened almost immediately.
Christy, we’ve had very few problems with twist-offs. Most common has been what we think was heat damage, that is, a bottle or two from one shipment tastes cooked, but subsequent bottles are fresh. I would also agree that not all bad-tasting wines’ corks are tainted by TCA, which is why we don’t attempt to assign a specific blame. Some corks are simply moldy, or dirty, wherein the term "corked" simply means a bad cork, not necessarily TCA. Synthetics are suspect too, as they show signs of bottle variation within a year or two of release. And yes, some twist-offs have had a reduced quality.
Hugh worries about encountering a corked bottle that’s been cellared, which may leave the consumer out of luck as far as getting a replacement from most wineries. Moreover, the wines you want to age the longest run the risk of the cork expiring (as in, breaking, crumbling or leaking) with time.
Ken, my guess is that your guess is right: You open a special bottle that’s been highly rated and wonder what all the fuss is about—no flavor, green, bitter, muted—probably a bad cork or poor storage. Sometimes the "corky" quality becomes more notable with air; we sometimes keep wines we suspect are off overnight, and the next day they reveal the flaws.
Cork failure is a serious problem. Consumers are owed wines that are not flawed by their seals. The industry knows how big a problem cork failure is, but as long as consumers continue to let them of the hook, they aren't going to fix it. They also fear that customers might stop drinking their wines if they use alternatives, and understand that some people feel that cork is the romantic, traditional seal that has the magic pop when it’s opened. I like the romance, tradition and pop, too, but have had too many good wines spoiled to cling to what is a flawed closure. I would have no problem with corks if they did their job.