Log In / Join Now

james laube's wine flights

Pillar Rock Battles TCA-Tainted Wine

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 9, 2007 5:17pm ET

Pillar Rock is a boutique winery in Napa Valley that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon grown in its vineyard in Stags Leap District. The winery made its first wine in 1999, and three of its first four vintages earned outstanding marks from me.

But last year, when the 2003 Pillar Rock Cabernet Sauvignon was submitted for review, all four bottles sampled in separate blind tastings tasted “corky.” I rated the wine 55 points, “not recommended.”

At the time, I suspected the wine might have systemic TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole)—that is, the TCA taint was in the wine and not caused by bad corks. TCA taint in wine is usually the result of bad natural corks, but it can form elsewhere through the interaction of plant phenols, chlorine and mold, and it can spread to rubber hoses, cardboard boxes, wooden pallets and drainpipes. Several well-known California producers have uncovered problems with TCA within their winery facilities.

Based on my experiences with other wineries that have had wines tainted by TCA, it seemed unlikely that four bottles would all be victims of musty corks.

When the 55-point rating was published by Wine Spectator Online this past December, winemaker Cary Gott said the winery's owners, Ron and Teri Kuhn, would like to have the wine tasted again.

I agreed and asked for three more bottles. But I also told Gott of my concerns that the source of the TCA might go beyond a batch of bad corks, and that Pillar Rock’s entire production of 2003 might have TCA.

In the interim, I suggested to Gott that he taste through a selection of ’03 Pillar Rock to determine if he could detect any TCA in other bottles. He reported that he had opened a dozen bottles and that neither he nor several winemakers with whom he tasted the wine could detect any off characteristics related to TCA.

Gott did recall that when the wine was still in barrel, he discovered some barrels that did have noticeable TCA. Gott said those barrels and the wine they contained were destroyed.

Gott sent two bottle samples to be tested at ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, one of the most advanced wine-analysis laboratories in the world and a leading diagnostician for California wineries. Both wines had low levels of TCA, at 1.4 and 1.6 parts per trillion (ppt), respectively.

I then tasted three more bottles of the 2003 Pillar Rock, in regular Wine Spectator blind tastings, and described all three as being off and possibly being corky. I marked each wine for retaste. It's our policy at Wine Spectator to automatically retaste any wine we suspect is “corky,” or otherwise off.

We sent samples from those three wines to ETS, and results showed all three wines also had low levels of TCA, at 1.2, 1.4 and 1.9 ppt, respectively.

Gott said Tuesday that the winery would continue selling the 2003 Cabernet, which retails for $125; only 357 cases were produced. “We don’t see the wine having the apparent taint of TCA,” he said.

I’m not surprised that Gott and other winemakers didn’t pick up the flaws in this wine. The TCA levels in the tested bottles are below the threshold of many tasters. But the off-flavors of TCA taint were evident to me in all seven of the bottles I blind-tasted—and that’s the reason I can’t recommend it. The tests only confirmed its existence.

You may or may not be able to taste the TCA in Pillar Rock’s 2003 Cabernet. The question is: Do you want to take the chance?

To learn more about TCA and cellar taint, read Wine Flaws: Cork Taint and TCA in our Learn Wine section.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 9, 2007 5:43pm ET
Jim,Very interesting blog and a topic that seems to be popping up a little too often these days . . .One question - when sending off bottles for testing at ETS, do you ever send off bottles that you feel do not have any TCA taint just to see what the levels are in these 'clean' wines? It would be interesting to see . . . I'm just curious if more wines don't have some slight TCA taint in them than we all think . . .You also commented that you were surprised that Cary Gott did not pick up this flaw - why? Wouldn't he know this wine better than anyone else and know that it had developed off or muted aromatics or flavors over time? Curious to hear your feedback on this.Thanks again for all of the great blogs!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 5:52pm ET
Larry, we have sent both bottles that were clean and super corky to get an idea of the range. We have also sent two samples of the same wine to see how consistent the lab is (and it is). I'm not surprised that winemakers can miss things in their wines because they're often too close to them. A person can be a great winemaker without necessarily being a great taster, or one that's sensitive to something like TCA, or even Brett.
Ben Brady
Ames, —  January 9, 2007 6:00pm ET
So what is a normal range for TCA levels? Should a wine not have any? Is there an "average" or generally acceptable amount? It would also be interesting to establish the average threshold for tasting TCA so that wineries could better judge when to cut prices or avoid distribution entirely.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 6:07pm ET
Ben, Not sure there is a "normal" range, since any TCA is a defect. We'll have a few links to past stories that go into more depth on this, but basically tests can measure TCA down to 1 part per trillion, some people pick it up at between 1-2 (as is my case) and many more in the 2-3 ppt. range. Sometimes wines in that range simply taste muted and the fruit is supressed. Wineries can (and many do) test for TCA since it can spread through a winery and many vintages. Should they sell wines with TCA? Not in my view.
Ted Hudgins
Naples, Florida —  January 9, 2007 6:09pm ET
looks to me that the real issue is one of how sensitive (and honest) we are to TCA. You got the job as a wine writer due to your ability to taste nuances that many of us may, or may not, be able to discern, as is evident with the TCA demo. If a large segment of the population can't discern it (1.9 parts per trillion) then they may very well enjoy the wine and find it suits their expectations. I guess its now up to the individual consumer to be honest and admit (even if its only to themself) wheter or not they can tast the TCA and if so, then find another wine to buy. there certainly doesn't seem to be a shortage of $125 cab's out there.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  January 9, 2007 6:22pm ET
Maybe that is why they are trying to sell the winery?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 6:43pm ET
Ted, that's true about sensitivity, but I've seen people drink (and drain) bottles of obviously corky wine. Part of fine wine appreciation is being able to tell when a wine is flawed, or defective, so while the population at large may not be able to taste low levels of TCA, if it's there it's there. I use the example of me going to a museum and not being able to tell a real Piacasso or Rembrant from a fake.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 9, 2007 6:49pm ET
James, you obviously have superior tasting abilities, otherwise others would also have noticed the TCA tainting in the wine. The amount of TCA, I.2% to 1.9% per trillion seems remote. Is the flavor adversly affected to the point that it is obvious to the normal consumer? Does it adversly affect what would otherwise be a fine wine? Is it possible that you are ruining the reputation of a winery to satisfy your vanity? You did not state that anyone else found the wine offensive.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  January 9, 2007 6:50pm ET
ouaaaaa james, you realize that you just finished to do 2 things:1: to simply blow up an entire revenue for a boutique winery2: to prove that you have a amazing palate , what I admire and respect a lot.keep the excelent postingshappy new year!!!!!!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 6:58pm ET
John, some of my colleagues (and many people I know) pick up TCA at similar levels, so it's a bit of a myth that I'm so super sensitive. Yes, 1.2 ppt is very remote, but TCA has a very powerful presence and even in very tiny doses is evident to many. My responsibility is to write about what I know and advise my readers. As for vanity, I'm not sure where the industry would be if issues such as this weren't addressed, by me or someone else. I don't know of any other reviews, and frankly, that wouldn't matter. The winery asked me to retaste the wine and explain why I gave it low marks.
Bruce Zucks
brighton township —  January 9, 2007 7:51pm ET
james,do the numbers get larger with age?thanks
Jennifer Awbrey
Austin, Tx —  January 9, 2007 8:27pm ET
I for one really appreciate your honesty about TCA. It's a real problem that mostly costs the consumer. Caveat emptor, so they say. I don't usually bother to return a $12 bottle, but when I have carefully cellared an expensive bottle for years, it's like an investment gone bad. There is no one to return it too, as if the problem was my fault. The only upside is that the money was spent long ago, but it's still money down the drain, not to mention the loss of the pleasure of drinking it.
Zac Godek
January 9, 2007 8:31pm ET
james, for those people who would probably feel a bottle was simply corked, can you explain how or what to taste in the characteristics in a bottle with TCA, thanks!!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 8:55pm ET
Zac, classic cork-taint is a musty, moldy character. TCA taint (that isn't cork related) tastes chalky, bitter and sometimes you get a hint of chlorine. But just as often, a wine that has TCA has muted flavors and the wine simply doesn't show its fruit. One way to discern a corky wine from systemic TCA is to open a second bottle, and if it's fine, then it's likely the cork that caused the off flavors. If a second, or third bottle seems off, dull or stripped of flavor, then it may not be the cork. That help?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 8:56pm ET
Jennifer, I couldn't agree more. Bad corks are the wine industry's dirty little secret and it's a terrible ripoff for those who spend the money for a great wine experience only to have it ruined by a bad cork.
Steve Lenzo
PHX, AZ —  January 9, 2007 8:59pm ET
James

Is TCA levels something that will continue to increase as the bottle ages or is it static and won't get worse with age?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 9:01pm ET
Bruce, I'm not a chemist, but from what I understand, the parts per trillion number remains the same over time. The trouble is, once the fruit in the wine deminishes, the TCA taint becomes more apparent. That's why you read from time to time about people who bought TCA-tainted wines who didn't recognize the flaw early on, but after a few years cellaring they notice it and the wines are hard to drink. I also think the only way to really get this taint is through blind tasting, because you don't have a label or winery's reputation to consider.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 9, 2007 9:02pm ET
James, forgive me for repeating my question, but can the average consumer detect the TCA? This is important since you have seriously damaged a wineries reputation based on your exceptional tasting ability..
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 9:03pm ET
Steve, I believe it remains the same, but becomes more apparent as the wine ages the fruit evolves and becomes more subtle. The TCA doesn't.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 9, 2007 9:11pm ET
John, yes they can. They may not know exactly what it is (anymore than VA or Brett until they understand that they're flaws) except to wonder wjy a wine doesn't taste very good. I'm not sure what you would want me or another journalist to do in this situation. Ignore it? Or try to help educate consumers and winemakers? Critics should have sensitive palates and be aware of flaws. As it is, there are plenty of wines out there that have TCA and it is certainly not good for the industry or consumers.
Arshavir Kouladjian
Los Angeles, California —  January 9, 2007 9:27pm ET
Laube, Good Work! Sometimes, we get so close to the wine owners and makers that we forget that there a FOR PROFIT CORPORATION. What Pillar Rock did by continueing to sell the TCA bottles is what many of the wineries do unfortunetly. Thanks for the notification! I have had some bad bottles of wine before and the wineries would not accept them back or admit to any problems.
Tim Long
WI —  January 9, 2007 9:46pm ET
James - You astonish me with your hubris! First you highlight just what an ace taster you are, able to ID TCA virtually with the sensitivity of "one of the most advanced wine-analysis laboratories in the world." Next, though "any TCA is a defect", 1.2 or 1.4 ppt are "low levels" of taint. Defective wines, but only on a low level? OK. Next you move on to blatantly insult the winemaker(s); "I¿m not surprised that Gott and other winemakers didn¿t pick up the flaws in this wine. The TCA levels in the tested bottles are below the threshold of many tasters." Cavalierly lumping Mr. Gott and the "other winemakers" in with those other "many tasters" who are mostly not, incidentally, successful wine professionals, is an insult in my book! Oh, and "a person can be a great winemaker without necessarily being a great taster." Please tell us who these great winemakers are whose palates, you have no choice but to inform us, are so obviously less great than your own? That way we can all work together to put them out of business, at least unless we are certain that you have tasted and anointed their wines with your amazing (only slightly-mythologically "super sensitive") palate! Since you are "not sure where the industry would be if issues such as this weren't addressed," this has nothing to do with vanity? Wow. I think I'll have a beer.
John Gavin
CA —  January 9, 2007 10:29pm ET
Sniffing a bottle of his own badly corked wine, a winery owner said to me once, "I wish they all smelled like this", meaning that a clearly flawed bottle is easy to consumers, wineries, retailers, and restaurants to deal with, because everybody can agree about what the problem. It's those "dull, stripped" wines that cause so many headaches, because it's hard for everyone to agree where the line is between a wine that is tainted, though without any telltale corked aromas, and a wine that is closed or dumb, or just plain dull.BTW I don't think it's fair to describe TCA problems as a rip-off, since that term implies that one party is trying to steal money from another. It's sometimes hard to drum up much sympathy for CA winery owners because many are ridiculously wealthy, but many are not, and rich or not they stand to lose enormous amounts of money when something like this happens.
Travis G Snyder
Salt Lake City —  January 9, 2007 11:41pm ET
The question is whether or not the wine matters to you. I recently brought a wine with me to a restaurant for a Birthday dinner; it was supposed to be a nice Australian Grenache. I joked to the waiter, while he poured it, that I would send it back if it were corked. Well, it was, poetic justice I suppose. I couldn't drink it, so I ordered a Burgundy from the 2002 vintage, it was elegant. My date said that the first wine was fine, and that she would drink it. The TCA turned my stomach so much, that I couldn't bear having her drink it {maybe I was a little disturbed that she didn't care it was corked, and felt intervention was needed(more my problem than hers I suppose)}. What does all this mean? Well, if you don't care what the wine tastes like, then why spend a small fortune on a bottle. The goal is to find a unique enjoyable experience. I guess if it's just a trophy, then it doesn't matter, spend what you will for your bragging rights, good drinking or bad swill, doesn't matter. If you don't care or don't notice, then buy the cheapest wine you can stomach. If you actually care, and notice, then pay attention to your senses and avoid wines muted, or worse, tainted by TCA. I have certainly had bottles that seemed a bit off, but unexplainably. Perhaps there was TCA, but not enough for me to characterize it. I'm glad to know when there is TCA, even if it's below my threshold. Just because I cannot pinpoint a problem in a bottle, doesn't mean I don't notice that there is a problem.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  January 10, 2007 2:44am ET
Tim Long - I'll step up and admit I'm not a super taster. I've never been able to taste all of the nuances that Jim and his felloow WS editors can detect in a wine. But I am very sensitive to TCA. I can't tell you how many times I've sat at a table with a bunch of winemakers when I was the only one to initially detect a corked wine - only to have many others eventually come to the same conclusion. But there are always a few that will never detect the presence of TCA - and actually like the wine. But that doesn't mean that TCA wasn't present.

I would imagine that it's really difficult for Jim to write these types of reports. And all of us in the wine world dread having something like this written about our wines or winery. But Jim has a responsibility to report what he knows... otherwise he loses all credibility. WS already gets way too much conspiracy theory type stuff written about them... could you imagine the outcry that would occur if they covered up information like TCA in a winery? They'd be crucified. It's really a no win situation... but presenting the facts is always the most professional way to go. And as much as it pains me to see such a report - if it's true - I can't see any other option than to report it.
David A Zajac
January 10, 2007 8:36am ET
Sorry Tim, but I have to side with Jim and Brian here. Maybe I am or maybe I am not a super sensitive taster and maybe I can and maybe I can't detect TCA in this wine, but at $125/bottle I want to know what is going on in spending that kind of money on a bottle of wine. That's what I pay WS and WA to do for me as I can't taste that many wines. If I know this and choose to spend my money on the wine, then that is my informed decision. Getting me to spend $125 on a wine I will potentially find defective without any warning is not good business and as a consumer, well...it would piss me off to the point where I would never buy their wine again.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 10, 2007 10:41am ET
I find it fascinating the stance that the folks at Pillar Rock are taking on this issue. Not that it matters, but do you know if they've tested their winery facility at this time to see if the TCA problem is systemic? Have they tested 04 barrels yet? It is amazing to compare with with the stance that Hanzell took not so long ago . . . Just an observation.
Mike Hakeem
stockton calif —  January 10, 2007 12:12pm ET
I agree with Brian Loring that its a no win.I would rather see it reported and let the consumer choose and prevail
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  January 10, 2007 1:39pm ET
I am going to take the middle road here, which is odd for me. Some posters complain that Mr. Laube threatens the economic viability of a business as a result of his super-sensitivity toward TCA. Others blast the winery for foisting a spoiled product on unsuspecting consumers. But reading all of the posts, especially Mr. Laube's, very carefully, a solution surfaces. Mr. Laube writes: "I'm not sure what you would want me or another journalist to do in this situation. Ignore it?" But he also concedes that the levels of TCA detected by both he and the lab were low, and likely beyond the recognition of most tasters. So the solution is to score the wine as he deems appropriate, but in the commentary note the empirical findings by the lab, and his opinion that many (most?) consumers will not be able to detect the flaw that he found so pronounced. So often people complain that numerical scoring is deceiving and that tasting notes are more important. At the same time, we all know that people put undue emphasis on the number alone. Assigning Pillar Rock a "55", and stating simply that "Four samples provided were corky" is not the same thing as saying: "Four samples provided showed trace amounts of TCA under 2 ppt which rendered the wine undrinkable to this taster but might go undetected by most tasters." Will this cause folks to rush out and buy a $125 wine? Probably not. But certainly no one could challenge Mr. Laube's journalistic integrity or personal hubris.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 10, 2007 1:44pm ET
I agree with your position, Jim (and Travis as well...). I am sensitive to cork taint and I just can't stomach wines that have this contamination. I have had and enjoyed Pillar Rock in the past; I hope they address and fix the problem. You were certainly right about BV (compare the 97 Tapestry / Latour to the 2001 and you'll see what systemic TCA does to the quality of a wine). Maybe PR should lower the price or offer more aggressive tastings at wine shops etc if they feel the TCA label is unjustified; but, to your credit; I have rarely liked a wine that you have described as coming from systemic cork tainted winery (most times, unfortunately, finding out about your review(s) ex post facto); so i would warn the buyer to beware...or to at least taste it prior to buying and not let it sit around too long afterwards. Keep up the good work... you are doing the right thing for us consumers despite the blistering criticism some of the bloggers have leveled you way
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 10, 2007 2:27pm ET
James, with all due respect to your note, I think that casting me as super sensitive to TCA, or making it seem like I'm among a small group that picks up TCA at low levels is misleading. I know at least a dozen people (including a few winemakers) who are just as sensitive. Moreover, none of us at WS wants our wine review process to turn into a labratory analysis system. Our reserach into TCA is something we happened upon after tasting dozens and hundreds of wines that had TCA taint and we simply wanted to find out if this was merely a case of some wineries having a huge percentage of bad corks or something more complex. Now we understand that TCA isn't just about corks.
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  January 10, 2007 4:01pm ET
James: I am not casting you as super-sensitive. My thoughts are derived from your own words which include:"The TCA levels in the tested bottles are below the threshold of many tasters. But the off-flavors of TCA taint were evident to me in all seven of the bottles I blind-tasted—and that's the reason I can't recommend it.";"some people pick it up at between 1-2 (as is my case) and many more in the 2-3 ppt. range";"some of my colleagues (and many people I know) pick up TCA at similar levels, so it's a bit of a myth that I'm so super sensitive. Yes, 1.2 ppt is very remote, but TCA has a very powerful presence and even in very tiny doses is evident to many"; and in reply to me:"I know at least a dozen people (including a few winemakers) who are just as sensitive".I am not sure how to read all of this but to conclude that you taste TCA where others do not. That is fine. The question that some raise here however, is, should you endanger a wineries current release, and perhaps its overall viability by scoring a wine as fatally flawed if you concede that many others will not find the flaw? I am not suggesting, as others have, that you refrain from doing so. I am simply suggesting that if the lab reports come back with results suggesting levels of taint below the threshold of many tasters, that the same be reported. I can appreciate the magazine not wanting to make tasting a labratory analysis project, but let's face it. When it comes to parts of TCA per trillion, that is exactly what it is. I applaud your use of the lab. To not use it would have been unprofessional. But once used, the results should be reported (as you have done here) and put into perspective (agian, what you have done here in this blog.) So if it can be done in the blog, why not the tasting note itself, which, as of right now, stands starkly written, and in light of this discussion, perhaps misleading.
Jon Bain
January 10, 2007 4:27pm ET
James, why did you feel the need to give the wine a numerical score if you felt it was a tainted bottle? Why not just say it was a corked bottle and reserve judgement until you have a non tainted bottle. Obviously the winery doesn't want a tainted bottle rated.
Paul Murray
La Canada, CA —  January 10, 2007 5:39pm ET
Jim, I thank you for having the integrity to do what is right, despite the backlash. This highlights the honesty of doing tastings blind. You are paid for your unbiased opinion based on your palate (and not necessarily the "average consumer"). We all benefit from that and I thank you. Your palate is certainly in line with mine more than other expert tasters.I was curious whether certain wines are more likely to be TCA tainted. Also, can cork-tainted wines also give off the chlorine smell? If I had two corked wines (one really bad, and one just "off") from the same case, does that mean anything? I have another case in storage and since it is PN, I don't want to risk waiting too long to find it tainted. Thanks for all of your great counsel. $125 Cab is for suckers anyway! Just let me have my $50 (or less) PN any day.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 10, 2007 5:44pm ET
For those of us who don't know what our own recognition threshholds are, reviewers like Mr. Laube are doing us a huge favor, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. If I don't know precisely what my TCA recognition threshhold is, and how it compares with every reviewer under the sun, why in god's name would I gamble my hard-earned money on a risky bottle that sent up red flags with someone/anyone else? There are plenty of other (cheaper) offerings out there that don't hold the same risk, and I, for one, appreciate when Mr. Laube steers me toward quality product, i.e. away from the risky. Furthermore, I am convinced that some wine lovers have "tin palates" (like musically "tin ears") and that some of them (like one sales associate I've taken advice from in the past) actually think that the cork taint is some sort of desirable earthiness that they should learn to appreciate in order to impress others with their "broad palate" or some such nonsense. Even people with tin palates have opinions, and some even own wineries, apparently.
Thomas Matthews
January 10, 2007 6:07pm ET


Wine Spectator's approach to scoring and describing wines with TCA taint, as opposed to bottles with off-flavors from TCA-tainted corks, is evolving as we become more experienced in distinguishing the two flaws. Frankly, we are pioneers here—no other critic to my knowledge has seriously addressed systemic TCA taint. The industy has long attributed "corky" flavors simply to flawed corks.

In the past, we have given scores of 55 to wines we considered "corked," a technical rating that allowed us to track the incidence of bottles with bad corks. Then we retasted the wines, assuming that the problem was with the cork, not the wine.

As we determine that some wines are systematically tainted (through multiple tastings and lab testing), we plan to give scores and tasting notes that describe the specific quality and character of these wines. Hypothetically, such a review might say: "Some ripe fruit and structure, but marred by persistent bitter and wet cement flavors. Tasted three times with consistent notes. 68". This would address the concerns of people such as James Vitelli, above.

It's not easy to move from an assumption that a few bottles have tainted corks, to a conviction that a wine has systemic TCA taint. We take this step only after we have gathered considerable evidence, generally including lab results. In the end, however, we are not detectives; we are wine critics. We make the best effort we can to give an honest, objective assessment of the wines we review. We believe we have the experience and expertise to be credible guides. In the end, our readers will taste the wines, and decide for themselves.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 10, 2007 6:27pm ET
Paul, as best any of us can tell, cork taint is totally random, and, sadly, even the most expensive corks are just as susceptible to TCA. As for more than one "corky" wine from a case, or two wines with different levels of taint, that's exactly what annoys many of us about cork as a closure -- its unpredictablity and variability -- since there are times when you drink a wine that you've liked in the past and find a new bottle tastes flat and you wonder why. Cork taint can smell like chlorine and in fact some winemakers have told me (before they knew better) that they soaked their corks in chlorine to cleanse them. I am also sorry to say that if you find a case where there is more than one corky bottle, I don't think it diminishes the odds that you'll go "corky" free. Next week I'll share with you what I do when I have a cache of a given wine and find a corky bottle. I do recommend that if you have a "corked" bottle you notify the winery or source where you obtained it. In some 30-plus years of buying wine, my number of corks bottles runs several hundred. I wouldn't complain if it were only one bad bottle here and there. But added up, I've wasted a lot of money on corky wines I thought would be great.
Mark A Zoltay
Denver, CO —  January 10, 2007 6:46pm ET
James, thank you for your continued insights on subjects like TCA. Back in 2002 you published an article on BV and the challenges it had with the 97-99 vintages with respect to TCA. The article ended with an assertion that BV felt that they had resolved the issue with the 2000 vintage.....is that the case???? What have your observations been on 2000 to 2002 vintages of LaTour, Tapestry,and the Clone 4 & 6 offerings? Z
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 10, 2007 7:47pm ET
Mark, I liked the 2002 wines much better than their predecessors, but I think the winery still has room to improve. You can read the reviews from 2002 and more recent bottlings from our database. Go to wine search and type in Beaulieu.
Greg Piatigorski
CA —  January 10, 2007 7:54pm ET
Tim Long - I will add another voice to the list and state that I am very sensitive to TCA and usually spot it way before others do, winemakers and others ITB included. A few years ago I was at a blind tasting where a CA State wine competition judge was arguing with me about a bottle on the table, I immediately said "TCA", she said "No way". About 10 minutes later, other winemakers agreed with me about TCA, by then air contact/exposure made the problem very obvious, but the wine judge stuck to her guns and actually picked the wine as her #1 in the flight. Pretty much confirming what Jim and Brian are saying, not everyone ITB is sensitive to TCA. In fact, I know one famous winemaker who can't detect TCA at all, even badly corked bottles. I don't think Jim is unique in his ability to pick up even trace amounts of flaws in wines, TCA, VA and brett. I and countless others fall into that camp as well. As a matter of fact, a well known wine blogger calls me a "wine canary nose" since I detect all these flaws way ahead of others at a tasting. Have no idea if this is a gift or curse, though, makes me enjoy fewer wines than most people do.One thing Jim is absolutely right on, though: with time the fruit fades and TCA becomes more pronounced.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  January 10, 2007 8:03pm ET
One thing that has happened as the direct result of the Wine Spectator reports of TCA taint in wineries is that many of us have moved away from using chlorine based cleaners in our wineries. Since it's the combination of chlorine and mold that are the main culprits in creating TCA, we now use ozone as our sanitizing agent. And since it also seems that wooden structures are more likely to habor TCA taint, our new winery that's under construction is all steel and cement block.

As painful as these reports are to write, and as painful as there are to read, they do serve the wine community as a whole.
John Fujii
Stockton, CA —  January 10, 2007 8:09pm ET
James, you mention in your blog that TCA can at times be "systemic". Do you know if you have a bottle of "systemic TCA" tainted wines, can it also taint the other wines in your cellar? I would think that the wines that are TCA tainted from a bad cork wouldn't be a problem but the systemic TCA taint concerned me.Secondly, I agree with you that not everybody can detect TCA. At a recent dinner one of the two identical bottles was "corked" but only three of the ten dinner guest could detect it. The other bottle was great but the "corked" bottle smelled moldly and tasted awful. They were stored in the same cellar, ( unfortunately mine). Most of the guest were experienced wine aficionados, which surprised me that they couldn't pick up the corked wine. A chef and another friend picked it up right away. Thus it wouldn't surprise me if a wine maker, sommelier, or even a wine critic didn't pick up TCA taint. Just as it doesn't surprise me when I can't pick up half the adjectivies that you use in describing a bottle of wine. I guess I need more practice. B:-)
Joseph Karpowicz
Stony Brook, NY —  January 10, 2007 8:18pm ET
James, recently I had Stags Leap Arthimas at a local tasting and i couldn't even finish it because it was so bad. After the tasting I checked the WS rating and it was 70 something. My question is, being that Pillar Rock and Stags Leap are both in the same district, could it be something in the area that is affecting the wine? thank you for your time.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 10, 2007 8:32pm ET
John, Systemic TCA taint in one bottle won't affect other bottles in your cellar. Tasting wine for the purposes of evaluation at dinner parties is never a good idea, since people are there to drink and enjoy themselves, not concentrate and analyze wine. Your experience of three in 10 people sniffing out the bad cork is about right, but I imagine if you made the point of showing them the fault, more would get it. One more thing. If you drink a badly corked wine, it's important to get a new glass, and not just rinse, as the taint can linger in the glass. As for practice, that's what it's all about...
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 10, 2007 9:04pm ET
Joseph, no to TCA affecting an appellation. It can spread throughout a winery, and be transmitted by other methods, including a wine thief, wood and cardboard products, and barrels, which can be really tricky since many wineries reuse barrels and/or sell them. The Artemis I had was overwhelingly Bretty, which sounds like your experience -- undrinkable. One thing about rating wines is that you can only review what's in front of you and sometimes there is bottle variation and some people like certain characteristics better than others. But with that wine I tasted several and they all tasted the same.
Joseph Romualdi
Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada —  January 10, 2007 10:01pm ET
James, great article/blog. I've really learned a lot from you on this website (as well as the other Snr. Editors). There have been a number of forumites who have been slaggin' you, for whatever reasons, but I don't see them posting any snarky remarks in the forums since the lab has proven you right. I would have simply written: Na, na, na-na, na...I was right, I was right. But you took the higher, scientific ground. I think that was the best way to show your critics why you are an expert, and they are just nameless posters with no sense of civility. Kudos and keep up the great work.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 11, 2007 12:15am ET
Whoa! Did somebody strike a nerve? I'll add my name to those who are grateful for Jim and Spectator being forthright with the reporting of flaws found in their blind tasting. My wife and I have had the privilege to judge wines at the State Fair on several occasions, and I know that even amongst judges there are a variety of sensitivities to different flaws. While judging wines on one occasion, one wine had what I felt was a definite TCA taint, but I didn¿t say anything until I saw the expression on the face of another judge. I suppose I was not as confident as I should have been to say it the way I see it; that¿s why I can appreciate the candor of Mr. Laube. By the way, of the five judges and facilitator at this table, only two of us detected the flaw. There was however an expert (in fact several experts) judging at other tables and when the wine was presented to them it was found to be tainted. My wife was judging at another table as well and I¿m confident she would have picked it out. On another note: I am aware of one winery that purchased an old farm to start their winery business and they converted the old buildings into different venues for the purpose of making, storing and selling wine. The building where they kept there barrels was fun and had a great deal of character, but they felt that the main support structures needed to be replaced to insure the soundness of the building. So they hired a contractor to do the work and when it was finished it was charming and sound. The following year they found that they had wines tainted with TCA and their immediate thought was that they should have torn down the whole building and rebuilt from scratch. When they had the building inspected they found that the taint had been from the treated lumber that was used to reinforce the old structure, not the older wood. I guess that just goes to show you how you can not be too careful with every step in the winemaking process. Contamination can come from the most unsuspected places.
Jon Bain
January 11, 2007 12:26am ET
Mr. Matthews, you publish a rating of 55 pts in the most widely read wine publication as (your words) "a technical rating that allowed us to track the incidence of bottles with bad corks. Then we retasted the wines, assuming that the problem was with the cork, not the wine." So you assumed the wine might not be the issue, but still rated it 55 pts anyway, as opposed to not rating it until you got a non-tainted bottle. Is that what you're saying?Seems like there might be a better way to 'track' tainted wines, then to publish a score that might have nothing to do with the wine.
Mark Grote
January 11, 2007 3:04am ET
The wine taint (TCA) issue is one of many that are becoming more noticed lately. There are also some new bacteria that are becoming a problem as well. They are new only in that they have modified and mutated themselves and are colinizing new areas. I find that many wine makers have to be detectives to root out the specific areas in the winery where some of these "bugs" are originating. I have found that some wineries really don't care about some of these issues. One area in the winery that I know need attention is the "hard piping" that many wineries have in place. These hard pipes are depositied with all types of materials that have the "sulpher or burnt match" taste in them. I have encountered this in wineries from the Salinas Valley all the way to the Sonoma area. There are some old and new technologies on the market now that address some of these problems. My suggestion for concerned winemakers is to look into some of these applications and do some serious testing.
Mark Grote
January 11, 2007 3:15am ET
Brian Loring, I would add to your comment on using ozone that there are two problems. The first is that ozone is carried by water, where the water does not go the ozone doesn't either. That may not be a problem in a barrel, but it is in a bottling machine. The second problem is the enormous amounts of water consumed by ozone use. As the restrictions on water consumption become tighter over the next decade it will become more expensive to use this method. I would offer that steam generation is a viable alternative and can also be used additionaly with ozone processes.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 11, 2007 11:04am ET
Jim,Was this wine produced at their facility or at a custom crush facility - I heard the latter is true. If this is the case, have you tried other wines made their from other producers at or about the same time? Curious to hear . . .
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 11, 2007 5:36pm ET
Jim, Keep calling it like you smell it and taste it! We do appreciate knowing where there are problems. What really makes me mad are wineries and distributors that refuse to make good on bad bottles. Thank goodness they do seem to be only a few, but my approach when denied is simple. We quit selling their wines.

What is really amazing is all of this impassioned debate (as evidenced by all of these posts) over something that is easily fixed. The time is here for alternate closures, whether is it Stelvins (and other brand screw caps), Zorks, the very neat new glass closures I just saw on a couple of Austrian and German wines we received, or even the old standby plastic type cork. There really is no excuse for wineries risking putting natural cork in a bottle. Tradition is no excuse!
Brent L Pierce
St. Helena, CA —  January 11, 2007 7:04pm ET
I understand the the need to have an internal system at WS to keep track of these things (i.e everyone at the office knows a 55 score means it was corked). I also understnad (though don't neccessarily like) your zeal to "do your part" and reveal these problems. But why, WHY, publish the score? If it is corked, say it was corked? Why do you have to SO unneccesarily paste this rotten score on a winery for time eternal? How is that anything but just plain mean?
Scott Hilderbrand
Casper, WY —  January 11, 2007 11:35pm ET
Mr. Laube. OK, I've read all 50 posts. Brutal! I am wondering about a wine I was drinking while reading (Yalumba WS 89 pts). Great aroma, but extremely bitter and tasteless. Could this be TCA, hot delivery truck, or what?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  January 12, 2007 1:14am ET
Brent Pierce - it wasn't that Jim tasted a bottle that had a bad cork and based his rating on that single data point. I would venture to say that no professional writer would write a review based on a single bottle of wine that was tainted by a bad cork. Wine Spectator asks that all wineries submit 2 bottles of each wine for review - one reason being to have another bottle to taste if the first was corked. And even 2 corked bottles in a row wouldn't necessarily be enough - which is why WS investigated farther.

What you have here is something different - ALL OF THE BOTTLES from the ENTIRE VINTAGE suffer from this. Granted, since we're talkng parts per trillion, there might be varying levels from bottle to bottle, but all of them have it.

Is it unfortunate for the winery? You bet. Is it "mean" to report it. I don't think so. And I feel horrible for the folks at Pillar Rock.

I don't know them, but I've seen their wines at charity auctions - includng an entire case donated by them to a Cystic Fibrosis event in Arizona. That tells me these folk have their heart in the right place. And I hope the weather this situation. And truthfully, if I were in their shoes, I probably wouldn't recall the vintage. But I'd certainly be open to refunding the purchase price to anyone who wasn't happy with the wine.

I understand not wanting to see anyone's business hurt by a bad score. And there are publications that don't print bad scores. But is that fair to the consumer? That's probably another debate. But I can tell you that if bad scores aren't published, then the buying public will make wild assumptions when they don't see scores for a particular wine - mostly that it sucked. And that can cast a shadow on wines that were actually good - but didn't make it into print for any number of reasons. Nothing is perfect.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  January 12, 2007 10:53am ET
I don't drink Pillar Rock, and I've never heard of it before this blog (hey, I live in Europe), but my palate is very sensitive to corked, tainted, or ''off'' wines. In this case, it seems clear that the entire bottling is flawed. For all the doubters, I must say that motives do not alter facts. James Laube is doing the right thing here by sticking with the facts. Keep up the good work, and call it like you taste it. - Jim
Greg Chitty
Houston Tx —  January 12, 2007 4:59pm ET
JL,Kudos for your reviews of TCA tainted wines or even poor scoring wines. In a similar story, when you reviewed the Gallo of Sonoma wines that had TCA problems and poor ratings, I had tasted the wines (I think the Barelli Cab 2002 or 2003??) before I read your review. I am not an expert taster and I don't think I could identify TCA, but I did note the wine was almost undrinkable and thought your rating was spot on. I don't care if wineries get offended. They should take this as constructive criticism and start solving problems. No one wants to risk paying $125 for a wine that is undrinkable whether it is tainted with TCA or not. I think you are doing a service to the winery by pointing out that TCA was the culprit. You could easily have written that the wine just tasted bad!!
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  January 13, 2007 12:38pm ET
When we are doing tastings, we do not assign point scores to those wines that are corked or flawed. We just state FLAWED. Has Winespectator every thought of using flawed instead of assigning a low score?
John Turner
January 14, 2007 11:41am ET
JL, I am curious about something. Since the WS ratings can so seriously affect a winery's business, do you obtain the winery's prior consent to your tastings? That is, can a winery just say that they do not want you or others to taste and report on their wines?
Tim Long
WI —  January 14, 2007 1:26pm ET
Whoa. Apparently I hit a nerve! I too seem to be particularly sensitive to TCA, by the way, and it seems should have been absolutely clear about that in my first post. My apologies. Regardless, even years of experience with tainted bottles doesn't make me comfortable with the use of a major publication's influence to name names as though we are dealing with incompetents or charlatans. In my opinion, of course wineries should credit tainted bottles, and of course it would be prudent for a winery to pull an incontrovertably fully-tainted vintage from the market. … I do agree with David that "FLAWED" is much more useful and accurate than "55." The former suggests that you're taking your chances. You are. The latter inaccurately suggests that you're guaranteed a bad bottle... regardless of your sensitivity to the flaw. You're not. James - you're an excellent critic in my opinion and I will continue to learn from and appreciate your assessments and insights. I just think that you stepped out-of-line on this one.
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  January 15, 2007 2:09pm ET
OK, let me see if I'm hearing the complainers correctly?? WS should only post the ratings on the good to great wines, but not the "off" or "flawed" ones? If that were the case, NOBODY would take the chance on a wine with a bunk-sounding description and a non-score. So you end up with the same results. You can't have it both ways. If wineries don't want the honest opinions of WS, don't send the wine in to be tasted! If the readers don't want to hear the opinions of WS, don't read the magazine! I for one appreciate all of the efforts that WS is going through to help us out, KEEP IT UP JAMES!!!!Also, I really appreciate BRIAN LORING for being so honest and balanced about this as well, especially as somebody who is in the industry. I've never had a Loring Pinot but I think I'll try one. Thanks for your being an open book Brian! PM
Ron Raich
baltimore —  January 15, 2007 7:21pm ET
The comment that the readers will "eventually taste the wines for themselves," is totally false. Thats the problem. Once you damage a reputation they ARENT going to taste a wine for themselves, not at that price. If the obvious solution posted before about making it clear about how the wine was "tainted to taster," but "may not be to others," wasnt obvious to the WS then that is a big problem with me.Rather than giving the wine a rating of 55 so as to keep track of it, find a better way to track the wine instead of risking destroying the wineries future business. Just how many ppl. who never tasted the TCA on this vintage before are trying to return the wine now? Just a guess.
David B Peterson
San Francisco, CA —  March 9, 2007 2:08pm ET
I'm not surprised to hear that you found TCA at Pillar Rock. I found mild to moderate TCA in three of four bottles of the 2001 Pillar Rock. I was impressed with the one bottle that wasn't corked, but those odds are too steep to buy that wine. I mentioned this to the folks at Pillar Rock and they said that they hadn't had any other complaints.I'm pretty sensitive to TCA, so sometimes other people aren't bothered by a level of TCA that I find off-putting. I now use 3 categories of corkiness: 1 is where it bothers me but few other people even notice it. 2 is where almost everyone notices, but some people are still willing to drink the wine. 3 is where no one finds the wine enjoyable.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.