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james laube's wine flights

Understanding TCA Is a Steep Learning Curve

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 12, 2007 7:34pm ET

A couple of parting thoughts about this week’s discussion of TCA taint in wineries.

I don't blame any of the wineries for what happened to their cellars and then to their wines. They are primarily victims of circumstance and are not inattentive or negligent vintners.

TCA is an insidious presence that has ruined countless wines. For me, any TCA in a wine is a flaw, yet I know that it exists in many wines and often goes undetected by many people or unrecognized for what it is, even when it leaves the drinker disappointed in the wine.

The incidence of both cork taint and systemic TCA in wines is a serious issue for the industry and for us.

Writing about TCA the past few years has been a new learning experience for all of us at Wine Spectator. This episode reminded me of a couple of things that go back to my first writings about wine, and they still ring true.

Once I began to appreciate and study wine, I found out that it is an endlessly fascinating subject that can lead you down all sorts of interesting paths, some more predictable than others.

I knew early on that there would always be someone who knew more about wine than I did, and I tried to learn from them.

I also knew that there would be better tasters and better writers, too.

I appreciated the fact that there is always something new about wine, and if you pay attention and keep an open mind, you’ll never stop learning.

Even when it involves a subject as complex and difficult to comprehend as TCA.

John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 13, 2007 12:02pm ET
It's like when your child comes home with head lice! Was it your fault as a parent? Of corse not!BUT . . .you still have to pick nits!You're doing a great job!!!
Tom Ferrell
Tom Ferrell —  January 13, 2007 1:07pm ET
A Chloroanisole Panel costs $125 at ETS Laboratories. For some producers this is just the price of a single bottle of wine. Given the consequences, it would seem a prudent for the wine professional to take a look at it as a standard practice - especially before submitting a wine to a critic known to be sensitive to the particular compounds. It isn't just avoiding "learning" about TCA the hard way publicly, in a larger sense keeping track of TCA, even if subthreshold, can be an element of learning to make purer tasting wine.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 13, 2007 2:15pm ET
This issue seems so simple to me. At least 80% of the white wines, 100% of the roses, at least 50% of the reds and all "jug wines" in the world should have screw caps. The result would be a tremendous improvement in the quality of the cork with a dramatic reduction in TCA problems!
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 13, 2007 4:28pm ET
Just a question to satisfy my curiosity¿.? How many people would buy a tainted wine IF it was labeled as such with the defect and the ppt (or what ever applies) was clearly indicated as a part of the package? I wonder if there might be people that would enjoy the learning experience as long as the price were low (the winery would still recover at least part of its investment). Wouldn¿t wine stewards, sommeliers, retail sales people and even diehard enthusiasts benefit from the knowledge? I wouldn¿t pay an exorbitant amount, but I¿d love to hear what my guests (or hosts) had to say about a wine that was slipped into a tasting with known flaws. And if there are those of you out there that would lay down a few bucks for such a wine, what would you deem a fair price? I¿d like to test myself to see what my sensitivity level is and I suppose I¿d pay 10-15 bucks per bottle.Anyone else?
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 13, 2007 4:34pm ET
James, The fact that you are having second thoughts on the matter is a good sign. The ancient Greeks had a saying, "know thyself." Ask your self, honestly, what was the main reason for writing this particular article on TCA? Was it to alert the wine drinking public of an infestation that by your own admission was within the allowabe limits in the industry, or was it to showcase your extraordinary talents as a wine taster. The winery you "exposed" is tiny by any standard, the possible adverse exposure to the gerneral public infintestimal. Yes, it is important that the public be informed of tainted wines. But being that the TCA level was border line at best, wouldn't it have been better to have handled it, in this case, with a bit more discretion?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 13, 2007 4:58pm ET
John, you've misread the article. I have no second thoughts about writing about it. My editors and I gave this considerable thought, as we did when covering the other TCA-tainted wines. There are no industry "standards" for TCA thresholds. It's all up to the individual perception. It was not borderline to me with seven bottles tasted. The winery also knew of its situation and could have pulled the wine off the market, which I asked them if they were considering.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 13, 2007 5:05pm ET
John, I believe you can order test kits and might start with ETS in St. Helena or google.
Tim Long
WI —  January 14, 2007 12:32pm ET
James, I think that you've misread John's letter, or perhaps once again I've completely misunderstood the language. By my reading, his comment is that the TCA level was borderline at best, not the number of bottles that you tasted. I completely agree, by the way, that TCA is a very serious issue for consumers, much more so today, or more obviously so, than when I was captured by wine several decades ago. Like you, I seem to be especially sensitive to TCA, and I absolutely appreciate your attention to it as a public issue. I would also appreciate, however, the equally sensitive handling of the TCA issue where named wineries and winemakers are concerned. Yes, the wineries are money-making businesses, but so, obviously, is your employer. I suspect that you are not an unpaid volunteer. I do generally appreciate your work, James. Keep up the good work.
Ryan Anderson
Olympia, WA —  January 14, 2007 2:17pm ET
James,I am no stranger to paying big bucks for wine. However, if I pay $125 for a California Cabernet Sauvignon... I sure expect it to be untainted with TCA. At that price the owners of Pillar Rock should be ashamed of themselves for not pulling the wine of the market or reducing the price bigtime! Nice job exposing and scrutinizing this subject.
Tim Burnett
January 14, 2007 7:31pm ET
This is my take on the issue that JL and the WS seem to (rightfully, IMO) consider peripheral, and others consider the question: should WS have been more "discrete" when dealing with Pillar Rock and its TCA problem?

If Pillar Rock would have chosen to pull the vintage or, then WS could have decided to let the winery handle the problem, leave it's review to speak for itself, etc. This would not necessarily be a perfect decision, but it would have been a reasonable one because, for the most part, consumers' interests would be served. Since this did not happen, WS has no choice but to notify customers in a some way in excess of the review.

While this is not the NYT reporting on government misconduct, the same basic journalistic standards still apply. As I understand it Pillar Rock could have chosen not to submit its wine for review, but once they do the WS has a duty to review it "objectively" and report on that review.

Its not that I don't feel for Pillar Rock. From other posts, especially Brian Loring, it seems to me that systemic TCA taint can happen to diligent and talented wine makers. Further, I can't imagine how a small winery would deal with recalling an entire vintage. But simply because there is no good solution to the problem does not mean that consumers or retailers should suffer. to some the problem might be major, to others minor. But wine buyers deserve accurate information.

As an aside, as technology improves and interest in wine grows, and media changes and grows, it would seem likely that more TCA or other problems in the industry will get more attention. In this case, is there a way growers and vinters mitigate the risk of systemic TCA or other risks, such as insurance or some form of hedge? Like I said, while I can't say Pillar Rock's choice to not recall the wine is acceptable, I would not be surprised if such a move would jeopardize the winery's future, making that decision incredibly difficult.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 14, 2007 9:51pm ET
James,As I stated before, I commend you for taking the stand that you do and writing such articles. Would I have this opinion if I were a principle of Pillar Rock? Most likely not. But what you've done is potentially saved that winery from future TCA issues by alerting them to the current one. At this point, do you have any idea whether it was cork-related? I know that you stated that it was most likely a systemic problem, but have any of their other wines (their 04's in barrel for instance) or any of the other wines made at the same facility shown signs of TCA? I think this is an important part of the story and should be covered in the follow-up.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 15, 2007 12:53pm ET
John Jorgenson: Why on earth would anyone want to buy a prelabeled corked bottle when you already get them unintentionally. Please, if you want to learn cork taint, go tasting with others and ask them to tell you when they get one. What retailer or winery would want to clutter their shelves with undrinkable product? Ponderous.Hoyt Hill Jr: Yes, to alternate enclosures. Alternate enclosures wouldn't fix systemic TCA, but would eliminate cork taint and the disputes (in restaurants and retail stores, e.g.) it sparks. But I'm baffled: from what arbitrary criteria do your percentages come? I'm sorry if some people are offended by alternate enclosures, but I'm not. Maybe I'm not pretentious enough to care about how a bottle is opened, regardless of price. I'm far more upset by high-priced bottles I have to dump. Let go of all cork - 100%. It's out of date, like the 8-track tape or the rotary dial pay phone, and there's no need for it in light of what we have available now. LET'S GET RID OF CORK. 100%!!!James Laube: Every time you identify a flawed bottling, whether by fault of the cork, the systemic taint, brettanomyces, or other source, you save me precious time and money, and I love you for that! That is one of the foremost reasons I am a WS subscriber. Tom Ferrell: I think that your suggestion that wineries test their own wine is certainly appropriate. If I were a vintner, particularly an established one that charged more than $20 a bottle for some of his offerings, I'd consider this a type of insurance against systemic TCA taint, and I'd do it prior to releasing it to the public!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 15, 2007 12:59pm ET
Now my own idea (or is it?): Speaking of insurance, why wouldn't insurance companies offer vintners TCA insurance (or do they already)? Certainly if we can have fire, flood, accidental death & dismemberment insurance, all of which are incumbent upon the individual to carry, there's an opportunity for systemic TCA taint insurance for vintners.

This way we wouldn't pretend to BLAME THE REVIEWERS for citing the issue, nor accuse them of trying to ruin a vintner's livelihood, as several have done in these blogs. It is a reviewer's responsibility to speak honestly about their experience; but it is the vintners' choice whether to release a product. Use alternate enclosures. Test it before you release it. And don't blame honest reviewers.
Tim Long
WI —  January 15, 2007 10:02pm ET
Don - I agree with you about using alternative closures and testing before releasing. Well said. However... 1. Who here has either blamed the reviewer or pretended to blame the reviewer for "citing the issue"? I don't think anyone engaged in this discussion is recommending either ignoring TCA or not discussing it's effects on wine, wineries, or consumers. 2. Who here has accused the reviewer of trying to ruin a vintner's livelihood? To call attention to the danger of UNintentionally causing harm is not to accuse of malice. Let's discuss the issues openly and thoughtfully, with due regard for the opinions of others, and leave the accusations to other blogs on other sites.
Ryan Anderson
Olympia, WA —  January 15, 2007 11:44pm ET
Hey James, how do you pronounce your last name?Sincerely,Ryan AndersonOlympia WA
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 16, 2007 1:20am ET
Tim, with a difficult message to deliver, the messenger (reviewer) mustn't be "killed" (blamed). Yet the Pillar Rock discussion seemed to revolve around what number score should/should not be given and the words used to describe the tainted product so as not to soil the vintner's reputation. That blames the reviewer/WS for an unflattering review, and that's all irrelevant, because with testing available, the wine shouldn't have been released. They released and even defended tainted product so why should anyone waste time parsing words & bogging down in PC semantics?

About ruining livelihoods, the post from A Ludovic did that in the Pillar Rock thread. BL Pierce connected the review with tarnishing the winery's reputation. J Bain suggested that a score of 55 didn't reflect the wine, but I couldn't disagree more. B Loring had it right. I say if there were no clean bottles sent for tasting, then the wine deserves a score tantamount to its enjoyment, and I think 55 is generous for a TCA-tainted pour.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 16, 2007 1:38am ET
One more point: Lots of bloggers here seem to be making two assumptions in this discussion, which I cannot reconcile: 1. That Mr. Laube's palate is far more sentitive to TCA taint than their own (how on earth might one know that, unless you have had your threshhold scientifically measured and/or tasted side by side with JL?), and that 2. the two bottles tested are representative of all the bottles on the market. To the second point, we'd all be wise to remember that significant bottle variation is to be expected, and two bottles are unlikely make a statistically correct sample of all the bottles produced. In other words, it's a mistake to think "Well, if the two bottles tested were below MOST people's recognition threshhold, and my threshhold is average, then the taint in the entire population (of bottles) will be below my recognition threshhold."

I prefer to recognize JL's proven talent of TCA detection and assume that every time he tastes it, I or the others who share the bottle with me just might as well.
Tim Long
WI —  January 16, 2007 9:25am ET
Don - here goes. Of course the messenger should not be blamed, although the messenger of "fire" in a crowded theatre certainly would be. PC semantics? Further, Jim is not just the messenger but the author of the message. A different and higher responsibility. Your second point refers back to your own words about "trying to ruin a vintner's livelihood." "Trying to ruin" are key words here. Intent to harm. I do not believe, nor do I think that anyone else believes, that Jim "tried" to ruin anyone's livelihood. The power of the press may result in unintended consequences, however, and that must be respectfully considered by all writers. Power of the press. Care in its exercise. Inform but don't pillory. I apologize for my sarcasm in earlier posts. I was responding however, perhaps too vehemently, not to the opinions of others, but to the rhetoric used.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 16, 2007 12:12pm ET
Ryan, it's pronounced "lobby."
Micheal Maloon
Diablo, CA —  January 16, 2007 5:19pm ET
Jim,Thank you for continuing to post your honest assessment of the TCA issue. The awareness process seems to be working. The cork industry has been put on notice due to the growth in alternative closures. Wineries have been on notice and hopefully the response will be positive for the consumer.Question - Have you encountered TCA issues that are believed to be caused after bottling and are not related to the actual cork? In other words the wines are contaminated in storage either at the winery, wine shop or collectors cellar.ThanksMike Maloon
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 16, 2007 7:03pm ET
Don,I had the misfortune of learning the character of cork taint at a prepubescent age, but I didn¿t know it until I started learning about wine as an early-middle-aged adult. My brother found a stash of some dirty old mans porn magazines in an old moist creek bed and the paper had gotten damp and mildewed, that didn¿t stop us from looking at them though. Isn¿t it funny how your brain stores information like that and then brings it up again when your nose stumbles on it again? Anyway, I¿ve had a number of tainted bottles of wine including Domaine Drouhin Laurene Pinot, Cakebread Cab, and the one I regret most, Vega Sicilia Unico. I know what it is and can sometimes identify it when others can not. The problem is that other folks don¿t know what it is and I sure don¿t know just how tainted a bottle might be, just that it is tainted. I suppose I could hold on to corked bottles when I run across them and save them for learning tools when we get together with friends who are less experienced in tasting wine, perhaps I¿ll do that, but that still won¿t reveal to what extent the wine is contaminated. If a winery is going to go to the expense of having it tested anyway, and finds that their wine contains say 3ppt of TCA, and then another similar wine contains 6ppt of TCA, I believe it would be interesting to find out what my threshold is for detecting the flaw and would be willing to shell out a few bucks to learn that. At the same time, it would educate those with whom I shared the experience. I really wouldn¿t expect to have the wineries that provided the samples label the product, that could be damaging to their name and I wouldn¿t want that. But a simple white tag identifying varietal blend, the flaw and the level of the flaw would be sufficient and provide many with a more sophisticated knowledge (MHO).
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  January 16, 2007 7:21pm ET
Sooooo how about them Bears?
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 16, 2007 8:46pm ET
Okay! Congradulations, you have a good Football team (so do we): But we make better wine!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 17, 2007 2:37am ET
John J, I admire your enthusiasm about wanting to learn your TCA threshhold, and would never fault anyone with similar ambitions. Heck, if I had money to do it (using the lab & all), I might just join you. Actually, on second thought, no way - it's just too disgusting! Not unless I was PAID. ;-)

I see now that you don't really claim TCA tainted wine would be viable in the market (which is what I reacted to earlier), but what's to stop a winery or a shop (or you, yourself) from keeping a tainted bottle around as a reference. In fact, a local Illinois winery shop used to keep one around for educational moments when the topic came up... I don't think it was a source of embarrassment since it was from cork (ostensibly).

I wonder whether the TCA lab testers can send you back any appreciable volume of the liquid, for your edification? or whether the entire bottle is consumed in testing? Mr. Laube, can you share any more details about it with us?
Adam C Lapierre
NY —  January 18, 2007 9:06pm ET
James, I read recently that the effects on a wine's aroma and flavor which we commonly associate with TCA can also result from very similar tri-halogen-anisoles (such as tribromoanisole). These compounds result from similar environmental conditions (wood and mold).Does ELS tests for these compounds as well during their analysis? Have you considered the possibility that their presence may contribute to the overall perception of "corkiness"?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 18, 2007 9:24pm ET
Adam, ETS does test for just about everything and anything you want in wine. As for your second question, see James Suckling's blog from yesterday, which addresses cellar issues.

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