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What Am I? A Cork-Taint Magnet?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 14, 2006 4:54pm ET

When I was on my anti-cork soapbox recently, one reader wrote to ask how it can be that I find cork-tainted wines so often when he seldom does. I thought of that again when I endured yet another frustrating experience over what should have been a nice meal.

While in Napa Valley recently for a weekend-long chefs' event, I attended a big dinner hosted by a well-known winery, which I will not identify here to protect the innocent. I was sitting at a table with one of the event's sponsors. The serving staff brought around the winery's single-vineyard Chardonnay. I was engaged in conversation with the host and didn't taste it right away. Big mistake.

The wine smelled fine, a bit earthy, but not out of line. I had not tasted any of the winery's bottlings for years, so I just shrugged it off as nothing special. Then I tasted it, and sure enough, there was the telltale whisper of cardboard flavor and the rasp of drying texture on the finish. Could be a minor problem with TCA, the chemical that causes cork taint.

Truth is, most people wouldn't peg the wine as TCA-affected. They would just say the wine isn't so great. I'm sure the winery wouldn't like for the folks around me to think the wine was lousy. Maybe I could get a good bottle and save the day, at least at our table.

I started looking around for someone holding a bottle. No one in sight. Finally, I asked one of the servers removing plates from another table if she could find someone with another bottle.

The second bottle arrived half empty. The server poured a glass for me and went away. I got the glass about 6 inches from my face and, "Pow!" Unmistakable. It reeked of big-time corkiness. "Oh jeez," I thought. "Maybe a half-dozen people are drinking this swill, thinking it's a terrible wine." I sighed.

"Damn corks," I muttered, perhaps a bit too dramatically because my tablemates asked, "What do you mean?" I didn't want to go into a rant, and all in all I think I controlled myself pretty well. I just said, "Well, let's just say I'll be a happy guy if no one ever again puts a cork in a bottle of wine I have to drink."

They looked at me as if I had three heads. Not being in the wine world, these tablemates were mystified. "Oh, I don't know," the woman across the table said. "I love the sound of a cork popping. It's romantic."

"OK, tell me what's romantic about drinking this?" I pushed the glass of tainted wine over to her. She smelled it. She drew her head back and grimaced. "That was a pretty good wine until the cork killed it," I said.

The man sitting to my left runs a company that bottles and sells a famous brand of bottled water. "It can't be that bad," he said. Then he smelled the glass. Same reaction.

I pointed out that I find at least 5 percent of bottles noticeably affected by the cork. "Best-case scenario," I said, "the cork producers think they can reduce the incidence of cork taint to about 1 or 2 percent. Would you tolerate a 1 percent failure rate in your business?"

He shook his head. "No," he responded.

Water isn't wine, but at least you know it's going to be what it's supposed to be. We should expect no less for wine.

Peter Czyryca
November 14, 2006 7:33pm ET
Just opened an Elyse Rutherford Petite Sirah tonight that was corked. The second I pulled the cork, the odor wafted up towards me. Hoping it was anyting but - I splashed some vino into my stem and alas, CORKED.GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.
Jim Nuffield
Toronto —  November 14, 2006 7:37pm ET
I agree 100%. There's nothing romantic about pulling a crumbly cork. I love screw caps and there's really no legitimate reason not to have them. Then, when I find a great red in a 375 ml bottle with screw cap...I buy all I can.
Robert Fukushima
California —  November 14, 2006 7:50pm ET
When it is a strong taint, it is easy to notice. I bet, though, it is when it is very faint, it just flattens the flavors and aromas. You could get a very different idea, a wrong idea, of what the wine could be about. It is quite surprising to think that at an event hosted by a winery there wouldnot be better oversight to insure the wine is properly served and I should think checking the wine for taint is always a good idea, especially under cork.
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  November 14, 2006 8:49pm ET
One of the most frustrating things about corked wine is the utter randomness of the time and place. One bottle at home is fantastic, and the next from the same case, cracked at a restaurant with great food, is totally undrinkable. The problem is less the horrid, dead mouse/wet cardboard wine, and more the 'off' nose/nuttin' fruit wine that hides the true incidence of TCA for most winedrinkers (the wine gets passed back and forth with everyone asking "is this corked?").

Even the best, most expensive corks will have a 1% rate of taint. That's sort of like a pilot with a 1% crash rate, or a surgeon with a 1% kill rate. I applaud, and support with my $$$, the evergrowing list of wineries that are using alternative closures. Harvey, keep up the clarion call for change.
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca. —  November 14, 2006 9:05pm ET
Ditto on the cork, corks. I felt the same about plastic corks until I came across one the other in an abused and battered bottle of 1997 St. Francis Reserve merlot. No leaks, no crumbles, I was amazed... the wine was great! I LOVE screw tops, but now I have a little more respect for some of the other alternatives.
Steven Page
November 14, 2006 9:20pm ET
If any other industry allowed 5-10% of their product into the marketplace with such serious defects, they'd all be going out of business. The romance of the cork should not be enough to excuse what havoc TCA wreaks on wines! I truly think that some people have higher sensitivity to cork taint than others; while I consider myself sensitive to it, I have a friend (a restaurateur) who can smell it across a room when a infected bottle is uncorked! I've had other people suggest to me that they've NEVER had a corked bottle, but I've never had a chance to open such a wine with them and say "See? See?"
dubuque, iowa —  November 14, 2006 9:24pm ET
The wineries shouldn't think twice about protecting their product with screw caps. It only makes sense. Why accept 5-10% failure if you don't have to?
Michael Culley
November 15, 2006 5:26am ET
What an oversight not to have tasted the bottles before serving them at such a(sounds like)high profile dinner! I think this is definitely a plot by the screw cap people. Are you being followed? I visited a winery last week in the Rheingau and they had some of their wines in both a cork and 'under spiral'. You make the call...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 15, 2006 11:37am ET
>> I've had other people suggest to me that they've NEVER had a corked bottle, but I've never had a chance to open such a wine with them and say "See? See?"
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 15, 2006 12:32pm ET
Harvey, I have a question for you. I know you're a big fan of screw tops, but I have to wonder, if a wine is tainted by TCA, isn't it more the sloppiness of the winery over the method of enclosure? If you were to sterilize the corks, how would TCA get into the bottle if it weren't there already? In that case it doesn't really matter what kind of enclosure you'd have. Crumbly corks though are an annoyance, just like rusty screw caps.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 15, 2006 12:47pm ET
Wines can be tainted by TCA in the winery, before bottling. But in that case it's pervasive and would affect every bottle, not just a few. If you open a second bottle and find no TCA, it's the cork.

The problem with sterilizing corks is that 2,4,6-tricholoroanisole forms in the presence of chlorine, so you can't use a chlorine bath. They tried hydrogen peroxide, but that tends to oxidize the wines. Boiling would require unchlorinated water. Irradiating corks showed promise, but that freaked out too many people, so that's not done.

No, the answer is some kind of inert closure. There are artificial corks, but they can impart a taste of their own to the wine and they don't fit as well as real cork. The glass stopper looks promising, and people like the way it looks better than a screwcap. Me? I think the spiral is beautiful.
Martin Tillier
Leland NC —  November 15, 2006 1:30pm ET
I own a small retail wine store that has been open for around 20 months. In that time we have sold many thousands of bottles of wine so, stastically speaking, must have sold hundreds of bottles tainted by bad corks. I have had 3 returned as corked in that time(2 by the same customer). This despite my asking every customer to PLEASE return any wine that they do not like, regardless of whether they think it is damaged in any way, for replacement or refund. I figured that that way, even those who did not recognize flawed wine would return it and give me an opportunity to redeem my, and the winery's, reputation. Much is written of the damage done to the reputation of winemakers by corked wine, but it also damages the reputation of retailers. I shudder to think how many people have opened a bottle that I have recommended and thought " I'm not going there again...that guy likes wine that tastes of wet dogs!" Thank you Harvey for your tireless work to promote alternative closures. Keep spreading the word!
Tim Webb
high point nc —  November 15, 2006 1:50pm ET
it appears to me that tca taint is vastly overstated. i know a few people who see it in every other bottle they open, while the rest of the people seem oblivious to it. while there is no reason not to use a screw type closure on wines intended to be drunk within a few years, i am skeptical of long term cellaring bottles with metal or plastic closures.
Rick Kirgan
Mexico —  November 15, 2006 2:05pm ET
One of the great things about the whole wine experience is the ceremony of un-corking a good bottle. Imagine being in your dining room surrounded by all your close friends in anticipation of that special Zin you've been cellaring. As they all look on, you, with great fanfare and aplomb.....UNSCREW A CAP! Nothing could be more anti-romantic! Synthetic corks are the way to go. They don't impart off aromas and flavors to your wine and they don't crumble. Plus, you don't have to kill a tree (quick-growing though it may be) to manufacture them.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 15, 2006 3:24pm ET
Tim, the more people become aware of what cork taint is, the more they notice it. It's a lot more prevalent than we all thought. The cork affects the taste of so many bottles at a subliminal or barely perceptible level that can strip a wine of its pleasure-giving flavors.

And Rick, if you find a screwcap anti-romantic, how do you feel about the wines spoiled by the cork? I love seeing those screwcaps, because I know the wine is going to provide all the sensuous pleasure I expect it to deliver. THAT's romantic.
Robert Fukushima
California —  November 15, 2006 3:28pm ET
Martin, I can tell you one reason many people hesitate to bring back a bottle. A few years back, I was caught off guard and had to buy a bottle from a wine shop I was not familiar with. I asked the owner for a riesling recommendation, I suggested that I would like a higher end of his selection. He provided me with an unfamiliar winery selection and I was off. Upon opening it, I could immediately tell that it was off. I poured a small sample and sniffed. Corked, without a doubt. When I returned to his shop a couple days later to discuss this with him, in hopes of an exchange, I was informed that it was, perhaps, too difficult a wine for me. I informed him that my experience with wine was more than enough to tell a spoiled wine from a good one. We bantered for a while, and he never swayed from his position that I was incorrect in my assumption and clearly should be more honest with myself about my skills and taste. It was very unpleasant and I can see where someone with less experience and confidence might skulk away and not be aware that they have a voice.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  November 15, 2006 4:21pm ET
Harvey--I was recently at a dinner with a few wine heads like me and I ordered a top named Cal Pinot, from the Santa Rita Hills appelation. The server poured a taste and I immediately knew it was tainted with my first whiff of rotten eggs. Instead of sending it back though I waited until my colleagues had a bit and they just smiled and said "Good stuff." I tried a bit more a few minutes later and it was still bad (really undrinkable to me) so I stuck with the good Chard we also had at the table. I wasn't paying for the meal so I didn't want to look like a jerk in front of 15 people who were all happy to drink the Pinot. Do you find yourself not commenting on bad wine in such a setting or do you feel compelled to speak out?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 15, 2006 4:55pm ET
Tim's question about how to deal with a bad wine at a table full of people who love it sounds like a good topic for a future blog. Thanks for the idea. I will do it. (The short answer is that it depends on how well you know the others in the group and how uncomfortable it might be if you brought up the topic.)

To clarify, the "rotten egg" smell is hydrogen sulfide, a nasty by-broduct of yeast fermentation. It is not related to cork taint, which when full-bolown smells like mildewed newspapers to me.
Martin Tillier
Leland NC —  November 15, 2006 6:46pm ET
Robert, I too have had similar experiences before being in the trade, which is why I go out of my way to ASK customers to bring back a bottle they don't like, even if they are not sure there is something wrong with it. I have tasted everything in my store and am familiar with them. If there is nothing wrong with the wine it will find a good home on my table that night, but I would never dream of contradicting or emabarassing a customer like that. My reason for posting was just to point out that most reputable retailers would rather have a bad bottle returned than their reputation damaged. Sounds like the store you went to were trying to earn a bad reputation! Their attitude is inexcusable as corked and flawed wine is simply returned to the distributor and replaced. It costs the retailer nothing. Sorry for your bad experience but my guess is, with that attitude, that particular store won't last long anyway.
Christopher Cribb
Kansas City, MO, USA —  November 16, 2006 12:40am ET
Harvey et al,
Interesting takes across the board and I echo the sentiment to protect and display wine as the winemakers intended. We just made the call to bottle our first red wine under screw cap, started with white and have progressed... it felt good!

I must admit, I am personally torn as to what the best taint free closure is, all have their nuances, yet are much better than losing great wines.

I would also love to hear a piece and any advice on letting a restaurant staff know they are pouring 'corky plonk', in those environments many people turn into bartenders and miss this detail.

Not that I think rants are ultra interesting... but, if we can help educate people about what "room temperature" means it sure would make my job a bit easier (yes, I am talking to those hot US cities down south and more).

Cheers and lets hope our Turkey Day bottles fair well!

Steven Godwin
Newport News, VA —  November 16, 2006 1:33am ET
Harvey--You are so right! My wine retailer must think I'm crazy as I seem to be the only one who brings back corked wines. My average over the last few years has been about 5-8%!! That is way too much. Another question for you on this topic...do you feel that the distributor and/or the winery should be held accountable for these horrid corked wines--I mean financially responsible? I have been lucky in the fact that most of the people I buy from will refund or exchange the corked wines. In fact, I will refuse to buy from a local distributer that will not back up these wines (as I am a very good customer and I will be loyal to those who appreciate my business). Virginia even has a law that states the seller MUST take the wine back (if it is "bad"). Your thoughts? Enjoy your blog very much. Thank you!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  November 16, 2006 2:56am ET
Love this crusade. Question: Can TCA spread? I deal w/ a likeable importer. His wines 'taste' great but recently I've picked up very strong TCA-type odors from the packaging. Cardboard boxes, btls wrapped in tissue. He ships everything cool. Could this smell eventually infiltrate the corks and then the wines. I've finally pointed out my concerns to him (for his business as well). He thinks it is just the smell from the wineries' caves. It smells exactly like classic TCA to me. All wet, musty, dusty newspaper. Any input would be appreciated. His business is new and I want him to succeed but this scares me.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 16, 2006 11:36am ET
As much as i find a wine store admirable for saying they'll take back a bad bottle, in practice I find it a bit lacking. Often times I'll pick up a few bottles that are 10+ years old. The store stated proper cellar conditions and the fill level is about right but when I pop it open, it's clearly corked. The wine store is not likely to take the bottle back and unfortunately, it is my loss for picking up the older bottle. Now if a bottle of say Yellow tail was off, my local retailer has no problem swapping that one out. Just a comment from me.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 16, 2006 2:16pm ET
If you actually bring the bad bottle(s) back to the retailer, the corkiness should be evident. It doesn't go away. It is amazing to me, however, how many wine professionals are in denial about this issue.
Wines International Ltd
November 17, 2006 2:46pm ET
Still not convinced on screw tops. Sorry but I have found several bottles leaking little juice drops down the rack. Maybe nothing is perfect?
Wines International Ltd
November 17, 2006 2:54pm ET
As a retailer I'm surprised that people have problems returning bottles. The retailer should be able to recieve credit on all BAD bottles. So why sweat replacing a bottle? I would find a local wineshop that looks after your business
Lee Edwards
Little Rock, Arkansas —  November 17, 2006 3:16pm ET
Harvey,you hit it on the head when you said the worst part is that people think it is something wrong with the wine. As a wine manager at a restaurant, I noticed people were self-conscious about telling staff that there was something wrong with the wine. They think we in the industry will just assume they are trying to seem all-knowing. But I am thankful for those who do say something, especially those by the glass wines. Then there are 4 tables or 5 which think the wine just is not well-made, instead of that there is a cork problem.I think the passive agressiveness of consumers is the worst part of the problem. Replacing a bottle is easy. Winning back consumers to a good brand because of a past cork issue left unresolved is terribly difficult. Chris cribb makes a good point about serving temperatures.
Steve Smith
November 17, 2006 5:28pm ET
I'm not convinced about screwtops, either. They are subject to denting during handling in shipmentand it sounds to me as though there are still questions about how wines age under cap. Doesn't mean I'm happy with corked wines, though. I'm curious about the glass enclosures, but haven't run across them yet. I'm sure it varies by locale, but in NY it is becoming more difficult to replace bad bottles for retailers because of overly strict enforcement of regulations against "free" goods. And it has always been tough to deal with bottles that are "10+ years old". I suspect most retailers end up eating those.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 17, 2006 6:23pm ET
Steve, on the issue of "denting," that was a problem with earlier versions of screwcap technology. It takes a pretty good whack to dent current screwcaps enough to break the seal, enough in most cases to break the bottle top.

The long-term ageing issue won't go away until caps have been widely used on ageable wines for 10-15 years. So far the results are highly encouraging for wines 5 to 10 years old. I've never had an older wine spoiled by a screwcap. I know for certain that 5 percent or more of the wines I uncork from my cellar will be ruined.

Finally, on the issue of corked wines 10+ years old. I suspect that nearly all of them are eaten by consumers, who don't think they can take them back to a retailer, distributor or producer.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  November 18, 2006 12:46am ET
Screw caps are like eating an outstanding 5 course French meal at a truckstop. Screw caps are functional but considered cheap enclosures so can we please start looking for something classy and functional? I don't like corked wine but I also don't like screw caps. Let's talk about other alternatives! Why don't we see more glass stoppers for example? Let us not forget that wine is a luxury item and nobody needs wine just like nobody needs an S class Mercedes, a Rolex or a $500 purse. It's not about functionality, it's about perception.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 18, 2006 6:05pm ET
The characterization "screw caps are like eating an outstanding 5 course French meal at a truckstop" is exactly backward. Screwcaps are like eating in a sleek new restaurant where the kitchen is spotless and the food is fresh and delicious. CORKS are like eating in a dingy, dim, cobwebby old restaurant with a sweaty, chain-smoking chef. You never know exactly what's gotten into the food.
Scott Cheney
Michigan —  November 24, 2006 10:23pm ET
I figure everyone who cares enough about wine to read this blog knows a significantly corked bottle when they smell one. Most can probably even pick out a subtly corked bottle. But I will say that the other 98% of wine-drinkers out there have no clue. I have even had distributers pour me a corked wine at a tasting/sales event, and then try to tell me it was just "earthy". They didn't even know.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  November 26, 2006 9:27am ET
Interesting angle Harvey but the public doesn't see screw caps as sleek, but instead they see them as cheap. That sleek new restaurant with the spotless kitchen isn't top notch without the ambience and romance. I know they are functional but changing the entire public perception is a little much. Like another blogger said, maybe 98% of the public has no clue. So if there's no problem to them than why change something people like without having a great idea...not just an ok idea. Keep in mind that the majority of people in this country buy wine under $10 and drink it the same day so it's not the same heartbreak or financial loss as it is with high priced wines that people on this site might be drinking. Trust me I appreciate the blog topic, I'm just trying to think of alternatives or better marketing.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  November 26, 2006 10:43am ET
Public perception can change. It already has in this country, from a very small minority who thought screw caps were OK just a few years ago to a majority today. In New Zealand and Australia, the public demands screw caps and resists wines bottled under cork. Are Kiwis and Aussies smarter than us? No, they just picked up on the logic faster.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  January 5, 2007 3:56pm ET
Harvey, I know you are passionate about the cork issue. Have you ever heard of "fixing" a corked wine? Check the December 27, 2006 article titled Fixing Corked Wines: http://spiritofwine.blogspot.com/
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 5, 2007 5:13pm ET
My colleague Dan Sogg tested a commercial product that promises to rid wines of TCA. He found that it made very little difference, and it stripped some of the character of the wine to boot.

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