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.