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When One Cork Fails Twice

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 16, 2007 10:00am ET

Yesterday, amid a nightmarish run of bad corks in a flight of 1997 Napa Valley Cabernets we were tasting in the office, we coined what, for us, is a new phrase to describe an odd malady—a wine that’s "double-corked."

We used it to identify a wine that is spoiled not only by a TCA-tainted cork, but also a cork that has failed, resulting in an oxidized bottle that's also musty. This was, for me, a rare experience, even after tasting tens of thousands of bottles over the years.

Obviously, we had corks on the brain as we opened one flawed bottle after the next. Frustrating hardly captured the mood. Frightening is more like it when you open three corked bottles in a row.

Of the 34 1997s we tried yesterday, nine were TCA-corked, and at least three were, using our new term, double-corked. That means that even if the cork had been good, as in TCA-free, the cork failed anyway. A couple more wines were simply off, with nutty Sherry flavors.

Have you ever experienced a "double-corked" wine?

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  August 16, 2007 4:36pm ET
Now that is, pardon the expletive string, *(&^&(^&^(&^%^^(^^() disturbing. Why do we continue to use cork?????? I am sorry but this just does not make sense. The second they make screw cap closures availble for homewinemaking, I'll make the switch for my own stuff. I hope other winemakers see this column and do the same. That being said, other than your spoiled bottles, how did the 97s hold up. I've got 2 in my cellar (the BV Latour and Whitehall Lane Reserve) waiting for a special occasion. Should that occasion be soon??
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 16, 2007 4:48pm ET
Andrew, I'll let you know about the vintage when I'm done tasting. But I've always used narrow drink windows and for most 1997s I suggested 2002 to 2008, and in a few instances a couple years longer. I'd definitely drink the Whitehall Lane.
Bryan So
CA —  August 16, 2007 5:11pm ET
Perhaps you have discovered a new strain of TCA that can go airborne and infect other bottles? That would be scary.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  August 16, 2007 6:05pm ET
James,Would Pahlmeyer been one of the bottles. I was very dissapointed last year when I finished the last 2 bottles I had of the 97 Pahlmeyer.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  August 16, 2007 6:33pm ET
Agreed. This is, to say the least, disturbing news. Unfortunately for me (and I know I share my plight with many other collectors), I have only single bottles of 1997 Cali "gems" and, with such a high preponderance of corked wines, I'm getting scared!
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  August 16, 2007 6:47pm ET
James, you did not tell us where you got the wine, how long you held it, where it was stored and if it was recently shipped. If wine travels in a hot truck for even a short period of time it can be adversely affected. Nine tainted bottles out of 34 is more than twenty five percent. That's amazing!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 16, 2007 6:51pm ET
John, most of the wine comes direct form the winery. A few are purchased, in which case we keep track.
Jesse Calderon
August 16, 2007 7:18pm ET
Not surprising. I opened 5 corked and or oxidized bottles in a row several months ago. These were nice cabs from '96 and '97 like Montebello, Spring Mountain etc. I have stopped buying wine and aging it because I am sick of failed corks.
Dominic M Dela Rosa
NJ —  August 16, 2007 10:25pm ET
I'm a little skeptical of this failed cork bandwagon. It just seems that the minute an article about corked wines hits the newstands or blogs, suddenly people's experiences with disappointing wines comes out. I just did a search of the Forums for this website, and there were only a handful of mentions of a 1997 Napa cab being corked! I agree it's not a scientific method, but all of a sudden, 20 people will say they've had a corked wine from this vintage. Tomorrow when an article on how beautiful the 1997's are drinking, there will be 20 people who will reminisce on how these wines made their evenings. Perhaps there is something wrong with the way the wineries are reacquiring their bottles from their distributors. Do you think these bottles came from New Orleans after Katrina or similar situation?
Timothy Perr
August 16, 2007 10:36pm ET
I'm curious, is TCA more noticable on older bottles than younger? In other words, does its adverse impact increase with time?
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 16, 2007 10:43pm ET
As a relative newcomer, I've been spared double-corked wine thus far. But not single corked; some just tainted with TCA, but others where the poor retail storage just dried the cork beyond usefulness. Some even from 2005 already. What a laugh winemakers must have at our expense when we swallow the price of every bottle with a failed cork. I'm too cynical, you say? Then why haven't US winemakers done anything about it? The only US alternative closures I've seen recently (that I would drink) were from Hogue, Covey Run, and Ferrari Carano, bless them.

The WORST thing we can do when we get bad corks is to quietly absorb the loss without a fight. If you, as a consumer, haven't sought remuneration for every corked bottle you've opened, then I think you're part of the problem. Because if there is no widespread cry of dissatisfaction reaching wineries' ears, why would things ever change?
Peter J Gatti
Austin, —  August 17, 2007 3:38am ET
Not a 1997, but I hit the trifecta with a bottle of 2002 Ridge Pagani Ranch about a year ago: corked, cooked and oxidized, all in one. I happened to be leading a tutored tasting that night, so I brought it along as the finale for teaching purposes!
Michael Culley
August 17, 2007 4:52am ET
As we already learned, TCA can come from places other than cork. Let's not panic. In the first half of 2007 and having drank(a fraction of what I used to)about 120 bottles, we had only 2 bad bottles. And one was a half bottle in a restaurant.
David A Zajac
August 17, 2007 6:29am ET
No offense James, but your nose is apparently like none other I have ever heard of or seen. I too, like any regular wine drinker runs into the bad bottle now and again, I tend to think your percentages are somewhat unrealistic as I think your seeing things that 99.99% of the population doesn't - a failure rate of over 35%...??? I am beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as the first bad bottle you smell somehow lingers in your sinuses for so long that it affects the rest of your tasting. I just find it hard to believe that 10 year old wines have that high of a failure rate. 12 bad wines in 35 tasted?
Errol R Kovitch
Michigan —  August 17, 2007 7:20am ET
James: I am curious if you have ever tried the Saran Wrap fix?
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  August 17, 2007 9:44am ET
It had been shown that the ability to detect corked wines varies from person to person. I find that in my cellar, I have only 1 bottle in 50 that might be corked. Thank God that my ability to detect small amounts of TCA doesn't cause me to not enjoy what I believe is a good bottle of wine.
Ted Henry
Napa, CA —  August 17, 2007 12:53pm ET
James I know you would side with the cork haters that have commented here. As a winemaker, I am very aware of the problem and strongly support screwcaps for whites. Reds meant for aging just don't fare well under Stelvin. I tasted a trial of 97 Napa Cab with various closures and cork was by far the preference (blind) over synthetics and screwcap. I am curious if you have tasted (recently)the 1997 Plumpjack reserve Cab that was bottled in both cork and cap. I would love to hear your comments on the wines.
Jesse Calderon
August 17, 2007 5:08pm ET
Not sure if other people do this with their cellars, but I have a database for my 2 freestanding wine cellars. As I pull wine from the cellar I make notes and enter them in my database. I also track corked/off bottles.

I have a vinotemp that holds about 100 bottles and anther non-brand that holds about 100 bottles. My corked, cooked just plain bad bottles is running at 10%. I am pulling bad wine from both cellars so I'm pretty sure it isn't a failure of 1 of the cellars.

10% failure seems pretty high which is why I indicated previously that I have stopped purchasing wine to age. Anyone else track the rate of off wines in their cellar?
David A Zajac
August 19, 2007 7:38am ET
As if the wine gods were out to get me for questioning your "bad bottle" rate, last night my 1990 Canon La Gaffeliere was corked - !
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 20, 2007 11:52am ET
Perhaps because my wine experience does not go back decades, I have no romantic ties to cork. The fact that I open upwards of 40-50 btls a shift might also diminish the romance of cork. The failure rate is too high even if you use the 3% low-end quote that I've read many times. What if airlines had that kind of quality flaw. Or even simpler, what if 1 in 10 hamburgers were spoiled. 3 in 10 steaks.
Dominic M Dela Rosa
NJ —  August 20, 2007 5:59pm ET
One can't use a life or death analogy on something like glorified grape juice. A corked bottle ain't gonna kill you. A better analogy would be this: would you buy a car with a 5-10% defect rate like a Toyota Camry or a Ford Mustang GT with a 10-15% defect rate? It depends what you are looking for.

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