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Hanzell Discovers TCA Taint in Some Wines

The Sonoma winery suspends sales of its 2000 Chardonnay and 1999 Pinot Noir amid an investigation into the cause.

James Laube
Posted: June 16, 2003

Hanzell Vineyards said today that it has suspended sales of its 2000 Chardonnay and 1999 Pinot Noir after tests showed the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) -- the chemical compound responsible for the musty aromas and flavors in corky wines -- in the 2000 Chardonnay and in the winery's cellar.

Jean Arnold, president of Hanzell, said the winery had decided to stop selling both wines, which are the current releases, until they learned the cause of the TCA taint. Both the 2000 and 2001 Chardonnay vintages had low, but detectable levels of TCA, she said, but the Pinot Noirs have not been tested. The winery produces 2,000 cases of Chardonnay and 900 cases of Pinot Noir a year from its estate vineyard overlooking Sonoma Valley. Customers who have purchased either of the two wines may return them for a refund, Arnold added.

"We're flabbergasted," said Arnold. "We're in the middle of trying to understand the source [of the TCA taint]. But we have a 50-year-old cellar, so it probably isn't a surprise. We've had it washed twice a year [with chlorine], so that's probably what caused it. We definitely have a musty cellar." (TCA taint in wine is often attributed to bad natural corks, but the compound can form elsewhere through the interaction of plant phenols, chlorine and mold.)

The TCA taint in the 2000 Chardonnay was discovered by Wine Spectator in blind tastings held in the Napa office earlier this year. After the Chardonnay repeatedly showed a wet cement—chlorine edge in four different bottles, Wine Spectator contacted Hanzell, inquiring whether the winery had tested its wines for TCA. Hanzell then had the 2000 and 2001 vintages tested by ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, and the results showed TCA levels of 2.6 and 3.2 parts per trillion (ppt), respectively, Arnold said. ETS runs one of the most advanced wine-analysis laboratories in the world and is a leading diagnostician for California wineries.

Arnold said the winery's board of directors had met over the past weekend to discuss its options. The winery's owner, Alexander de Brye, wanted sales suspended until company officials had a better understanding of TCA, the taint levels in the wines and issues relating to TCA detection and threshold levels.

There is no legal standard for acceptable TCA levels in wine, and the taint poses no health concerns for wine drinkers. Arnold said the 2000 Chardonnay had been selling "exceptionally well."

Experts say people vary widely in their ability to perceive and to identify TCA in wine. While some cork producers claim that levels of 6 or even 10 ppt are acceptable, research in Europe and at the University of California, Davis, indicates that some tasters can detect TCA at levels between 1 and 2 ppt, and a rare few can perceive it at even lower levels.

People with higher threshold levels may perceive the taint as an off flavor without being able to identify it as TCA. In some cases, TCA taint will merely rob a wine of its flavor without imparting a noticeable defect. This can cause people to be disappointed in a wine without being able to pinpoint the specific cause.

Arnold said the winery would launch a thorough investigation of its winemaking practices. One silver lining, said Arnold, is that the winery is scheduled to move all its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir barrels into a new underground cellar this year. Had the TCA taint not been detected, it might have spread to the new environs, she said.

Other producers in California and Europe have had similar problems with off flavors that may have been caused by contamination in the winery. Last year, Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley found musty flavors in some red wines from recent vintages; the winery attributed the problem to conditions in one of its cellars.

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Check our ratings of Hanzell Vineyards wines.

Read our past articles about Hanzell:

  • April 11, 2002
    Sonoma's Little Secret

  • Dec. 15, 1995
    Due For a Comeback: Hanzell Vineyards

    Read more about the issue of TCA taint in cellars and corks:

  • Sept. 27, 2002
    Exclusive: Beaulieu Vineyard's Red Wine Woes

  • Oct. 31, 2001
    Turmoil at the Top

  • Nov. 15, 1999
    Spain's Vega Sicilia Issues $3 Million Wine Recall

  • Jan. 7, 1999
    Wood Preservatives Blamed for Corky French Wines

  • Nov. 15, 1998
    Are You Ready for the New Cork?
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