Hanzell Vineyards, the Sonoma Valley winery that recently suspended sales of its current releases after tests revealed that the wines and its cellar contained the chemical that causes "cork taint," expects that efforts to address the problem will cost at least $200,000.
Much of the cost results from speeding up construction of the winery's new production area and 5,500 square-foot cave, said Jean Arnold, president of Hanzell. She expects the new facility to be ready by the end of August, in time for harvest. Other expenses -- such as the installation of improved ventilation and water-filtration systems, the cleaning and replacing of certain equipment parts, and the hiring of a new assistant winemaker to oversee sanitation practices and maintenance -- will add to the final bill. Hanzell only produces about 3,000 cases a year of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The problem came to light after the 2000 Hanzell Chardonnay consistently demonstrated a musty, wet cement aroma in Wine Spectator blind tastings. Tests performed by ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, Calif., revealed the presence of the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), the most common source of the musty aromas and flavors known as cork taint. (TCA poses no health concerns for wine drinkers.)
The ETS test results indicated that the 2000 Chardonnay contained TCA levels of 2.6 parts per trillion, while the yet-to-be-bottled 2001 Chardonnay had 3.2 parts per trillion. Arnold said she suspects that the chemical compound -- which is formed through the interaction of molds, chlorine products and the phenol molecules found in all plants -- probably resulted from the longtime use of chlorine-based cleaning products in the 50-year-old winery. Hanzell has now switched to a peroxide-based cleanser.
Arnold and Hanzell's board of directors have decided to sell the 300 remaining cases of the 2000 Chardonnay after sensory tests conducted in July with consumers and some industry professionals convinced them that the TCA levels were too low to harm the wine.
"I'm not saying that TCA contamination is okay, but it's a threshold [of perception] issue," said Arnold. "And in the 2000 Chardonnay, we don't feel it diminishes the wine."
Three hundred unsold cases of 1999 Pinot Noir, which also tested positive for TCA, will be available for purchase from the winery only upon individual request. Hanzell is working with industry experts on a method to reduce the taint levels in the not-yet-bottled 2,000 cases of 2001 Chardonnay.
Although some consumers and industry experts may question the sale of a wine known to contain even low levels of TCA, the issue gets murky when it comes to the threshold of perception. No standards have been set for acceptable TCA levels in wine, and depending on individual sensitivity, TCA levels that are not noticed by one taster could bother another.
Still, Arnold said that customers disappointed with a Hanzell wine have recourse: "If you have a bottle that doesn't sing, send it back."
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