Plugging Away At Bad Corks
By James Laube, senior editor
Hold onto your corkscrews, here we go again. Corks--as in bad corks--are back in the news (Are You Ready for the New Cork?, Nov. 15), and that can only mean one thing for wine drinkers: more foul-tasting, "corky" wines. More bad wine experiences, like the night you dust off and decant your treasured Château Le Grand Vin and find that it tastes nothing like a grand cru but rather like something died in the bottle. More wine down the drain. More money down the drain.
You'd think that corks would be a rather simple issue, but they're far from it. Yes, they only cost a few pennies (up to maybe a dollar for the luxurious two-and-a-half-inchers that go in the most expensive wines). But it's amazing how emotional and hysterical wine drinkers get when the anticork crusaders suggest that we do away with tree bark and--Bacchus forbid--consider some other kind of wine plug.
I'm happy that more wineries are seeking alternative closures for their wines. I've never been much of a cork fan. They require a tool to remove them, and they're awkward to extract, even for pros who open dozens of bottles a day. As wines age, so do their corks. Then they leak and crumble. So the most expensive wines that you're cellaring the longest run the greatest risk of failing simply because the corks may deteriorate. Somehow that doesn't sink in very deeply for otherwise levelheaded consumers. Pouring a 25-year-old Château Margaux into a sleek, long-stemmed, designer Bordeaux glass and finding tiny cork crumbs floating in a dusty film isn't my idea of romantic. Nor are the musty, cheesy aromatics that accompany wines spoiled by weak or defective corks.
Then there's the whole nasty business of tainted corks that make your wine smell and taste like moldy newspapers. For a while in the 1980s, corkiness spoiled up to 6 or 7 percent of the wines we tasted in our offices--often the priciest ones. Some wines are obviously corky and smell like rotting waste; others are marginally corky, their fruit flavors stripped. Granted, the problem has apparently lessened of late, but it hasn't disappeared and never will. We still regularly find corky bottles and others that are slightly off and possibly corky.
Take vintner Jean-Marie Guffens of Burgundy. Flawed corks caused him to replace or repurchase thousands of bottles from the 1994 vintage. While Guffens' wine recall was an extremely honest and honorable solution to that situation, it no doubt cost him dearly, and not just for the moment. Don't be surprised if he suffers long-term ramifications that hinder his business for years.
Most winemakers aren't that honorable when it comes to faulty corks. You may be able to return a spoiled bottle in a restaurant, but I've been in situations where the waiter wanted to argue about whether an obviously corky bottle really was. That debate was not part of the intended dinner conversation. And good luck trying to return a wine you bought years ago. Got the receipt? Store still in business? I've tried to return expensive wines to local wine shops, and in every single case the retailer looked at me like I was nuts. Their mentality: You're stuck; you bought it.
I'm not sure if synthetic corks are the solution, because they too require a tool to remove. And I know that wine marketers panic at the mere mention of screw caps. The truth is, winemakers know that screw caps are by far the best closures. In test after test, wines with screw caps were fresher than those with corks, and they rarely if ever leak or spoil. Still, flawed corks ruin billions of dollars of wine each year--your wine and mine--because the industry and the consumer are hung up on image.
The romanticists will soon tell us that getting rid of corks will wreck the wine-drinking experience. They'll recall the centuries-old tradition and the cherished pleasure of pulling a real cork from a bottle of wine at the end of the day's work.
Then we'll have to remind them that yes, wine is mystical and magical, but it's what's poured from the bottle that counts, not what seals it. Give me a screw cap any day. That way I'll know I'll be able to enjoy my treasures without the possibility that they've been ruined by a defective hunk of tree bark.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the current Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.