The other night I opened two corked wines back to back, a 2006 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir and a 2004 Schrader Cabernet.
As much as I'd like to believe that the cork industry is solving the cork issue, I'm afraid our experiences with TCA-tainted corks in Wine Spectator's Napa office indicate otherwise. Last year we tasted more than 3,000 cork-finished wines and 6.9 percent were judged to be tainted by TCA.
I won't bore you with the details about cork taint. It has been hashed and rehashed ad nauseam by most of our editors. And the industry as well is divided on cork's merits. Many wineries have turned to twist-off caps so their wines can't be corked.
A few years ago, when we began tracking cork-tainted bottles in our Napa office—bottles that were flawed by TCA taint—the figure ran around 7 percent. It peaked at 9.5 percent in 2007 and then dropped back to 7.5 percent in 2008. At 8 percent, that means about one bottle per case is spoiled by cork taint, a level most people should find wholly unacceptable.
Cork taint remains a huge consumer concern, since billions of dollars' worth of wine are at stake. While there are purists who value the traditional cork closure, too many wines, even the most expensive bottles, are ruined by cork taint. In some instances, the wines are horribly corked and smell like moldy newspapers. Many other times, though, cork taint can be barely detectable, since people have different levels of tolerance to TCA. And when TCA is at a very low threshold, it can mute a wine's flavors and, in effect, strip the wine of its flavor without revealing the taint. That's one reason people sometimes disagree on a wine's quality. Someone who tastes a slightly tainted, or muted wine, can wonder why others get so excited about the same wine that isn't tainted.
The good news is that we continue to see more wine sealed with twist-offs, especially on wines meant for immediate consumption. And producers should stand behind their products and replace defective bottles.
None of us wants to face a bad cork. It can ruin a special bottle set aside for a momentous event, or simply interrupt the pace of dinner. But TCA taint is still with us, heading into 2010, and cork producers' claims that the problem has been solved and TCA taint is gone is highly debatable.