Cork producers insist their products are improving, resulting in fewer "corked" wines. Based on our tastings in our Napa office last year, they are correct. 2010 was the best year for corks since we began tracking them in 2005, the year of the great cork debate.
The incidence of cork-tainted wines last year fell to 4.8 percent, down from a 2009 incidence of 7 percent, 7.5 percent in 2008 and 9.5 percent in 2007, the worst year since we've been counting.
I guess you could call nearly 5 percent failure success, or at least progress.
Our statistics on corked wines are based on our blind tastings of mostly California wines. When we suspect an off bottle, we make note (and the wine is automatically retasted). Ours is not a scientific study. That is, we do not send the suspect bottles, or corks, to a lab for chemical analysis or verification. But we're pretty good at sniffing out TCA, and for us, if a wine smells moldy, or musty, tainted cork is the most likely suspect.
The bottom line remains the same. Even at 4.8 percent, that is a failure rate that few industries or products (think milk, eggs, even produce) would accept. That means that of the 2,700 bottles we tasted (minus the 174 in twist-offs), 129 were suspected of TCA taint.
Winemakers are hot and cold on alternatives. Most New Zealand wines, and many from Australia, are bottled under twist-offs. Wine drinkers apparently don't mind the trade-off of romance for a guarantee of quality.
Wine lovers still cling to the notion that cork represents tradition (which it does) and they like the formality and romance of twisting a spiral tool into a wedge of tree bark and hearing the "pop" when it comes out.
I won't drag the whole cork issue through the mud again, except to add this: A startling number of the older wines I opened last year experienced cork failure due to old age. That is, they split in half or crumbled.
The incidence of cork taint may be on the decline, but it's not over. There are countless bottles with flawed corks resting in cellars, and that still bothers me.