Surely every wine lover knows the feeling by now. You sit down to dinner with that special bottle you've been saving. You take your first sniff and sip of the wine, and your worst fear comes true: It's a corky bottle, marred by the dull, musty aroma caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) taint. But what if you could know that a bottle was corky before you opened it, and could save yourself from both the mental anguish and financial loss of a bad bottle of wine?
Grand Award-winning Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs in New Jersey believes it's taken the first step in the right direction. With the help of a UC Davis chemistry professor, the restaurant now has a machine designed to detect TCA taint in its vast collection of rare, classic bottles. "This is never going to be for everyday wines," said Gene Mulvihill, owner of the Crystal Springs resort, who bankrolled the machine's development. "This is really for the top 1 percent of wine and for those people who drink those wines and want to hold a party and not be embarrassed when they open a bad bottle."
The machine itself is fairly simple. A metal tube slides down over the neck of a standing wine bottle and air is drawn out of the tube, creating a vacuum. In doing so, any molecules on the cork and foil are liberated and collected on a fiber suspended within the tube, above the top of the bottle (neither the cork nor the foil is penetrated).
"It's basically the same concept as the puffer machines you may have walked through at airport security," explained Dr. Matthew Augustine, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UC Davis, who oversees the project. "Just like they're looking for specific compounds, we have our machine set up just to look for TCA."
After 15 minutes of collecting the various molecules, the fiber is then removed from the tube and run through a second machine that analyzes it using both gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. These processes determine what substances are on the cork or foil based on the size, shape and polarity of the molecules taken during the sampling. The data is then sent to a computer that draws a line graph that looks like a heart monitor reading, with peaks and valleys along a horizontal axis. An elevated peak at a certain point along the axis, which represents a spectrum of different chemical compounds, indicates the presence of TCA.
Augustine has been testing the machine for over a year using corks deliberately infected with TCA (since testing actual random bottles would take much longer to determine the machine's accuracy), and is confident that it can detect TCA taint at 1 part per trillion (ppt), which is generally believed to be below the normal threshold of human detection (generally thought to be between 3 and 4 ppt).
To demonstrate the machine's effectiveness, Augustine and his technicians displayed the results of a bottle of 1982 Château Latour that had just been tested and indicated the presence of TCA. The wine was opened and poured, and it was easy to confirm what the machine had already indicated. The wine was slightly muted in aroma and the texture was dry and papery, classic indicators of a wine with TCA taint. With a current auction value of over $1,600 per bottle (according to Wine Spectator's Auction Index), it's an expensive failed test. And according to Augustine, they have yet to have a bottle show TCA taint via the machine that then did not prove to be corky when it was opened and tasted by Restaurant Latour's sommelier and wine staff.
The development of this machine comes about two years after Mulvihill unveiled his wine MRI machine that can detect bottles that have been oxidized or show elevated levels of acetic acid (volatile acidity), which can make a wine smell and taste like nail polish remover. Mulvihill has been slowly testing the prized bottles in the restaurant's cellar to eliminate any corked or oxidized wines from his inventory, but the process is slow going, as the two different machines take upwards of 20 minutes to test an individual bottle.
But as proof of his worst fears, Mulvihill shows a list of wines he recently acquired—'82 Pichon-Lalande, '61 Latour, '49 Lafleur and more. Out of a group of 31 bottles, only 11 passed through his two machines without indicating any spoilage or cork taint. The bottles that failed the test will not be put into the restaurant's inventory.
Because of the time-consuming nature of the tests, the machine can only be justified for use on high-end wines, rather than cases of everyday wine or checking wines as they're ordered in the restaurant. In addition to slowly working through the top bottles in his cellar, Mulvihill is hoping to also market use of the machine to auction houses and other high-end private collectors for a fee. Mulvihill estimates he would charge 10 percent of the current value of the wine.
Whether or not auction houses will want to use the technology is another question, however. Some auction-house representatives indicated off the record that while the technology looks good on paper, the time-consuming nature of the testing makes it impractical for use on case lots of wine. They also noted that technically an auction does not guarantee the goods they sell; they only act as an intermediary between the seller and buyer. In addition, since rejecting corked or cooked wines would result in lost business for auction houses, which take a percentage of the price on the goods they broker, there would likely be some reluctance to use the machine.
Nevertheless, the cork-taint machine, which cost about $50,000 to develop in addition to the training of a full-time technician to run, might prove to be a small price to pay for peace of mind. "There's so much bad wine out there that I'm becoming afraid to buy wine," said Mulvihill.