How Do They Live With Themselves?

Dec 31, 1969

The guy who brought the wines was generous indeed. But he got shafted, big-time. It wasn't by the restaurant, though. It was by the wines or, more specifically, the corks.

My host, who brought the wines, first pulls out a magnum of 1985 Dom Pérignon rosé (cost: $500). As soon as the wine was poured, I knew it wasn't right.

This presents an interesting social dilemma, by the way. What do you say (if anything) when someone else is serving you wine that you suspect -- or worse, know -- is corked? I waited to see if anyone, especially the host, made any comment. No one did.

Now, if it had been an occasion where wine was no big deal, I wouldn't have said anything either. But this was a bunch of wine hounds. So I put my toe in the water. "I'm not that familiar with '85 Dom Pérignon rosé," I said, which happens to be true. "Is this what it should smell like?"

One of my tablemates gave a thin little smile and replied, "Well, actually it's not. I think the wine might be slightly corked." The stinky cat was out of the bag. Our host took another sniff, shrugged and said, "You're right."

I felt sorry for the guy. Five hundred bucks down the drain. He'd had the wine for years, waiting to serve it for just such a special occasion. What are you going to do? Call Moët & Chandon and demand another magnum? I don't think so.

But wait, it gets better -- or rather, worse. Our hapless host then pulls out a bottle of 1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg (also $500). The wine is served first to the host. He takes one sniff, grimaces, and tells the sommelier to take it away.

I reached for his glass to taste for myself. The wine was corked -- not lightly, but badly and unmistakably. I wanted to weep, but the host was like a graceful loser at a high-stakes poker game. When I suggested that he return the wine, he explained that he had bought it in Europe. Tant pis (tough luck), as the French would say.

But where you buy your wine begs the question. A wine shouldn't come from the winery already tainted. Which brings us to an uncomfortable ethical issue: Is it acceptable to knowingly release defective products?

That's what we're talking about here: defective products. That's what corked wines are. And let's not kid ourselves. Every winery that uses corks knows full well that somewhere between 3 percent and 5 percent of everything it sends out the door is defective. You can quibble about the percentage, but the fact remains that nobody's cork-sealed wines are guaranteed taint-free.

And I don't think the assertion, which I've heard countless times, that "we do everything we can to get the finest corks" is any kind of self-absolution. Do you think that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti stints on cork quality? Hardly.

If there was nothing wine producers could do about it -- if cork closures were the only recourse -- then you could honestly tell yourself that this is how the world is. But that's not the case here.

It's a smokescreen when producers hide behind traditionalism: "We don't know how well these synthetic corks or screw caps hold up over time."

Actually, with screw caps we do know that they hold up pretty well, although the oldest, dating to the early '70s, had a paper and cork lining, less reliable than today's tinfoil layer. The jury is still out on synthetic corks, but they're more than merely promising.

Meanwhile, the jury is in on corks: They can -- and do -- ruin wines.

It's increasingly unacceptable that wine producers everywhere -- and I include properties such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the Bordeaux first-growths and any other producers for whom traditionalism is part of their pain et beurre -- don't give us a choice. They happily take our money up front on futures, so we're taking all the risk anyway.

If you knew that 3 percent to 5 percent of everything you sold was defective -- when it didn't have to be -- could you look at yourself in the mirror and whistle a happy tune?

A growing number of wine producers find that they can't. Take Dark Star Cellars in Paso Robles. Each of their synthetic corks reads: "No need to thank us for this synthetic cork. ... Last year our natural cork cost our customers $8,000 in purchasing wine that was 'corked.' This was acceptable to our supplier. It was unacceptable to us."

Wine producers of the world: How do you live with yourselves?

Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.


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