The problems started three years ago, with the 1997 vintage. Two of Beaulieu Vineyard's Cabernets, the Clone 6 Winemaker's Collection and the Centennial Release, didn't taste right.
Previously, tasting from barrel, I'd loved the '97 Clone 6. It was a dark, plush wine -- a great vintage from a great producer. The Centennial bottling commemorated BV's 100th year of winemaking in Napa Valley.
But after they had been released, the wines seemed flawed, displaying a musty, wet cement aroma and a bitter, green, papery flavor in my blind tastings. I figured bad corks had spoiled the wines.
I tasted both wines again, always blind, in flights with other 1997 Cabernets, and came up with similar impressions. Clone 6 was a tremendous wine marred by a musty character. During one large tasting of 1997s, the off taste was less evident in the Centennial bottling (and I rated it "very good"), though I noted that the wine exhibited a musty edge. And I indicated something in the note that came back to haunt me: "tasted four times." The same thing happened with the Clone 6 -- a superrich wine, but tasted four times before I found a normal bottle.
In subsequent months, more of BV's wines showed the same musty flavors, sometimes faint, sometimes overpowering. It was the distinctive character of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a flaw usually associated with tainted corks.
Even as the incidence of tainted BV wines continued, I assumed this was merely an unusually high ratio of bad corks. Winemakers have told me of instances where up to 25 percent of the wines from one vintage had tainted corks. BV appeared to fit that pattern.
The situation became more complicated with the 1998 wines. Many of the red wines from this vintage had dry, earthy, green flavors -- flavors often associated with corky wines. So the BV wines didn't stand out so clearly, as they had in the better 1997 vintage. Still, some BV wines showed a musty character; others tasted as if they had been stripped of their flavors.
When the 1999 vintage wines arrived for blind tasting this year, BV's wines again showed TCA taint. I held off on publishing my reviews for many BV wines, uncertain about the source or extent of the problem. I began to suspect that the taint might not be from corks, but from a cellar contaminated by TCA. In recent years, several wineries in California and Europe have suffered from this situation.
In May, I decided to have two BV wines tested. Both wines -- evaluated by a leading wine analyst, ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, Calif. -- showed positive TCA results. That provided evidence of TCA in the wines, but didn't specify the source or extent of contamination. In August, I sent more BV wines to ETS, testing 15 bottles in all. All the BV wines contained TCA at levels ranging from 1.3 to 4.6 parts per trillion, with an average reading of 2.7 ppt.
Maybe, I thought, BV's TCA levels weren't out of the ordinary. Perhaps some level of TCA was widespread and was in other wines, and we were just missing it. So we tested 23 other wines from producers from around the world. Only three came back with measurable TCA levels.
In August, I showed BV's winemaker, Joel Aiken, the results of our tests on BV's wines. He admitted that BV had experienced an unusually high incidence of corky wines, but he said the winery had not tested for TCA. By September, BV had done its own tests, which confirmed that the winery had TCA contamination, and had isolated one humidified red-wine cellar as the most likely source.
The maddening part about TCA taint is that not everyone notices it. BV said it had received only four consumer complaints about corky wines in the past year.
People vary widely in their ability to detect that a wine is flawed, and in their ability to identify the flaw as TCA taint.
But the test results have confirmed the presence of TCA in many BV reds.
It's a shame that no one at BV took the flaws in their wines seriously enough to investigate, and that they allow the TCA contamination to linger through at least three vintages. But even if most consumers never notice the TCA in BV's reds, how the winery deals with the problem now will determine whether or not people embrace their wines in the future.
James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.