Pillar Rock Battles TCA-Tainted Wine

Jan 9, 2007

Pillar Rock is a boutique winery in Napa Valley that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon grown in its vineyard in Stags Leap District. The winery made its first wine in 1999, and three of its first four vintages earned outstanding marks from me.

But last year, when the 2003 Pillar Rock Cabernet Sauvignon was submitted for review, all four bottles sampled in separate blind tastings tasted “corky.” I rated the wine 55 points, “not recommended.”

At the time, I suspected the wine might have systemic TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole)—that is, the TCA taint was in the wine and not caused by bad corks. TCA taint in wine is usually the result of bad natural corks, but it can form elsewhere through the interaction of plant phenols, chlorine and mold, and it can spread to rubber hoses, cardboard boxes, wooden pallets and drainpipes. Several well-known California producers have uncovered problems with TCA within their winery facilities.

Based on my experiences with other wineries that have had wines tainted by TCA, it seemed unlikely that four bottles would all be victims of musty corks.

When the 55-point rating was published by Wine Spectator Online this past December, winemaker Cary Gott said the winery's owners, Ron and Teri Kuhn, would like to have the wine tasted again.

I agreed and asked for three more bottles. But I also told Gott of my concerns that the source of the TCA might go beyond a batch of bad corks, and that Pillar Rock’s entire production of 2003 might have TCA.

In the interim, I suggested to Gott that he taste through a selection of ’03 Pillar Rock to determine if he could detect any TCA in other bottles. He reported that he had opened a dozen bottles and that neither he nor several winemakers with whom he tasted the wine could detect any off characteristics related to TCA.

Gott did recall that when the wine was still in barrel, he discovered some barrels that did have noticeable TCA. Gott said those barrels and the wine they contained were destroyed.

Gott sent two bottle samples to be tested at ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, one of the most advanced wine-analysis laboratories in the world and a leading diagnostician for California wineries. Both wines had low levels of TCA, at 1.4 and 1.6 parts per trillion (ppt), respectively.

I then tasted three more bottles of the 2003 Pillar Rock, in regular Wine Spectator blind tastings, and described all three as being off and possibly being corky. I marked each wine for retaste. It's our policy at Wine Spectator to automatically retaste any wine we suspect is “corky,” or otherwise off.

We sent samples from those three wines to ETS, and results showed all three wines also had low levels of TCA, at 1.2, 1.4 and 1.9 ppt, respectively.

Gott said Tuesday that the winery would continue selling the 2003 Cabernet, which retails for $125; only 357 cases were produced. “We don’t see the wine having the apparent taint of TCA,” he said.

I’m not surprised that Gott and other winemakers didn’t pick up the flaws in this wine. The TCA levels in the tested bottles are below the threshold of many tasters. But the off-flavors of TCA taint were evident to me in all seven of the bottles I blind-tasted—and that’s the reason I can’t recommend it. The tests only confirmed its existence.

You may or may not be able to taste the TCA in Pillar Rock’s 2003 Cabernet. The question is: Do you want to take the chance?

To learn more about TCA and cellar taint, read Wine Flaws: Cork Taint and TCA in our Learn Wine section.
Winery Taint Red Wines United States California Cabernet Sauvignon

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