When the Cork Goes Bad on Long-Cellared Wine

Must we write it off as our loss, and not the winery’s?
Dec 14, 2009

One of the most perceptive comments on my recent blog involving a corked bottle of 1990 Gaja Barbaresco came from Jeffrey E. Paul of Sammamish, Wash. He wondered why wineries should stop using cork closures at all.

In my case, for example, “Gaja sold a defective product and the profit … gained from it was the same as if the wine were perfect,” he wrote. “If by some magical means … producers were made financially responsible for all tainted bottles, they might have more motivation to eliminate the source of defects. But in situations like yours, where the wine has been cellared for a long time, all the consumer can do is dump and cry.”

Jeffrey puts his finger on one of the prime reasons established wineries with blue-chip reputations are leery of switching away from corks to twist-off caps or some other closure that will not harm the wine.

They often talk about the romance of wine, and how there is no romance in unscrewing a bottle, compared with the pomp of removing a cork. I usually counter by noting there’s no romance in a wine that smells of wet newspaper, or worse. And established producers talk about how many of their long-standing customers are too conservative to buy their wines with a screw cap.

But they never own up to Jeffrey’s argument, that there is simply no financial incentive for someone like Angelo Gaja to give up on corks. After all, he continues to sell his wines anyway, and if you follow his recommendations and those of traditional tasters, those bottles won’t see the light of day for a decade or longer.

By then, it’s too late to take the bottle back and get a replacement. If you filed away the receipt, maybe the store would refund your original cost, but not the appreciation on the bottle. And if you bought the wine at auction or got it as a gift from a friend, you’re stuck with swill.

In my own experience, corks adversely affect at least 10 percent of bottles they seal. Not all of those are blatantly cork-tainted, but tasted against good bottles most of us could tell the difference. What other industry would put up with such a failure rate?

In my view, the most powerful argument for wineries to use twist-offs instead of corks is that wineries lose countless potential fans when they don't like what they taste. If the bottle is tainted by cork, most folks will blame the wine, not the cork. How many potential customers will a winery lose if 10 percent of its wines are not up to par?

Ironically, I know that Angelo Gaja was an early fan of screw caps. More than a decade ago he bottled a few cases of his Barbaresco under spiral. After a while he opened a case of each, lined them all up and tasted them blind. He told me that his favorite glass of the 24, by a narrow margin, came from a bottle sealed with cork. The next 12 were all the screw-capped wines. The rest suffered from varying degrees of being not quite right, and one was wretchedly corked.

That jibes with my experience. And now, as we have more than a decade of some wines under spiral, the evidence is piling up that wines under twist-off can age better than most wines under cork.

But when I asked Angelo if he planned to adopt the twist-offs, he just spread his arms and made a wry face. “What can I do?” he shrugged.

Given all that, what do you do when a treasured old bottle comes up corked? Must we count these duds as casualties of the cellaring wars?

Wine Flaws TCA Winery Taint

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