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How Much Would You Pay for Perfection?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 26, 2007 4:48pm ET

How much would you pay for a perfect bottle of wine? And I don’t mean a 100-point wine, either. I mean a perfectly stored bottle, free of any cork taint or other flaws. In reporting on the machine that can detect TCA on unopened bottles of wine, I began to ask myself this very question.

Those of us who've been around the block know that when we buy a case of wine we're getting 10, maybe 11, good bottles. Inevitably one or two are going to be corked. Yet we accept this risk with a shrug—and then just mutter a curse or two whenever we come across the offending bottle before dumping it down the drain and opening another one.

But if you could buy a case of wine and know that all 12 bottles were perfect, would you pay more? Or are you willing to accept flaws in wines that only cost $20, $40 or maybe $70 a bottle? How about that $125 bottle of Bordeaux you’re saving for your child’s big birthday—would you pay $25 more for it if you knew it was clean?

I doubt the auction houses and retailers will be lining up to use the technology, because they only stand to lose from it. If they sell or auction off tainted bottles unknowingly, the consumer generally winds up eating the loss—not them (unless the store has a return policy). The technology is also not very efficient yet: it takes 22 minutes to run the cork taint test on one bottle alone.

But I applaud Gene Mulvihill, the owner of the Grand Award-winning Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs in New Jersey, for putting his money into this technology. 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. Mulvihill is currently testing his own bottles—and he's removing offenders from his restaurant's inventory.

Mulvihill related a story to me the other day as we talked about his newly-developed machine. A fan of 1989 Château Haut-Brion, the restaurateur was working his way through a case of it when he realized he'd lost his taste for the wine. He tested the remaining bottles and found that they had been cooked somewhere along the way. After procuring some more 1989 Château Haut-Brion, and testing it first to see if the bottles were in good shape, he had a revelation: "I suddenly remembered why I liked the wine so much in the first place," he said. "When you get a clean bottle, it's a great wine!"

I know I’d pay for the guarantee that the wine I was getting was in perfect shape. Would you?

Justin Remeny
L.A. Cali —  July 26, 2007 6:21pm ET
Depending on the amount (10-25% additional) I would certainly pay the additional fee. There is no worse feeling than opening that one prized bottle for a special occasion, only to watch it slowly wash down the drain minutes later. For everyday bottles though, I'm not sure that it would be as functional.
La Quinta, CA —  July 26, 2007 11:11pm ET
I am a retailer and I would line up to use this machine. Try not to "blanket" us retailers into the auction house gang James. Almost all retailers can get wine replaced by wineries or distributors. It's easier than you think. Most wineries and distributors love to see things made right. They don't want their name dragged through the mud because they wouldn't replace one bottle of wine. Retailers included. Do a little more research on retailers before you say we wouldn't line up to use this 22 minute miracle tool. Dustin
David A Zajac
July 27, 2007 6:14am ET
I agree with Dustin, this should be a no brainer for the industry - if you told me my local retailer, where I spend thousands of dollars a year wouldn't use this technology, I would reconsider doing my shopping at that store, clearly assuming the technology is there and relatively cost efficient, and no, I would not expect that on an $8/bottle of wine.
James Molesworth
July 27, 2007 8:57am ET
Totv: Glad to hear you'd use it. Of course there are good retailers out there - I have to buy my wine at retail like everyone else, so some obviously have my vote of confidence.

But my experience in this business tells me that those who have to sell the wine always have their own agenda at heart first - nothing surprising about that....

Justin: You're right - for the every day wines, screw caps should suffice. While I like the idea of screw caps, I'm not sure that long term they'll ever take over at the high-end of the market.
John Poggemeyer
Cleveland, OH —  July 27, 2007 10:10am ET
As a restaurant sommelier, I think that on-premise, this has no use. Since I purchase wines from a distributor, and they all have a guarantee on corked bottles, the only negative to corked bottles for me is an interruption of service to my guest. If I serve a corked bottle, i will always, 100% unconditionally, take it back from a guest, regardless of level of taint. I donunderstand, however, that at a restaurant of teh caliber mentioned in the article, when purchasing private collections and cellaring wines for decades, detection has a purpose. But for the vast majority of restaurants, I would pass.

In terms of retail/auction, I would pay an additional percentage to guarantee TCA-free wine, especially those that are to be cellared. However, why not have wineries employ this technology at the source, so ALL wines are analyzed prior to release?
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  July 27, 2007 10:28am ET
Especially today, with other closures available that eliminate this risk, the vintner (through the retail chain) should take back tainted bottles. I am glad Totv reports they do.What you did not mention, James, is the equally frustrating experience of having only one bottle of a special wine and, upon opening, having it simply be not-that-special. If you or a WS colleague gave a wine 92 + pts, and it's nicley aged, it leaves those of us who don't buy a case at a time wondering whether we just disagree with the rating or the bottle was muted by mild taint. With only one bottle at our disposal, there's just no way to know.As for me, I'd gladly pay 10-20% extra to know.
Brad Coelho
New York City —  July 27, 2007 10:39am ET
Fascinating invention...wonder if it can be calibrated to detect just about any flaw? Winery issues w/ TBA, VA, Brett, cooked wines..? It is certainly justified w/ the caliber wines that their restaurant sells, and goodness how disheartening is it to purchase 31 top notch Bordeaux, only to discover a 66% failure rate in finding an acceptable bottle?! With wine prices where they are, especially for older bottles w/ somewhat quesiontable provenance, it is absolutely worth the patience & price of admission...I can only imagine restaurants like Veritas, Cru, Tribeca Grill and the like would hop all over the opportunity- even hiring a full time consultant to administer these tests might be justified. Corky wines have a tendancy to bring immediate anguish...anyone reading your article w/ a fresh memory of a pricey off bottle would certainly jump all over the opportunity to guarantee future safety!
James Molesworth
July 27, 2007 12:11pm ET
Brad: There are two machines - one for cork taint, and the other (developed about 2 years ago) which can detect acetic acid (or oxidation).

Calibrating the machines to search for other compounds like TBA is relatively easy as each compound has its own unique molecular construction, and that's what they detect...but with oxidation and TCA taint the two main culprits of bad wine, that's what they're honing in on for now.
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  July 28, 2007 10:53am ET
until such a test is similar in convenience to taking a blood sugar, it won't be practical or cost effective. open the bottle, pour a small tasting amount, analyze it, serve it or don't. this doesn't address the issues presented for auction buyers per se, but most of those bottles never get drunk anyway (big smile, winking graemlin here).
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  July 30, 2007 4:37pm ET
I also think retailers, and possibly even auction houses would be interested in this technology. Every good businessman knows that customer satisfaction is of the utmost importance. How many more of us would buy wines at Auction if we could trust in the quality of what was in the bottle?Distributors and wineries would definitely be interested in this. These are the people who more often eat the cost of corked bottles. Customer returns to retailer or restaurant, retailer/restaurant returns to distributor who returns to winery or possibly shares 50/50. And trust me when I tell you that many of these wines are not even corked. Having an objective test might help nip some of those returns in the bud.

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