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?