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Snitching on Bad Corks

Don't bite your tongue when your nose tells you a bottle is off
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 23, 2013 10:30am ET

I've had cork on the brain of late. Despite that we found the lowest failure rate yet among natural corks for newly released wines in 2012, many potentially great wines end up spoiled in one way or another. With that in mind, it's worth pointing out that there are matters of etiquette when it comes to wines tainted by bad corks.

The most uncomfortable situation, at least for me, is encountering a corked wine in mixed company, that is, with strangers who are unfamiliar with TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) and the myriad other faults that may lie in wait within a bottle of wine sealed with a cork. (It's awkward too if a guest has brought a special albeit flawed bottle, worse yet if you yourself are the bearer of tainted wine.) Some people choose not to say a word if no one else at the table seems to be aware a wine isn't everything it should be. I think it's imperative you point out the flaw and take the time to educate your companions.

The ritual of sniffing the cork can be educational as well. While the smell of the cork is not a positive indication that a wine is good or bad, many times a cork that stinks of wet cardboard or moldy newspaper serves as confirmation that an off-smelling bottle is corked. It can save you pouring out several glasses, or wasting time decanting a bottle only to have to dump the wine and thorougly clean the decanter.

And your fellow wine drinkers aren't the only ones that you should tell about a bad bottle. I suggest that when you encounter a corked wine you've paid for, you should inform the winery or retailer and seek a refund or replacement. Most vintners are keenly aware of the problems and happy to satisfy their customers with a replacement or credit rather than lose a repeat customer.

Wines tainted by bad corks make everyone uncomfortable. Many people are embarrassed or humiliated when they encounter a flawed wine, especially if it's their first experience. That's why it's important to let people know when a bottle is off, and educate them on how to identify a corked wine. A modicum of discomfort can become a learning experience for everyone, and illustrate why we wine-tasting veterans find the fallible cork such a frustrating closure.

Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  January 23, 2013 3:48pm ET
I think it will be a long hard battle James.
Finding three out of ten tainted bottles of Château Lynch-Bages Blanc de Lynch-Bages 2005 after two years in the cellar, I asked the distributor if compensation was possible. The reply was that too much time had passed and that they were sorry they could not help me.
Thanks for the encouragement.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  January 23, 2013 4:29pm ET
Alan - there should be no statute of limitations on corked wines. TCA is a manufacturing defect, and the wine was bad as soon as it was bottled. It's not as if any winery using cork doesn't know that some percentage of their bottles will be affected. They chose the closure, so they should be responsible for the consequences.

Of course, we don't live in a perfect world. Contacting the winery isn't always easy, even though I think it's important so that wineries feel the pain of all the faulty bottles. Getting replacements for older wines is difficult. Cost is also an issue. If the winery can't replace the exact bottling, how do you value older wines, especially ones that have appreciated greatly?

As is often the case, the computer from the movie War Games has the answer... "The only winning move is not to play" :)

James Laube
Napa —  January 23, 2013 4:51pm ET
Agree with Brian, and I expected that to be the answer. But I imagine L-B lost a customer and at least they know of your problem and dissatisfaction. I would write to the owner of the Chateau. They know of the cork problem. The issue is what is their resolution to a defective product. If they're indifferent, that's a different matter.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 23, 2013 4:57pm ET
Mr. Laube, I completely agree, and want to echo your position. No one will ever know the "real" percentage of tainted bottlees when people shrug their shoulders and say "oh well", electing not to ask (the retailer, the winery, distribution) for replacement or compensation.

Not just that, but your mixed company example proves also that the number stated by the industry (read: their number) is only as low as they claim because so many casual consumers don't know what TCA taint tastes like; they just drink it without questioning it, so thereby the number of defective bottles isn't represented by returns/claims, is it?

The squeaky wheel gets the oil. Alternate closures will not gain traction unless wineries grow tired of consumers asserting their rights to properly packaged product by demanding replacements.

And thanks for saying this, once again, I am 100% behind you - it's time for a change!!!
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  January 23, 2013 5:06pm ET

You are in all you state, correct. Even worse, CA regulations did (and I think it still do) state that if you get a corked bottle from a retailer, it has to go back to that retailer, and then back to the distibutor, and then back to the winery. That's a long process that isn't always followed.

And that sucks...and it sucks particularly for the consumer who is screwed by a bottling decision that is still too flawed.

Thanks for being a leader in making the decision to a better closure...and for letting me be a follower.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  January 23, 2013 5:19pm ET
Alan: My opinion of the Lynch-Bages distributor is that since he knows his wine is so desirable he doesn't care about the negative response he may get from one customer. He knows that there are many other customers waiting in the wings.

A couple of years ago I opened a corked bottle from Margerum that I had had in my cellar for four years. After contacting them about it they sent out another bottle of the same wine immediately, no questions asked.

One lesson I have learned is not to tell a narcissist that his wine is corked. He tasted it first and declared the wine to be good. When I tasted it there was no question that it was corked. He refused to believe it and insisted that everybody else taste the wine, but he wouldn't accept that it was corked until his wife said that it was. Talk about an embarrassing situation.
Patricia Jewelle
Roseville, MN USA —  January 23, 2013 5:21pm ET
Hear! Hear! I agree that something should be said. It's unfortunate that the winery is using a weasel clause to get out of this. What a poor representation of their company and product. I have no problem discussing the issue of cork taint - mixed company or no. We will all have better (future) experiences if vintners are made aware. Thank you!
Kc Tucker
San Diego, CA —  January 23, 2013 9:27pm ET
And usually the retailer eats it because the distributor won't take it back because it's "after vintage"
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale —  January 23, 2013 9:30pm ET
James - Please keep advocating for this. We always try to be courteous when dealing with a corked bottle, especially at a restaurant, but I am never reluctant to bring attention to a tainted bottle. There have been times when I got some push back from the staff, but I am firm and will not pay for a bottle with even the slightest presence of TCA.

I reported here a few years ago how badly we were treated by Freemark Abbey when we opened 2 of six bottles of their highly rated 1997 Napa Cab that were badly affected. I got the run around and denials, had to pay to ship them back to California, the winery claimed that I was wrong, but, after a lot of pushing, and a hostile phone call with one of the principals, we were finally made almost whole by them. I have not bought a Freemark Abbbey wine since.

On the other hand, just this week we opened a Chalk Hill Pinot Gris that was clearly corked. The second bottle was perfect. I emailed to inform them, without asking for a replacement, and was offered a replacement bottle shipped to Florida at their expense the next day without question.

Some of the wineries and retailers know how to treat customers, some never will get it.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  January 24, 2013 10:03am ET
Thanks for fighting the good fight James. Few would argue that a bad bottle of wine due to a faulty cork is the customers fault. Yet much, it seems to me, is missing from your persistent blogs on the subject.
While I have no doubt that you and all who post have strong opinions and appropriate skills to identify bad cork from “other reasons” the wine may be off, my experience and common sense causes me to question the newly created throng of wine connoisseurs who display their expertise by pronouncing “corked bottle” on a far too regular basis. With apparently only one correct response, restaurants, retailers, distributors, & wineries should say “of course the wine is corked”, where should we send the refund? What’s wrong with this picture?

James Laube
Napa —  January 24, 2013 12:12pm ET
Indeed cork is but one reason a wine might be off, and there is no accounting for honesty or integrity. If there are wineries, or retailers who receive an abnormal number of requests for replacements, that would be worth learning. There are plenty or reasons wine lovers are embracing twistoffs: ease of opening and closing, less chance of flaw of either TCA or oxidation (cork leakage, and the so-called romance of popping a cork. Some people will always accept cork taint as part of the experience, just as people used to consider a flat tire part of car ownership). Wineries should know if their wines are defective for whatever reason. How they choose to deal with that dissatisfaction is their choice. I assume for some people the loss of a single bottle or two to TCA taint isn't a financial issue. The loss of one bottle (as in the only bottle) is the bigger issue. Consumers who are aware of the problems with corks are buying more twistoffs when given the choice. It took one winery a lot of courage 20 some years ago to tell me that 25 percent of its wines from one vintage were corked; the winery refunded any suspect bottles and still uses cork. But unless wineries are aware of the problem, there won't likely be a solution.
Donald C Young
Des Moines,Iowa,USA —  January 24, 2013 3:59pm ET
Many years ago I opened a corked bottle of Peter Michael chardonnay. I notified the winery and received a callback from the winemaker, Mark Aubert, who asked me to send the bottle back so they could analyze the sample. This surprising gesture sold me on the integrity of the winery. Recently, I opened 3 different vineyard pinots from a premium Santa Barabara producer--all corked. I recorked them and sent them back with a note. The winery responded and replaced all 3 with a new vintage.
Michael Hearon
Palm Desert,CA —  January 26, 2013 3:56pm ET
Although I've been drinking wines for the past 20 years, I don't consider myself a "wine expert". We usually keep about 135 bottles on hand, mostly reds, belong to a couple of clubs, and buy the rest at Costco. I'm always drawn to any bottle with a screw cap. It just makes sense! That dosen't mean I purchase it, just if there are two bottles I like, it might be the tie-breaker. People who insist on corks based on "tradition" are probably the same ones who think golfers shouldn't wear jeans or shorts. Bottom line: You drink enough wine some of it will be corked.
Will Malone
Douglas, MA —  January 26, 2013 4:39pm ET

Appreciate the article and love the commentary. As I am on the road a lot and encounter a corked bottle from time to time at "upper-middle to high end" restaurants, I don't think many of waitstaff, bartenders and sommeliers (I use the term loosely)really know if a bottle is corked or what to do with it. It makes for a very uncomfortable situation at a business dinner to have a corked bottle then have the restaurant staff want to "argue" with you regarding whether it is corked or I just don't like it.
Hey, if I don't order the correct wine, it's on me. But if the wine is bad, it has to be pointed out and replaced. Any advice/key words you can use to get the situation addressed without too much hoopla?
Megan J Robinson
Gales Ferry, CT —  January 27, 2013 6:21pm ET
The times I've had to send a bottle back in a restaurant I've had mixed results. Some have taken their own sniff and taste, apologized, and quickly replaced the bottle. However, on occasion I've been argued with (particularly embarrassing in a group) and the pricier the bottle and establishment the more attitude is given. This makes me even less likely to buy pricey bottles when out.
James Laube
Napa —  January 28, 2013 1:53pm ET
Megan, your example zeros in on the frustration and embarrassment of returning a suspect bottle; and yes, the higher priced wines are more dear, since restaurants usually only get a few bottles. Yet this whole thread reminds me that it's important to keep the cork discussion going, since so long as there are tainted corks and wines there will be people unfamiliar as to the cause and aware there is a remedy.
James Laube
Napa —  January 28, 2013 1:57pm ET
Will, you'll just have to get used to telling the restaurant owner that the wine tastes flawed ("corked") and that you'd like something else. I find trying a second bottle of the same wine shifts the focus from dinner and friends to a bad bottle or comparing two wines, one of which is off...Not that romantic.
Howard Fisher
Dallas, Texas —  January 29, 2013 5:30pm ET
At some point, some rich attorney will get fed up with corked bottles, and bring a class action lawsuit against a handful of big wineries, claiming it is a manufacturing defect, and then the wineries will decide maybe it is cheaper to skip the cork and use a different fastener than fight the lawsuit and refund 3-5% of their sales if they lose.
Dan Kosta
Sebastopol, CA —  January 30, 2013 11:11am ET
Great topic! We have chosen to use cork enclosures for our wines and as Brian points out, that is our choice, so it our responsibility to back it up. Our concern is that TCA-inflicted bottles either go unnoticed, or worse, go accepted as the "normal" wine. That is why I save corked bottles (KB's or others) and keep them around the house to show others who may be less experienced in identifying TCA and its affects. When possible, I also offer these "corked" wines to restaurants for the purpose of training their staffs. With TCA, experiencing a bad bottle is far more educational than experiencing a good one.

I should mention that in contrast to aforementioned producer's / distibutor's policies on the matter, we not only offer to replace "corked" bottles, but we encourage vigilance so that we have the opportunity to make it right.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 30, 2013 3:33pm ET
Mr. Kosta, your position is seemingly reasonable, though I still wonder whether you really can replace the wine in question. By that I mean it has been my experience (with numerous wineries, not specifically yours) that a given bottle, perhaps cellared for 2-3 years to soften the structure, is of a vintage no longer in supply. So when I report the bad bottle and am offered a replacement, it is literally never from the same vintage; and that isn't a sufficient replacement! Every vintage has its own characteristics, and people purchase wine based on the style and words in the review. If one year produced a more elegant wine and the next produced a heartier style, what is the point of substituting a bottle from a different vintage? That is the fallacy of replacement bottles.

I once purchased a highly rated and delicious lush, opulent sounding Napa Cabernet from 2002 and waited a few years to open it, only to find it was corked. I was offered the 2005 as a replacement. I felt utterly ripped off, despite having received the replacement because those two vintages produced wines of radically different styles. In other words, I would never have chosen to purchase that 2005 bottling in the first place so to me it's simply undesirable.

Your comments don't address the primary reasons for your choice of cork, but I can assure you, the way wineries manage this issue today still isn't good enough.
James Gerace
Phoenix, AZ, USA —  January 31, 2013 9:45am ET
The percentage of corked/flawed wine in much higher than the industry admits. It is more like 25-30% and worse in older vintages. I think the taint increases as the wine ages. Some is so mild it may not be noticed even by sensitive palates until half way through the bottle, or the next day! One vintner of expensive CA cabernets and merlots defended his corked wine by citing the 95 point rating it received. A WA winery sent a new bottle and a call tag for a bad bottle. They must not have agreed and sent the bottle to a lab in St Helena which confirmed the taint. They sent me the report with a handwritten note of kudos from the wine maker. Some people cannot identify moderately/severely corked wines and will drink them, especially if it is a wine they are pouring.
Dan Kosta
Sebastopol, CA —  January 31, 2013 1:11pm ET
Don, you make a good point. There are certain situations when a winery simply can't replace a certain bottle. The key to good customer service is how a winery addresses that problem. We hold a limited library of all of our wines, in part for having replacement bottles on hand. If we didn't have a certain wine to replace a bad bottle, we would find other ways to solve the problem other than simply replacing it with a newer vintage (unless of course our customer requests it). Perhaps it's a bit easier for us as a Pinot producer because our wines are generally consumed earlier than, say, a Cabernet and we're not replacing a much older vintage that is scarce or nonexistent in the library. Either way, the winery should look for a reasonable solution, turning a problem into a good experience for the customer.
Gerard T Iulo Ii
Westport, CT —  February 2, 2013 6:24pm ET
As a retailer, my store has a policy that customers can - and should - bring any bottle back that they feel is corked. This policy also applies to a wine that someone truly does not enjoy. We would rather them come back and inform us of their displeasure, so that we can learn their palate, instead of them thinking we pushed a bad wine on them.

I will say, however, retailers and restaurants are put in a tough position as there are times that a distributor will not credit the bottle. I would simply ask that customers be as polite and discreet as possible when alerting staff to a corked bottle.
Jim Deitch
Central PA —  February 10, 2013 7:44pm ET
So how does one suggest to a sommelier that the wine is corked. I had a 2005 Penfolds St. Henri in a well know restaurant in Las Vegas, and when served the cork taint was unmistakable. The server brought over the sommelier, who agreed and brought another (fine) bottle. At another restaurant in NYC, the server thought there was nothing wrong with the bottle, and after some back and forth the manager agreed to replace the bottle. But my guests and I were embarrassed, and this bottle was so corked it smelled like..., well not to good.
Is there a better way?
Christian Wyser-pratte
Ossining, NY —  March 7, 2013 3:53pm ET
I have been a wine collector for about 40 years. Because I started in the 1970's, as soon as I had a little spare money and a little was all it took, the collection has always been heavy in first growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy and equivalent wines from the Rhone. Let's face it, the 1961 first growth Bordeaux once cost $3.50/bottle, and through the mid-1990's it was easy to buy any Grand Cru Burgundy other than DRC or a Montrachet for under $200. Wines from California don't reach quite that pinnacle, because I started later and think $2,000 for a domestic wine is a stupid extravagance, but I have lots of Dominus, Opus One, Staglin INEO, Shafer Hillside Select and Caymus Special. Australia is heavy on Penfolds Grange, Astralis and others near the pinnacle. All my wines have always been kept in temperature and humidity controlled cellars or professional strorage. Because I started so long ago, many of my wines are in the fall of their maturity--I still have lots of 1982 Bordeaux such as Cheval Blanc, and it needs to be drunk--but storage is not at issue.

And here is what I have found over that time period: out of literally thousands of bottles, about 5% of my wines have been corked. That's a lot of wine and, at current prices, a lot of money. And it is an unacceptable manufacturing defect, which if it occurred in an automobile, food or an OTC drug would bring an enormous recall. Recently, I brought a 1990 Penfolds Grange to a very fancy restaurant for Valentine's Day. Corked. Too embarassing and annoying to remember without a twinge. I have a friend whose cellar is exclusively California wines, and at a recent dinner party he opened eight bottles going back to 1982 Opus One (fresh and delicious) but two bottles of Heitz 1985 Martha's Vineyard were both corked. My wife and I couldn't drink it, the wine merchant at the dinner proclaimed it disgusting, and half the people there didn't notice anything and drank it happily, saying they couldn't understand our discomfort. So obviously different people perceive the problem differently or not at all, and that's why the vintners get away with selling what is effectively garbage.

It's very hard for me to bring my wine back to a retailer because I've had it so long that I can't usually remember where I bought it. On two occaaions, I did remember, and one retailer gave me another bottle of choice to replace the bad one, and the other washed his hands of the matter, and of my future business. Anyone who thinks this is a minor issue is delusional.
James Laube
Napa —  March 7, 2013 4:15pm ET
Christian, thank you for this comment and for the perspective. I'm curious at one level whether you've encountered cork taint in those old wines (1961s); none of us recalls there being that problem in older wines. But maybe we weren't paying close enough attention.

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