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Dear Dr. Vinny,
My husband and I recently visited Napa and had a few bottles of wine shipped home to us. Last night we opened one of the bottles and it was "corked." We couldn’t drink the wine because it smelled so moldy and tasted flat. We were obviously disappointed, since we were looking forward to that bottle of wine and we can’t buy it locally. What should we do? This was a $100 bottle of wine.
—Nicole, St. Petersburg, Fla.
That’s a familiar heartbreak. Those musty, moldy notes that indicate a wine is “corked,” or tainted by the compound 2.4,6-trichloroanisole (known as “TCA” for short), can be devastating. It’s safe to drink, but the interaction of organic compounds, mold and chlorine can make a wine taste as you describe, and yes, flatten its flavors. TCA can be linked to corks, which is where the “corked” term comes from, but it can originate in other places as well.
Unfortunately, TCA can be awkward to handle socially. If you’re in a restaurant and notice it, speak up (it’s part of the ritual of why you taste a wine before it’s served). Even then, I’ve sometimes had to struggle to explain what I was picking up in a wine, especially when a server isn’t as familiar with TCA as I am, or is suspicious that I’m trying to get something for free. It’s wise to be patient in these situations, and clear about your expectations.
When purchasing a wine at retail or directly from a winery, I always recommend keeping receipts. If I come across a wine that is corked, I save the remainder, put the cork back into the bottle and contact the seller. As a sign of good faith, I always offer to return the remainder of the wine as evidence, and in some cases, they take it, but that’s only been when they are local. I think retailers are in a trickier position than wineries, since they aren't the ones that made the tainted wine. The long distance in your scenario complicates things.
I think you should absolutely contact the winery you purchased the wine from and tell them what you told me. Give them a chance to make it right by replacing the bottle. It might complicate matters if you don't have the receipt or other proof of payment, or didn't hold onto the tainted wine (though I’d be surprised if they asked for it back). You might be surprised—many wineries are more than happy to replace a tainted bottle in the name of keeping a loyal customer.
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