I have written in the past (at length) about corked wines, specifically, those wines affected by TCA. TCA causes off aromas and flavors that are variously described as damp basement, wet newspaper, or wet dog among a number of other not so flattering descriptors. Two recent wines, however, crystallized for me the problem presented by corked taint.

The first occurred at a recent distributor tasting. I smelled a wine, and it seemed a bit off but not obviously corked to me. So I tasted the wine. It seemed tremendously disappointing considering the pedigree and price (premier cru, north of $100 wholesale). My girlfriend – who is more sensitive to cork taint than I am – subsequently smelled the wine and said simply, “It’s corked.”

I was surprised. As I smelled the wine again though, there lurking in the background was a small amount of cork taint that I hadn’t initially picked up on (the short pours probably didn’t assist here). We brought the problem to the attention of the person who was pouring the wine, who said he had checked the bottle when he opened it but hadn’t detected any taint – in fact, he had already poured through half the bottle. He rechecked it and still didn’t detect any taint but opened another bottle just the same. The second bottle was completely different than the first in terms of aromas and flavors. It was actually, in my mind, the best wine of the tasting.

The next case occurred at home. I opened a bottle of wine, smelled the cork and thought it smelled lightly corked but decided to include it in a flight of wines that I was tasting anyway to see if the taint presented itself. Tasting through the wines, I noticed one wine that smelled very faintly tainted that corresponded to cork of the original wine. Strangely though, I only noticed the cork taint one time. After that, I couldn’t smell or taste it again.

So I brought the wine over to my girlfriend who is, again, more sensitive than I am to cork taint. She thought that the wine smelled and tasted fine. I was befuddled. The cork had definitely smelled lightly tainted as had the wine, at least at first. However, she couldn’t smell or taste the taint, and I couldn’t any longer either. Smelling the wine the next day, however, it was very obviously corked to both of us (cork taint becomes more noticeable over time).

What do I make of these two situations? It seems clear that winemakers and winery representatives are regularly pouring wines for consumers that are corked. This is no fault of their own necessarily. The taint is simply below their detection threshold. In the case of the distributor tasting, half the bottle had already been poured and no one had noticed (or perhaps people had just kept quiet as it is an awkward situation). I might not have noticed if my girlfriend hadn’t brought it to my attention. In the case of the second wine, I might not have noticed the wine was corked if someone else had poured the wine for me and I had not initially smelled the cork. As a reviewer, I know that – while I am quite sensitive to cork taint – I have almost certainly tasted wines that were corked but that were below my detection threshold. Personally, I find both of these things disturbing.

Now you can argue that, if no one notices that the wine is corked, what’s the difference? Indeed, I have seen friends and colleagues drink wines that were corked where they were unable to smell or taste the taint. They didn’t care. But I have also seen how cork taint can transform the aromas, flavors and feel of a wine to a greater or lesser extent. Is it really that okay if no one notices? It is certainly not the wine that the winemaker intended.

And therein lies the problem. The wine might be changed – in some cases profoundly – but no one would necessarily know it or be able to identify it even if they know how to identify corked wines. To me, that seems deeply troubling.

To be clear, I don’t expect corks to go anywhere any time soon. And I’m not necessarily saying that they should. But is the present state the best that we can do? You can argue – as many do – that cork taint is simply part of the business and that the mission should be to educate people about how it presents itself so people can identify corked bottles and return them.

There is some logic to this. However, this doesn’t do any good if a person simply can’t smell it because it is below their detection threshold. What about those bottles? People might simply think that they are bad wines. In the case of the distributor tasting, these were restaurateurs and retailers. Did drinking the corked wine potentially affect their buying decision? It certainly seems likely. Did it affect their perception of the winery? Quite possibly.

Part of me has always assumed – as I believe others do as well – that knowing what corked wines smell and taste like, I would be able to identify a corked wine if it were put in front of me. But after these two wines and seeing how radically different people are in their sensitivity to cork taint, I’m not so sure. If I were a winemaker, I’m not sure I would be okay with that. As a wine reviewer, I am certainly not.