Cork taint is a scourge on the wine industry. Despite great efforts to reduce or eliminate it, the issue continues.
Cork taint is caused by a contaminant, most commonly trichloroanisole, that can at low levels mute the aromas and flavors of a wine or at higher levels make them smell and taste like a moldy basement. (Read my article about the ins and outs of cork taint.)
As a consumer, there are few things more disappointing than opening a prized bottle and finding out it’s cork tainted. As a critic, I look at cork taint as an existential threat. Why?
My goal as a reviewer is to inform people about wines and influence buying decisions. If a person buys a wine that I’ve recommended to them and enjoys it, that helps me. If someone buys I wine I’ve recommended and they do not enjoy it, that hurts me.
Based on my experience over the last decade, 3-6% of the bottles I’m opening for review with natural cork closures have been cork tainted. Consumers are likely seeing a similar percentage, though they might not necessarily realize it.
This is for two reasons. First, they don’t necessarily know what they are looking for. Second, the levels are not always high enough to be detected easily. However, even at lower levels, cork taint still impacts one’s enjoyment of a wine by muting aromas and flavors.
Therein lies the problem. Consumers tasting cork tainted wines will in many cases – truly in most cases – not recognize it. They just won’t think the wine is very good.
When this happens, it means that the winery has not only damaged its reputation due to a disappointing bottle. If the consumer has purchased the wine based on my recommendation, they’ve damaged my reputation as well. I take that very seriously.
These are some of the reasons that I have written relentlessly about cork taint for over a decade, trying to raise awareness of the extent and seriousness of the problem. (See examples of why you should smell the cork when opening a bottle; why cork taint is still a problem; and other articles.) I will continue to do so until cork taint is completely eradicated from the wine industry. Eliminating TCA taint in the broader food industry appears to be a lost cause. (I’m looking at you, baby carrots.)
Today, in true Late Night with David Letterman style, I give you my Top 10 cork taint stories, numbers 10 to 6. In my next post, I will list numbers 5 to 1.
This list was highly competitive. I have had literally hundreds of cork tainted bottles over my 18 years reviewing wine. These experiences were the best of the best, or, more accurately, the worst of the worst.
Without further ado.
10. Cork tainted bottle at a dinner party
Many years back, a reader invited me to a large dinner party he was hosting. While this was not something I’d done before or since, I decided to take him up on the offer.
The evening was pleasant, with enjoyable wine, food, and people. At the end of dinner, the host got up and said that he wanted to say a few words.
He proceeded to tell us that he had a very special bottle of wine he wanted to open. It was a bottle that had been given to him by his children on a special occasion. He had been waiting for just the right moment to open it. That moment was tonight.
He walked around the table pouring the wine, regaling everyone with how much this bottle meant to him. You know what comes next.
I put my nose into the glass, and it had screaming levels of cork taint.
I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat and scanned around the table to see if anyone noticed and what the reaction was to the wine. At least at that moment, everyone was still merrily chatting away.
I started to envision a scenario where the host said “Sean, you’re the critic. What do you think of the wine?” I always explain to people, as a critic, when people ask me such questions, I answer truthfully, whatever my thoughts might be. I sat like a trapped animal looking for an escape.
The woman sitting next to me, who was a good friend of the host, was also a wine professional. I thought perhaps she could bring the matter to his attention before the situation became more awkward.
“This wine is corked,” I whispered to her. She smelled the glass and said “Oh that’s terrible!” She removed my glass and brought something else. For better or worse, no one else seemed to notice.
9. Fridge broken, cork tainted wine, and cork tainted flowers
Toward the end of 2020, the refrigerator died in my house. With the world dealing with supply chain issues, my wife and I started envisioning not having refrigeration for a series of months. Mercifully, it ended up just being a couple of weeks, and we briefly lived out of coolers and a small, borrowed fridge.
Once we were sure the wine was cold enough, I pulled out the bottle, popped the cork, and we sat down to the table for dinner. Not only was the bottle of wine tainted by TCA, so were some of the flowers that I had bought my wife that day. Both were immediately thrown out. We drank warm white wine with our celebratory dinner.
8. Introductory winemaker lunch
About 10 years back, I was traveling in wine country, meeting for the first time with a winemaker of some renown in their area. Time was very short, so we met for lunch.
Accompanied by his wife, the winemaker told me that he had brought a very special bottle to try that day in addition to his new releases. It was a bottle of one of his first wines.
He poured the bottle, and I put my nose in the glass and said, “Oh that’s a shame. It’s corked.”
The winemaker scrunched up is face, smelled the wine, and said, “No. It just needs to open up.” I said “No. I’m afraid I’m sure it’s corked.”
We uncomfortably went back and forth for a bit, then agreed to come back to the wine later. The winemaker was certain once the wine had opened up, I would see its inherent value.
At the end of the meal, he re-poured the wine, and with a smile and look of satisfaction asked me, “What do you think of it now?”
“It’s corked,” I said.
7. Returning a corked bottle of wine
I was at a friend’s house, and she opened a bottle of wine that turned out to be corked. It was not an inexpensive bottle, so I encouraged her to bring it back to the wine store she bought it from and ask for a replacement or refund.
She brought the wine to the store with the receipt and explained the situation. The wine steward pulled the cork from the bottle, put his nose into it, and took a sniff.
“It smell fine to me,” he said. Then his eyes narrowed, and he looked at her with suspicion. He said “Can I see your ID?”
Yes, the wine steward thought that my friend was someone underage trying to pull a stunt saying a bottle was corked to get a free bottle of wine – because we all know that happens!
My friend left the store in tears. Neither of us ever purchased wine from that wine shop again, and we avoided wines from the producer in question – previously a favorite – for years.
BONUS: Two corked bottles of the same wine
A number of a years back, there was a wine that I had scored quite well, and I bought some of it. I went to open a bottle, and it was corked. Not to be discouraged, I pulled out a second bottle of the wine. It too was corked.
I reached out to the winemaker and said, “Just to let you know, I opened up two straight cork tainted bottles of this wine.”
They responded “You know, I actually had a big problem with that vintage. It looks like one of the bales of corks was contaminated. I’ve had a whole bunch of them.”
This was a wine that I had not only purchased in some quantity, I had also featured it prominently on an annual list.
6. Cork tainted bottle at a distributor tasting
I was attending a distributor tasting one year, and was trying a bottle of triple digit (wholesale) white Burgundy. I found it tremendously disappointing.
My wife, who at the time was working in the industry, was there, and I said to her “Isn’t this wine really disappointing?”
She smelled the wine and quickly said “It’s corked.” (I consider myself to be quite sensitive to cork taint; my wife is more sensitive than I am.)
I put my nose back in the glass, and breathed in deeply, and said “Okay. I can just barely see it.”
We went back to the distributor table. The bottle was about two-thirds poured through at that point. It was also a good way through the event. I told the person pouring the bottle it was corked.
He was quite surprised, having proofed the wine. He poured himself a glass and smelled it while we stood there awkwardly. He noticed nothing.
With great reluctance, he opened another bottle. This bottle was 100% different, and delivered all of the goodness white Burgundy can bring.
At this same event, another distributor poured a corked bottle, and when I told him the bottle was corked, he quickly checked it and said “No it’s not,” and continued on.
Coming next week: Numbers 5 to 1.