Tainted Love: When TCA Ruins a Good Day


If you drink enough wine, the sad reality is that you're going to experience cork taint. The culprit, you ask? 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short. This article, though, is not so much about cork taint, because there are plenty more credible sources for that. This article is about what happens now. You've pulled the cork on a wine, be it one you've been holding onto for a few years or one you just picked up at the store or tasting room, and it's tainted.

Well, first off your reaction will probably range somewhere between "meh" and full on rage. And this reaction will be directly in proportion to your expectation; thats the anticipation of a wine that has long been shelved waiting for a special occasion (think full on rage) to some friends are coming over and you picked up a "nice" bottle for dinner.

This article has come about because over the last few months, I've had an increased number of encounters with cork taint. Another of our blog's writers was planning on a writing about a bottle he'd been holding onto for a couple years and that wine ended up having cork taint. So I thought I'd write about the aftermath of a cork taint encounter.

First off I would encourage you, as a reader and drinker of wines, to do a few things. Change glasses and try the wine again, and give it about 15 or 20 minutes and come back to it, especially if the wine has been in your winerack for an extended period. Wines are organic in that they're changing and morphing in the bottle all the time, that's what we love about them. The sudden exposure to oxygen may have freaked the wine out a little bit, but it may come around. However, it may not. Be a little bit patient and give it a shot; if you've been holding the bottle 3 years, you can wait 20 more minutes.

I was once tasting wine with a winemaker and one of the staff insisted that the wine was corked. My wine smelled amazing; I couldn't wait to drink it. We discovered that their glass had likely been wiped dry by a mildewed dishtowel. Three for four empty glasses on the counter smelled the same way. The wine was perfect.

Now, back to the bottle you've been saving. In my most recent episode of cork taint, I contacted the winemaker. I told them that I opened one of their wines, a 2004 Washington Syrah, the night before, and I'd been holding onto the wine for some time, and that it was badly tainted. The winemaker emailed me within a few hours, thanking me for bringing it to their attention, and offered to replace the wine. The wine was replaced with a 2006, but all in all, the service I received and the response showed a few things; namely a) the winemaker appreciated that I understood he didn't make bad wine, but rather on occasion a bottle will go bad; and b) the opportunity to keep me as a customer. I will continue to drink the wines made by this winery because this is beyond their control and they were very responsive.

Most winemakers I've talked to are fully prepared to hear that a wine that they've made is corked somewhere out there. What many of them fear most is that the consumer doesn't understand what cork taint is and thinks they make bad wine. This often leads the consumer to relate their label to a poor product if the presence of the taint is subtle enough that it shows up as dull or with diminished fruit character. One winemaker I spoke with stated they were more concerned with a consumer detecting vinegar or CO2 in a bottle because it can be more apparent to a novice wine drinker and likely has further reaching circumstances. As opposed to a bottle being bad, it could be an entire barrel of wine.

How often does taint occur? I've gotten vastly different estimates from different winemakers, varying from 1 in 20 to 1 in 1,000 bottles. One smaller winemaker mentioned the importance of consumers alerting them to corked wine as a way to monitor the quality of the cork their using. In some cases small house winemakers are paying as much as 50 cents per cork, it's a serious investment on their part.

At the end of the day, wine will be impacted by cork taint, and you're going to encounter some of them. Its an experience that gives you some insight to what winemakers have to be aware of, and why some turn to screwcaps. Some of the tainted wine will be subtle and you'll drink it perhaps unaware, and some will be undeniable. In any case, I encourage you to let the producer know when you find a bad bottle, you'll likely get your wine replaced, and the winemaker will appreciate you're letting them know (at least the one's I've talked with).

Some great resources for information on cork, taint and other wine closures:

http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/483/To-cork-or-not.html

http://www.wine.co.za/attachments/PDF-View.aspx?PDFID=92

http://www.corkfacts.com/technicalpapersandarticles/T1Sefton%20taint%20review.pdf

7 comments:

Rick said...

I'm all aboard the screw cap train. Sure there's a little panache about popping a cork, but it's nowhere near worth the disappointment of popping a tainted bottle. Kudos to Spindrift, Airfield, Benton Lane, and everybody else out there who has embraced the screw cap.

Josh Gana said...

Great thoughts. I too have been won over by the screw caps after an initial hesitance. Don't get me wrong, I love a good cork (and it's nice to see places like Willamette Valley Vineyards going sustainable), but I think the bias against screw caps is going away.

Jesse said...

I am still a little hesitant to climb aboard the screwcap train. Although I do enjoy Buena Vista wines regularly and they have converted to the screwcap, I still appreciate the feel and sound of popping a cork.

Sip with Me! said...

I think cork is often an easy target and inexperienced winos may often blame other flaws in wine (like Brett, etc) on TCA. If it's cork taint, the smell will not get better and more than likely will get worse. If it's another flaw, the wine can clear up with a little time. I've left "bad" bottles open overnight only to find them really good the next day.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Although I have officially turned my back on cork, I don't expect it to go anywhere soon. I agree that encouraging an atmosphere where consumers feel more comfortable returning the tainted bottle is a good idea.

However, some questions arise when doing this. Should consumers always go straight to the winery? This makes sense assuming the bottle has been cellared and is no longer the current vintage. What about newer wines? Return them where you bought them with the offending bottle? What about the receipt? Okay to not have it?

While most stores I frequent respond well to bringing a bottle back, this is still fairly intimidating territory for many consumers (I even have a friend who was questioned by a wine shop as to whether the wine was truly corked!!).

I do think doing each of these things is the right thing to do. Right now consumers are, by and large, silently bearing the burden of tainted bottles. As you mention though, wine stores and wineries bear the consequences.

The tough thing for me though is that even if you do this, chances are that that 2004 bottle of wine, in your example, isn't coming back to you. And if you opened it during a special occasion, extremely disappointing.

Unknown said...

So many good responses. It's interesting though because this wasn't necessarily a pro-screwcap article. Many people went in that direction with their responses. Rather this was an article about one of the realities we must face drinking wine. Sean, you raise some really interesting points about returning wines. The wine in question I refer to I brought them the bottle but they didn't even necessarily want it. A store certainly would. And Sean you're right, the disappointment is not something you'll necessarily avoid.

Adam, I don't think moving away from cork would necessitate us to cut down all the cork trees. I feel like the environmental argument pro and against cork is like climate change, there are arguments on both sides. I can find you some screw cap wines that will not underwhelm you. Granted they may or may not cellar as well, the jury is still out.

craig said...

Nice blog. And you're right Clive, no one really talks about what to do when it happens... other then get pissed off or start cork bashing. You make a good point that there are ways to remedy the immediate problem of a bad bottle. Only time will tell how us wine producers choose to eliminate the problem.