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Ask a Somm: How Do I Know if a Wine Is Corked?

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Your toughest wine questions, answered

Shutterstock/ Marko Poplasen

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

Not every craft cocktail bar hires a sommelier, but that's indeed the case at Los Angeles' year-old intimate, retro drinking den, MiniBar. Here in Hollywood, Jeremy Allen serves as both GM and sommelier, and he has curated a concise list of thoughtfully selected wines focused on value, sourced locally and from Europe. Below, Allen ponders the predicament of "corked" wine, and offers suggestions on how to handle such a bottle.

Q: How do I know if a wine is corked?

Allen: Beer, wine, cider? Awesome! Cooked, corked, tired? Oops, not awesome! I think of “corked wine” as an uninvited guest at an exclusive dinner party. We are all friends and love every minute spent together, but the interloper is always trying to tag along and spoil the night, and it’s somebody’s responsibility to keep them out, or to escort them along when they disturb other guests.

Corked wine is a specific condition, more precisely it's wine tainted by TCA, a compound that reacts with wine and makes it taste and smell less than pleasant, ranging from a wet dog, to wet cardboard, to a beach bathroom. This tiny molecule known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, hangs out in various parts of the winemaking environment—sometimes on cardboard, sometimes on corks, sometimes on barrels—looking for ways to sneak into bottles and taint delicious wine. Different noses can detect taint at different concentrations, which is why we sometimes have to ask each other, “Is this corked?” Some wine dorks are more sensitive, so while the normal person could casually enjoy a bottle that is slightly tainted, someone with an acute TCA taint sensitivity (it exists) would have trouble getting one sip down, or could even be uncomfortable sitting at a table next to a corked wine...

TCA is tricky since the compound is used in the winemaking processes leading up to the actual bottling. So it’s around, but it’s not supposed to actually go into the wine. Winemakers fight hard to stop it, and the winemaker wins 95 percent of the time. The trouble is, you can’t tell who won until the bottle arrives at the table because TCA only reacts once the wine is locked up and left alone with the cork in the bottle. Two consecutive bottles that have lived the same lives, and traveled the same roads to the same cellar, can have entirely different levels of success. All it takes is one molecule.

“But how do I know if it’s corked?”

Does it smell like a wet dog? Or does it smell like a wet forest? A wet sponge? Does it smell like rotten poop, or precious world’s best poop? Does it smell like the Village Voice underneath that bus stop bench? Does it taste like a rusty old penny? Does it smell like a CORK? If it doesn’t offend you, no problem, drink it up. But if you have to question it, go ahead and question it. If you think it’s corked, it’s usually corked. The more bottles you pop, the more likely it is that you’re gonna get a bad one. By the way: If the cork breaks upon opening, or falls into the wine, it has no effect on whether or not the wine is “corked.” A dry cork that crumbles could be a clue that an older wine may have been exposed to air, and may possibly be less than prime, but that is a different matter.

One reason “corked” is such a touchy area, is that people encounter things they don’t love in wines all the time, but have been intimidated into fearing that the flaws in a wine aren't really flaws at all. And in delicate social situations, questioning a wine or sending it back could make you feel pushy, picky, or twerpy.

Say, the boss ordered it, and appears to love it—would you speak up and question her WINE EXPERTISE? Tough situation. There is no secret hand signal to the server for “My boss is drinking bad wine and I can’t take it, but I don’t want to not drink it—fix this please.” There is a lot of pressure on choosing, tasting, and sharing wine. Maybe it’s business, maybe it’s meeting the parents, maybe it’s just impressing a date with your sense of adventure (natural wine and stink), or comfort (fruit-forward guzzle). You don’t yet know who’s paying the bill, or what Emily’s mom and dad drink, or whether they have a cellar stocked with Harlan Estate or a fridge full of Barefoot Bubbly. But if it’s you that ordered it, and you that’s paying for it, PLEASE don’t hesitate to send it back, or at least ask one of us service staff to confirm. You are paying to enjoy yourself, and we are paid to make that easy for you, no matter what. In the Yelp world, I am actually grateful to any customer who participates with us to make them happy instantly, here, inside the bar, before they leave, instead of them not saying anything and blaming us later for the bad wine. Thank you for allowing us to fix the problem right away. The customer is always right, and actually, the more feedback, the better.

Finally, know that if you send it back, or return the open bottle to the wine shop, we send it back, too. We get credit from suppliers for corked wine. We are not losing money when you return bad bottles; we are gaining a stronger and healthier relationship with a guest. If you don’t love it, for any reason, call it corked. I’ll drink it.

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