© 1996 JDM Enterprises
NOSE EDUCATIONby Jerry D. Mead
This may be the most important wine article you ever read. Unless you already know what a "corky" wines is, and how to recognize it, this column could save you big bucks and keep you from drinking a lot of bad wine.
Have you ever opened, or had served to you, a favorite wine that you like and know very well how it is supposed to taste, and found it nothing like it usually is?
Instead of fruit and or pleasant wood smells from barrel aging, what you smell is more like a musty, dank, damp, old root cellar full of wet cardboard or newspaper? And the taste is unfortunately similar to the smell?
You have just encountered a "corky" (some say "corked") wine, which is to say a wine affected by a tainted cork.
Wine professionals have been aware of the problem forever, I guess, but it was research in the 80s that first isolated the chemical process at fault. The reason that it wasn't discovered sooner is that the chemical that causes the smell can be detected by humans in levels measured in parts per billion. Equipment capable of measuring such minute quantities is relatively new.
When I first wrote about the problem back in the early 80s, it was a first. There was some concern that a little knowledge in the hands of some consumers could be a dangerous thing. There were, it was felt, enough show-offs ordering perfectly sound bottles (and usually very expensive ones) at restaurants and sending them back to impress their girlfriends. Giving them a buzz word like "corky" might cause all kinds of problems, not the least of which would be uneducated consumers imagining musty smells in wines that were not tainted.
Two things caused me to go ahead. There was a period in the 80s when the "corky" problem became so bad that one year at the Orange County Fair Wine Judging, a tally of "corky" wines was kept for a research project at one of the universities. The count?, right at five percent. And I ask you, what other consumer product could survive with one package in 20 being unsound?
So the seriousness of the problem was one factor, and the other was that with the major chemical villain isolated it was possible to create the condition in a laboratory and thereby demonstrate to people exactly what the smell/taste was like. And once experienced, trust me, it will never be forgotten.
Here's a few important things to know. The chemical, called "2,4,6,-trichloroanisole" (246-TCA for short, or just TCA) is not harmful to humans, aside from being horribly offensive to the olfactory.
It is not the winery's fault. It is not the wine's fault. The problem is in that small piece of processed tree bark that is stuffed in the neck of the bottle, and there's no practical way to test every one of the millions of corks used each year to make sure they aren't affected.
My goal then, and now, in making consumers aware of the problem is to make it possible to identify the compound when encountered, so they can return the wine for a refund, whether it was purchased in a restaurant, or at a retail store or winery. The establishment that sold it to you should take it back without any fuss.
Let me hasten to add that you should return a nearly full bottle. Do not choke down two-thirds of the bottle and expect the retailer to take it back. And that's why restaurants offer the host a small taste of the wine for approval...it's basically your opportunity to spot a "corky." Then and there is the time to return or refuse the wine.
And the saddest part of the "corky" saga is when the first bottle you experience from some struggling small winery is tainted. If you don't recognize it for what it is, chances are you'll blame the winery and never buy another of its bottles.
Understanding the problem will prepare you to deal with waiters and merchants who may know less than you.
Working in conjunction with Scott Laboratories, a major winery supplier of corks, equipment and lab services, a magazine which I edit arranged to have tiny samples of TCA made up. For more than a decade, it has been the only source (There's no competition because there's no profit!) available for consumers and wine educators to acquire tiny vials of TCA.
With one of these "vile vials," one can turn a sound bottle of wine into an instant "corky." The thing to do, actually, is taint half the bottle so you can compare the good wine and the bad. As I said before, once you smell it you'll never forget it.
You can receive a vial of TCA and a complete information/instruction sheet by sending $3 to: The Wine Trader, Attn: "Corky," Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702.
I should hasten to add that the cork industry has worked hard to eliminate some of the conditions that encourage TCA, and a much smaller percentage of tainted wines is now encountered.
Cork taint is the reason some wineries are switching to those funny looking synthetic corks you may have encountered.
The compound that causes the smell is present in all wood and wood products. Certain conditions cause it to be drawn out and become a problem. Tainted cooperage can occasionally cause the problem too.
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