Several years ago we were fortunate to be hosted for a stay at Talbott Winery in California near Carmel. Dan Carlson was at the helm as winemaker at that time. He has since moved on to his own project after Talbott was purchased by Gallo. Dan has a sterling reputation for producing fabulous wines having worked at Russian River Valley superstar, Dehlinger Winery, prior to Talbott. His words carry weight.
I have written of this time with Dan previously, but as the debate on the best way to seal a wine bottle rages on it seems like a good time to revisit his words. Dan transitioned the entire Talbott portfolio over to twist cap, or Stelvin as it is known in the “biz.” When he arrived at Talbott it was one of his first strategies, and he started with the most expensive bottles, moving down the “food chain” to the least expensive ones. Quoting a reliable statistic for bad natural wine corks Dan said, “If I am going to lose 5 to 10 percent of our bottles to a flawed cork, I would rather have it be the cheap bottles, not the expensive ones.” Makes sense. Dan would go on, “If any other industry, say airplane manufacturers, had a failure rate of 5 to 10 percent there would be a lot more attorneys at work.” Right again.
What makes a cork bad is the presence of TCA or trichloroanisole. When present, it spoils the wine when it comes into contact with the tainted cork, referred to as corkiness or cork taint, and it is dreadful. You will remember if you have ever had a corked bottle, it smells of mildew or wet newspaper and there is no fruit flavor as the bad cork strips fruit flavors away. As a consumer, if you get a corked bottle at a restaurant you should send it back. If you purchase a bottle that is corked leave the wine in the bottle, put the cork back in and return it. At least here at the dinner party we will refund you on the spot. We do the same, returning it to the distributor that supplied it to us, so we get our money back as well.
The problem is that many suspect it is bad winemaking that causes corkiness; it is not. It is a bad cork, and it’s made bad from a chemical that remains undetectable and a system that can’t find the flaw. Here is an example:
This past week I tasted with the owner/winemaker of one of our favorite wineries. While he was opening the lineup of wines he mentioned that he was buying a new composite cork. Composite corks are manufactured from a bunch of ground up cork that is then compressed together. The winemaker told me how the manufacturer was touting that his composite corks were “guaranteed 100% free of TCA.” He poured his Pinot Blanc for me, I gave it a swirl and a sniff, and wait for it … yep corked! So clearly this new cork is something less than 100 percent reliable and free of TCA.
I get it, there is nothing like the ambiance of pulling the cork on one of your favorite bottles. However, I am increasingly coming down on the side of doing away with natural cork for the more reliable twist cap. Too often on a weekend I will be excited to open one of my favorites and sure enough, it suffers from cork taint. It is my own insecurities at work, but when I do encounter a bad bottle I have a hard time going back to the same choice right after that in the hopes it will be all I hope for, even though it is unlikely to run into two bottles in a row suffering from the same flaw.
We have certainly, as an industry though, dispelled the notion that bottles sealed with a twist cap or other synthetic closures are cheap, especially with the knowledge that at least for Stelvin closure they are no less expensive.
For consumers though, perhaps the most important part is knowing what corkiness smells like, and knowing what to do when you encounter one. Enough wine gets returned to wineries because of the problem, and you never know, it may advance the debate to finally rid perfectly good bottles of wine of TCA forever!
If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party — a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.