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5 Things to Know About Determining Corked Wines

If you eat out a lot, chances are, your favorite rare cut of steak will come out overdone at some point. It is a fact of life—something that cannot be avoided. It does not necessarily deem your favorite Sunday steakhouse as “bad,” although the experience will likely inspire you to send your plate back.

The same is true for wines—just swap out that overly charred porterhouse for a musty, off-putting aroma. Yes, we are talking about corked wines, here. It is no secret: Recent studies have found that about five percent of all wines enclosed with natural corks are tainted with TCA, a pesky chemical compound that ruins a wine’s flavor (and your tasting experience).

“A certain percentage of all wines are going to be corked; it has nothing to do with the wine,” says Steve Gleason at Four Lanterns Winery. “That is something you have to live with.”

But fear not, dear drinker. Gleason and a host of other wineries across Paso Robles are working as hard as possible to enclose their wines with the best natural cork out there (meaning more reliable aging and less corked bottles for you).

You can and should return corked bottles to the winery from whence it came (just like the steak; no harm no foul). Paso Robles wineries are happy to exchange corked bottles and actively encourage tasters to arm themselves with the information needed to sniff out the rare tainted apples. Knowledge is power, people. Here’s how to wield it:

1. Know What It Is

First, let’s talk about what “corked wine” isn’t. It has nothing to do with floating partials (sediment or pieces of cork) in your wine. Microorganisms love to nosh on natural cork (in tree-form as well as after being made into a wine topper).

Every once in a blue moon, these usually harmless airborne fungi come in contact with the cork and create the chemical substance known as TCA. No, isn’t toxic and it won’t harm your health, although it will—depending on your tolerance to TCA—taste pretty bad.

2. Follow Your Nose

Olfaction, the fancy name for sense of smell, is the only one of the five senses that connects directly your brain. You can detect at least one trillion different scents at any given time, including that perfume your mother used to wear when you were a baby. In other words: the nose knows.

You already know that scent is incredibly important when it comes to enjoying fine wine (taste and scent are intertwined), but did you know that your nose is also your best guide when it comes to telling if your wine has—well—taken a turn for the worse?

That’s right. If you’re questioning the freshness of the vino in your hand, follow your schnoz. Swirl, and inhale deeply. Catch a stale whiff of moldy basement, wet newspaper, or wet dog? Sorry friend. You may have a corked wine on your hands.

Kate Dubost of Dubost Ranch Winery uses extremely high quality corks for her small batch, boutique wines. Although she said she very rarely comes across a corked bottle, when she does, she aims to share the knowledge.

“At the tasting room, we’ll pass the bottle around to everyone and say, ‘this is what a corked wine smells like,” Dubost said. “The smell is very specific, and we want everyone to learn to know the difference between over extracted, oxidized, and TCA taint.”

3. Know That Tolerance Differs

Although less reliable than your nose, your taste buds can pick up an off wine, too. Swish it around your mouth. Does the flavor taste flat or dull, without color vibrancy? Is it overly astringent, lacking fruit characteristics? When paired with a strong musty smell, this usually means the wine is tainted. So sorry for your loss.

According to Dubost, you should remember that taste receptors vary wildly among people. Even the most experienced tasting room staff may require a second or third opinion.

“Everyone has their own tolerance for TCA, and you can actually have your tolerance tested at a lab,” Dubost said. “Maybe there’s one part per million of TCA in the wine, so you could have a tolerance for that. Or, maybe your nose is really good. Either way, if you smell the cork itself, you can usually really tell.”

Yup. You are indeed encouraged to “smell the cork” if you’re worried about the wine being tainted. Just don’t insist on smelling a cork in a fancy restaurant. You will probably look ridiculous.

4. Know What You’re Drinking

Knowing your way around the varietal in question is key. After all, it’s pretty hard to tell if that a bottle of petit verdot is “off” if you don’t really know what petite verdot normally smells and tastes like. Taste often and even take notes if you wish.

“You have to really know your wines first and foremost,” Dubost said, adding that taking antihistamines can also mess with your perception of a possibly-tainted viogner or merlot.

Lisa Miller of Cutruzzola Vineyards in Cambria is also passionate about her corks, which are top-notch and highly reliable. A winery’s reputation rides on the flavor of its wine. For this reason, she encourages tasters to look beyond one tainted cork.

“People will think the wine they bought is not very good rather than realize the wine is corked, therefore hurting a winery’s reputation,” Miller said. “Most people don’t know that reputable wineries will replace a bottle of corked wine.”

5. Know That There Is No Holy Grail

TCA bacteria can only live on natural corks, meaning that screw caps will never impart your wine with an atrocious wet dog aroma. However, there are other issues with screw-cap wine, including caps that fail to close completely and let too much (if not all of the) air in.

Edgar Torres of Bodega de Edgar Winery has divested in screw caps and invested in a high-grade natural cork—one of the very first companies to guarantee zero TCA contamination.

“As the company sort the corks, they have the technology to detect the bacteria, and separate the good from the bad,” Edgar says. Although artificial corkmakers are also creating a new generation of so-called “perfect” corks, the winemaker said he would always take his chances with the real deal.

“For me, the whole romantic aspect of doing what has been done for so long is something I want to keep in my program,” Torres says. “Even the newest technology is never perfect.”

Amen. Everyone who has an iPhone can attest to this fact. As convenience and positive advances rise in one area, often so do unforeseen issues (i. e. Candy Crush addiction).

If I have learned one thing from this discussion, it is that when you entrust your wine to mother nature’s cork, sometimes she’ll take a few back to the land. And maybe that’s just OK.

This blog post was written by Hayley Thomas, food and wine writer for SLO New Times and She can be reached at [email protected].

Here are some more wineries that live and die by their corks:

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