“How do I know my wine is bad?”
Yes, I’ve gotten that question many a time. I bite back the easy reply of “When it tastes bad” because I know there is a lot if mystique surrounding wine with oeno-newbies. Sometimes it’s hard for viticultural neophytes to ascertain whether the wine is truly bad, as in faulty, or do they just not like it? I spend a large proportion of my Beginner’s Wine Tasting Classes teaching how to tell whether or not one should return the bottle or suck it up and make a mental note not to reorder next time. “Is this wine faulty?” is a more precise question and there are three major faults that can occur with wine, which I simplify as Corked, Cooked and Quaked.
These three states represent faulty wine, yet distinguishing between these impaired wines and wines that are just not to your liking can be tricky. Fault is related to the severity of the effect (like exposure to heat or mold) and minor effects may just make you think you don’t like that wine, rather than being truly “corked, cooked or quaked.” Having that conversation with your waiter or wine steward, when you return the bottle, is a great opportunity to get comfortable determining the different potential states of bad wine. Most stores will accept returns, with product in it, so that there can be expert analysis. Statistics show that one in twenty bottles have legitimate fault. Many of those bottles are caught before the cases get to the shelves of local stores, so most people would report a lower ratio, like one in forty, that they found truly bad.
Bad is subjective, and my least favorite answer to my general inquiry, “What kind of wine do you like?” is “Good wine.” This tells a sommelier or wine consultants next to nothing, and so we have to ask more specific questions. Bad wine, in this context, is wine that is truly faulty, where something severe and unintended occurred in the production of this wine, not just a little too much acid for your tastes. “Corking” happens to cork, and only real corks, and corking is not having a cork break up to then float in your glass. That is just a crumbling cork, which can be fixed with a coffee filter or strainer.
Corked wine is caused by cork taint: a mold on the cork that reacts to the sanitization process of cork bark and turns stinky moldy. The compound is called Trichloranisole or TCA. The chlorine gas they use to sanitize cork bark reacts to phenolics in the cork to create this off-putting stench that can then get transmitted to the wine in bottle. The longer the contact with cork taint, the stinkier the wine. The smell is like old wet books, or a moldy, dank cellar. Shifting to other chemicals to sanitize the corks doesn’t take away the potential for mold to come out of natural corks to taint the wine. The less natural corks we use the less of a problem this will be, since it can’t occur with plastic corks or screw caps. This is why we often see people sniffing their corks, to catch any whiff of cork taint before finding it in their glass. Cork taint will not kill you. It just makes the wine unpleasant, but completely drinkable from a health code standpoint.
Cork taint is a good reason to send a wine back at a restaurant or to bring a bottle (with wine still in it) back to the store where you purchased it, and most stores will give you at least a store credit for corked bottles of wine. It wasn’t their fault; it just happens with corks. Most reputable stores will accept returns of bad wines, including cooked bottles (see next article). Local Gainesville stores like ABC Fine Wines and Spirits, The Wine and Cheese Gallery, Gator Spirits and Dorn’s Liquors all take returns on faulty wines, as long as you bring back some of the product , so they can ascertain what exactly the fault was, or if it is just a wine that you don’t like (which happens). They will want to find you a wine that you do like for the future. It’s all about building a relationship with your local wine merchant. Pairing a corked wine with food? Don’t do it. Just open another bottle and return the faulty one.
To be continued…