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When Corks Attack

by Jennifer Rosen

It was hardly an international incident, but embarrassing all the same. The highly-touted Zinfandel I ordered to impress Xavier Berger-Devieux, winemaker and proprietor of Burgundy’s Manoir de Mercey, wasn’t really terrible, just…blah. I meant to show that America had the chops, vinously speaking, to give France a run for her Euros. But I blew it.

Or did I? Perhaps the wine was corked, or tainted by 2-4-6 Trichloroanisole (TCA), a bacteria you can detect in concentrations akin to one sugar cube dissolved in 100 Olympic swimming pools.

Corked wines are musty, grassy, reminiscent of wet cardboard. So if my Zinfandel was corked, wouldn’t I know it? Not necessarily. TCA can also steal in, make off with all the fruit, aromas, and other goodies, and scamper out without leaving a trace. Monsieur Berger-Devieux was as flummoxed as I was. Check it out: two wine professionals, reduced to “Um, it shouldn’t taste like this…should it?”

Kumeu River winery in New Zealand rejected 42 out of 62 batches of cork in 1998, but got contamination anyway. “Many customers did not identify cork taint, but just thought that the wine was perhaps not very good. We have no way of knowing how many good customers were lost,” they said.

Be honest: have you ever choked down weird wine in silence, thinking, perhaps, it was an acquired taste? I did, until I twigged to TCA. Now I can’t avoid it. Corked bottles are running one for six in my tasting lab. When it happens – wham! – there goes the wine’s chance for a recommendation. Too bad for them, at least I didn’t pay for the bottle. How about when you do? “A $15 Pinot Blanc turns up corked, that’s sad, but a $300 Romanée Conti you’ve stored for 10 years - that’s tragedy,” says Hubert Trimbach of Alsace. Even his ultra-reliable, eponymous winery has had cork issues.

The race is on to clean up corks. TCA gets an early start, in the forests. A close cousin, Tribromoanisol (TBA), lurks in flame-retardant chemicals and fungicides. Both settle into the wood and air of old wineries. With the tenacity of a packing peanut in a thunderstorm, they refuse to be evicted, thriving on the very boiling and chlorine that’s used to dislodge them. Microwaves were tried, to little effect. New micro-organism-fighting enzymes have yet to prove their mettle.

Could they be fighting the wrong battle? What, after all, is the big hoo-ha about a cork? Tradition? Would the same nostalgia apply if prescription cough syrup came with a cork? Corks relegate wine to the crab-leg and artichoke ghetto - too labor-intensive for daily use. Personally, I prefer easy access. For me, uncorking has all the romance of stopping to put on a condom.

Call me bitter: in my job you pack a corkscrew and I’ve now surrendered 12 to airport security. It’s not the screw that irks them, it’s the toy knife attached. What becomes of confiscated corkscrews, I sometimes wonder. Do they melt them all down and make a spiral staircase?

Synthetic corks are just as inconvenient. Plus, they don’t form a good seal with glass; eventually they leak, or imbue the wine with with a plastic whiff of "eau de Mattel."

You’ve arrived at the climax of this polemic: a plea for screwcaps. Oh, fine for young wine, you think, but doesn’t older wine require cork to develop? It’s a living thing that needs to breathe, right? Wrong and wrong again. And did I mention wrong? Aging is a reductive process, no oxygen involved. The amount the cork lets in is negligible, anyway.

Study after study shows screwcapped wine having more fruit, less oxidation and less variability than wine in cork. It matures slowly and gracefully and, best of all, contains no TCA. So while you might complain about a corked wine now, you’ll never have to send one back because it’s screwed.

What will it take to win over skittish drinkers? A prize under the cap (win a trip to the winery!)? The beauty of storing screwcapped bottles upright, like your normal stuff? One day corkscrews will be a collector’s curiosity, along with snuffboxes and chamber-pots. Until then, see if you can learn what TCA smells like, if you don’t know already. You've been warned: the next cork you meet could be a killer.
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About the Author

Jennifer Rosen - Jennifer Rosen, award-winning wine writer, educator and author of Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, and The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine, writes the weekly wine column for the Rocky Mountain News and articles for magazines around the world. Jennifer speaks French and Italian, mangles German, Spanish and Arabic, and works off the job perks with belly dance, tightrope and trapeze. Read her columns and sign up for her weekly newsletter at:

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