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Corky Paranoia

By Craig Camp
Friday, August 15, 2003

I SIT in the corner of a dark restaurant on a worn chair with dark green plastic upholstery. The walls are a dark imitation wood. The room is empty except for me and the wait staff. As I peruse the menu the only safe bet is the filet mignon. There was no other choice. I could drive no longer and when I pulled into the hotel it was almost 10 p.m.. There was nothing else open in this wide spot on the interstate in Iowa so it was going to be dinner here or nothing else.

I see her coming out of the corner of my eye and the paranoia starts to build in my mind.

"Would you like a cocktail?" she asks in an automatic way.

"Can I have the wine list?" I ask with a sense of resignation.

She brings the list back in a few minutes and I am relieved to find Gallo Sonoma Zinfandel. Not bad, it will wash down the steak just fine.

After a few minutes watching the "Frasier" rerun on the bar TV she finally arrives back at the table.

"Would you like some wine?" she asks with complete and sincere boredom.

"Yes, I will take number 124," I say, knowing better than to order it by name.

After a few more minutes with "Frasier," she returns to tell me my selection is not available by the glass. I explain I want the whole bottle and she reacts with disbelief and with more than a little irritation that she will actually have to open a bottle at the table.

But it is only now that the paranoia really starts to set in. What if the wine is corked? I know what the response will be: disbelief, irritation, and the certainty that I am trying to rip them off. First the bartender will come out then the hotel manager.

"Don't you want to try something else," they will ask, assuming I just don't like the wine.

She finally arrives at my table with the bottle some minutes after my steak has arrived. I watch with apprehension while she attacks the bottle with a huge winged auger corkscrew. She pours about 11 ounces in a 12 ounce glass that weighs about a pound and waits for me to taste.

With trepidation I put the glass to my nose waiting for the nauseating smell of books that have been in the basement for a few decades.

But wait! There it is! The smooth fruity smell of blackberry jam. No problem after all. This will wash down my now-cold steak quite well.

I tell the waitress the wine is fine. We are both visibly relieved.

"Would you like an ice bucket?" she asks.

I developed my corky paranoia because so many times the bottle has been bad and then I've had to deal with hassles. Sometimes even at the Holiday Inn they replace the bottle with the speed and aplomb of the sommelier at Trotter's; other times it is not so easy. Even at well-known restaurants you can run into problems. One time, while eating at one of the outlets of a famous Chicago restaurant group, I got a badly corked bottle of Trimbach Riesling. When I returned the bottle the manager came to the table and insisted I order a different wine instead of getting a new bottle. He said it was restaurant policy. I was not happy.

The root of these problems is simple: neither consumers nor the trade know what corky wines taste like. Recent estimates say around 5% or more of bottles are spoiled by bad corks. The huge majority of those bottles are consumed not returned. This is a nightmare for producers as consumers that drink these wines just think that winery doesn't make very good wine. It is confusing for servers who have some customers drink and some return corked wines.

Corky wines are easy to spot and once you get the knack it's like riding a bike. First of all think musty. Find an old damp basement with some books that have been sitting there for a few years. Open that damp book and insert your nose. Breath deeply. That's what corky wine smells like. The first thing that goes are the fruit aromas. The next time one of your corky savvy friends rejects a bottle be sure to save your glass to compare to the new unaffected (with any luck) bottle. The difference will astound you. Sometimes you may have even thought the first wine was fine, but when you put the two side-by-side the fruit in the good bottle will sing compared to the bad one. Comparing in this way is the only sure fire way to learn to identify corked wines.

The villain in this story is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA for those of us who don't like to mispronounce words badly in public. When a cork is contaminated with TCA it makes the wine that comes into contact with it stink and taste bad and we say the wine is corked or corky. Scientists have come up with several culprits that create TCA in corks, but the exact reason is still unknown and hotly debated. The most common reason cited is the interaction between chlorine used to process the cork and the TCA that already exists in a mold present in the cork bark, but the cork industry has widely abandoned the use of chlorine and bad corks are still with us. Cork manufactures are rushing to find ways to prevent TCA-tainted corks and are using a wide array of new technologies for processing cork including ultra-high pressure, microwaves, and other Rube Goldberg contraptions, none of which are yet proven.

So the real question may be why the heck are we using corks to seal wine bottles anyway? There can be no doubt that the main reason is tradition and status. The great wines of the world come in cork-sealed bottles. Lesser wines want to appear grander in the eyes of the consumer and feel obligated to use real corks. The massive demands placed on the cork industry by the producers of millions upon millions of bottles of wine destined for consumption within months of release mean that a lot of people are drinking bottles of funky-smelling and foul-tasting wine. There's no reason to use natural corks in wine that is intended for current consumption. Well, no reason other than marketing.

Are there any reasons to use real corks? Tradition holds that minute quantities of oxygen pass through the cork and interact with wines, helping them to reach the perfect point of maturity. Romantic, yes; likely, no. Angelo Gaja, the famed producer of super-premium and super-expensive Italian wines, has for years used the largest and most expensive corks available. His thinking was that by forcing his supplier to make very long corks he would assure that only the finest sections of the cork bark could be used in producing his corks. Even so it is worth noting that for his wineries' own libraries he uses Stelvin screw-caps to guarantee the quality and consistency of those wines he is saving as historical reference points.

Led by producers dedicated to protecting their creations and by mass brands that see the commercial benefits, alternative closures are making their presence felt in the market. The major types are:

-Plastic-based synthetic corks. These are widely used by both upper- and lower-end producers. They seem to function well with the major problem being that they can be hard to get out of the bottle. These are popular because the can fit in traditional bottles and made to look kind of like cork -- or they can be made in sporty colors for the more adventurous. Made from food- or medical-grade plastic they theoretically add no flavors to the wine, but some experts (I am not sure who they are) complain of a difference in flavor over time. Certainly in the short term they work fine.

-Screw caps or Stelvin caps. These will take you back to your college days and the fine wines you were drinking then. Long the favored seal of wines like MD 20/20, screw caps appear to work great. They are totally neutral and easy to use, with the added benefit of not having to lug that heavy corkscrew around with you all the time. One huge plus is when you have leftover wine you just screw the top back on. There appear to be no problems with screw caps except image. People just seem to have trouble accepting that serious wines come in these bottles. Pioneering wineries like Plumpjack in California are helping educate consumers that great wine can come with threads on the neck of the bottle.

-Altec. A brand created in France that uses very fine natural cork particles bound together with an adhesive. The producer, Sabate, claims them to be 100% TCA free. Critics say the glue flavors the wine. This type seems to be losing popularity. One of the main attributes is that it works with a corkscrew with the same feel as a regular cork.

-Crown caps. Yes, like glass Coca-Cola bottles. These have long been used by the Champagne industry to seal bottles while they are aging on the lees. All you Champagne lovers out there will attest to how well they keep wine over long aging periods. Pioneering work is being done now in Australia and we can expect to see more of these in the future. Like screw caps, they work great but have an image problem. Oh, and you have to carry around a bottle opener or use your teeth. (Warning: That was humor. We do not recommend opening crown-top bottles with your teeth. Except in emergency situations -- like when you don't have a bottle opener -- and then at your own risk).

When I tear the foil off of bottles these days and see a synthetic cork on my Beaujolais or Grignolino that was chilling in the refrigerator I feel a sense of calm. No stinky wine tonight. I am also sure my server in Iowa would have preferred to twist off the top of the Gallo Zin instead of wrestling with her little-used corkscrew -- and I would have been paranoia-free. However, I admit to still preferring the ceremony of pulling and sniffing the cork when I open more serious bottles. I like it more out of the romance than logic.

Screw tops on bottles of Lafite, Spottswoode, or Gaja Sori Tilden are hard to imagine, but who knows? The future is changing and it is no longer as hard to imagine as it used to be. After all, the last bottle of 1982 Gaja Sori Tilden I opened was corked. So much for romance.