Cork Screwed: Cork taint can stink up a potentially pleasant wine experience

Skanky wine is truly a buzzkill. There’s nothing worse than anticipating a delicate, fruity flavor experience, then being hit in the nose with a foul smell. Yes, it happens. Really “corked” wine — musty, moldy smelling wine occurring after contact with a bad cork — is unmistakably odoriferous, and occurs in 5 percent to 15 percent of all bottles, depending on which winery you ask. In an attempt to rid themselves of the cork taint problem, wineries have switched to screwtops or synthetic closures, but there’s still plenty of wine out there ready to attack your senses.The degree of “corked-ness” varies. Full-blown cork taint reeks like rank feet and really hits you in the mug. But unless it’s really extreme, the average consumer will never notice the cork smell. If mildly tainted, the wine will taste flat or have little flavor, so naturally an unsuspecting consumer, thinking the winery just makes mediocre wine, won’t ever buy that brand again. That’s what the wineries fleeing to alternative closures really fear. They work really hard to lure you to their wine. If a musty cork destroys the experience, the effort is for naught.

The reason wine becomes corked dates back to chemistry class. A non-toxic chemical substance known as 2,4,6 trichloroanisole — TCA for short — lives in cork tree bark. Bleaching and sterilizing, part of the cork-making process, randomly causes a reaction in the cut cork and releases chemicals that cause an unfavorable odor. Once the affected cork is placed in the bottle, it intermingles with the wine and the juice takes on the flavor of TCA.

This process takes a while to happen, so the worst thing is that wineries have no way of discovering the cursed corks until the wine is poured. True, only a small percentage of all corks end up with the TCA mold. Still, 5 percent of a small, 60,000-bottle winery adds up to 3,000 tainted bottles. That’s a helluva lot of money to throw away — and potential customers to lose — because of a 17th century wine closure tradition.

So why does the consumer care? You could pay quite a bit of money for that one bottle in 20 that’s tainted. Which would suck. But if you’re armed with the knowledge that some wines actually do smell like armpits, farm animals or celery, you can be better prepared for the musty, wet cardboard experience. So if you, or someone you love, smells or tastes moldy cardboard in their glass, take it back to the store, or send it back with the server. It’s perfectly acceptable.

Recommended Wines

PURPLE MOUNTAIN 2000 PINOT NOIR Light, purple velvet flavor with a dash of cherry on the end of the sip. Smooth as silk. $16 4 stars2001 FOLEY SAUVIGNON BLANC You can taste the perfectly balanced oak in this pretty wine from Santa Barbara. Dry, refreshing with a wonderful citrus aftertaste. Like drinking lemonade on summer day. $15 3 1/2 stars

GALLO OF SONOMA 2000 CABERNET SAUVIGNON SONOMA RESERVE Wow. Fruit jumps out at you from all angles. Black cherry and dark, concentrated grapes provide a smooth, even drinking experience. Damn good value too. $14 4 starsWOLF BLASS 2000 SHIRAZ-CABERNET SOUTH AUSTRALIA Nice, ripe cherry flavors mingled with black pepper. This wine is friendly and approachable like Julie on the Love Boat. Discounted cruise too. $12 3 1/2 stars

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