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Mar 21, 2008 04:58 PM

Corked wine and etiquette

To make a long story short, I was invited to dinner at the home of one of the prominent department heads of the organisation I work for. It was a celebratory dinner for a coworker's recent promotion. The host came up to me and said he knew I enjoyed wine. He asked what my favorites were, and I told him I liked the wines of the Rhone Valley and Southern France. He came back a few minutes later with a 1989 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin. I was happy to say the least when he grabbed a screwpull and opened it up. He asked if I thought we should decant it and I said yes, as it would soften the wine and bring out the fruit. He dumped it into the decanter, swished it around and poured himself a taste. He said "wow, that's just amazing", and offered me a glass. I was sort of shocked when I smelled it. The wine was corked, badly. Not wanting to offend the host who had brought out a special bottle I sort of nodded in agreement and thanked him for opening up what I consider to be a special bottle. I choked down the rest of the glass over about an hour. What would you do in the same situation, being served an obviously corked wine that the host seemed to be oblivious of as he drank it?

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  1. The moment the guy asked your opinion re. decanting, you should've said:
    "Hmm, I'm not sure, let me try it first"
    Reason: if he needs to ask...

    7 Replies
    1. re: RicRios

      I agree completely. This also gives you the first chance to pass judgement on the wine. Once the host has said, "Wow," you have a problem. Considering the chain of events, I'd have likely done what you did, and just go with the flow.

      Some folk are more sensitive to TCA, than are others. I'm one of the hyper-sensitive ones, and so is my wife. Others just do not find the flaws, or maybe do not know what the tell-tale signs are. Recently got a b-t-g pour at a very high-end restaurant for the sommelier's pairing from a clearly opened bottle. It was badly corked and their two sommeliers had not caught it. Not only that, but probably 2-3 other guests had already been served! We were the first to point out the problem. At a tasting room outside of Monterey, the winemaker poured his reserve Chard. I whishpered, "this is corked," in his ear. In a flash, he grabbed up 6 glasses from patrons and dumped them all. He confided that the bottle had been opened by a staff member at the end of the day before, and he trusted, without sampling, that it was fine. None of the other imbibers thought there was a problem, but we, and the winemaker, were certain that it was corked. It happens. Some find a fault and do not know why. Some find the same fault and immediately know what happened. Some haven't a clue and just go on with the wine, often thinking that it is great.

      As for the decanting, I'd have poured myself a sample (were this at my home), and from that, decided if time in a decanter was needed. Considering an '89 Rhône, I'd have hesitated, before just going with the decanter. However, I also like to see how my wine develops in the glass over some minutes, and often encourage my guests to do the same. Still, if I do decant, I have MY glass as a control, to help me judge the time. Poor wife knows that I'm likely to declare a wine "ready," early in a meal, and usually has the mains standing by to rush out. I've been known to pour a bigger red a bit early in the timeline, and encourage the guests to sample this now, rather than wait too long, even if I had not intended to pour it until later. When I see blanket statements about "give this wine 4 hours in the decanter," I wonder how that person knows. Have they had a bottle, stored exactly the same, in the last few months? Or, are they just guessing? I like to take the guesswork out of the equation, but I'm anal about such things.

      Still, I'd have done, just as you did, given the above criteria.


      [Edit] Upon reading my post, it might be confusing, as I am replying to both RicRios and to the OP, and do not clearly make that differentiation - sorry.

      1. re: Bill Hunt

        "He confided that the bottle had been opened by a staff member at the end of the day before, and he trusted, without sampling, that it was fine."

        Bill (or anyone), can a wine become "corked" overnight? Is "corked" describing exposure to air in aging process or in general? Is that the same as what I call "stale" wine (vinegary smell) that is left in wine glasses overnight? Thanks.

        1. re: alkapal

          No, NO, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO . . . .

          A wine is "corked" when the cork itself is comtaminated by a compound known as 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA, for short). It is a smell variously described as "mouldy cardboard" or "wet dog." Human beings are extremely sensitive to TCA, and it is measured in parts per trillion (most parts in wine are measured in parts per million).

          A wine is either "corked" or it's not; it does not magically become "corked" overnight.


          1. re: zin1953

            so what bill hunt was saying was that the winery staff person had failed to detect that the bottle was corked when it was opened.

            as you so deftly explain, 'corked' has to do with the cork going bad. that is what i had thought, but was a little confused by hunt's post (because i know he is very knowledgeable, too!)

            thus, no need for a heart attack, jason (i pictured edvard munch's "scream" with your post's opening). ;-)

            cheers to you, too!

            1. re: alkapal

              Ummmmm.... TCA can occur in the winery and can affect the wine long before the actual corking (google Hanzell history). I have had corked wines from screw tops and synthetic corks so saying that it has to do with the cork going bad is incorrect.

              Excellent article here:

              1. re: alkapal

                Absolutely. Sorry for the confusion. I should have clarified a bit better, as to the problem, the cause, and the winemaker/owner's remedy.

                Yes, his face looked a bit like the character in "The Scream," and well it should (I know that you were referring to Jason's comment, but it is appropriate for my cited case). When one takes pride in their product and endeavors, and a bad example makes it to the public, they are both angered and ashamed. It should never have happened - the pouring, that is. It seems to happen about 4-10% of the time with natural corks, depending on whose data you read.

                I've seen reps (usually at the distribution, or retail levels), who open bottles and just pour. They should all smell, and probably taste/spit, each bottle, before the public gets a taste.

                I'm only a consumer, but I never pour a bottle, until I have passed on it. Any question, and I head to the cellar for another.

                I will attempt to be a bit more exact next time, so as to allay confusion. Sorry about that.


            2. re: alkapal

              No. In this case, the worker, who opened it at the end of the previous day, just did not sample it. The winemaker/owner basically took "their word for it," and did not sample it either. He was ashamed, and very ready to pull all glasses that he had poured. Good move IMO.

              Had a family member (Director of Sales/Marketing, IIRC), who, faced with a corked bottle of his family's "Reserve" Chard, just asid, "well, some of you will not be able to really taste what 'Reserve' is all about, because one bottle was corked... " This was at a trade event he was hosting titled, "Reserve, is it really worth it?"


        2. To me, the right course of action is much determined by your relationship with your work colleague -- is it friendly, colloquial, congenial? Or, not so much? From your post, it sounds like he was interested in pleasing you -- asking you what type of wine you liked and then offering you a bottle of that type. Sounds like a generous guy.

          So, I'll forge ahead here, with the awareness I don't know the nuances of your relationship.

          I usually stand in the honesty camp -- honesty given directly but gently and...quietly.

          In a way that was somewhat private, I probably would have said something along the lines of: "It's very generous of you to open and share this wine. I believe it might be corked, though. Do you think so?"

          It could have turned out that you were respected for your honesty and the way with which you conveyed it. After all, uncomfortable situations turn up at work occasionally, and they require deft handling as well.

          And who knows where your honesty could have led? Your work colleague may have said he's never quite learned the precise smell that marks a corked wine, and he's glad you told him. Or, he may have expressed his desire to have more discussions about wine, or even to enjoy wine in the future.

          One thing you didn't consider: allowing your colleague to rise to the occasion when informed the wine was off. You could have observed *him* handling an uncomfortable moment. His first gesture might have been insuring your comfort and offering you a different wine that you would enjoy. (Even if he didn't agree with you.) Isn't that good customer service, in a way? He may have yielded and said, "Paul, you know so much more about wine than I do -- you could teach me a thing or two." He may have thanked you for saving him from serving that wine to other guests.

          Or, he may not have responded so generously, revealing information about his character.

          My guess is that since he's a "prominent department head" and you offered your knowledge of the corked bottle in quiet, diplomatic way -- in a way that showed you were both appreciative of the wine and considerate of him, he would have responded well.

          What I, personally, would not have done is drunk another sip of that wine. In a way, you indicated the wine was acceptable when you did. If you had left the wine undrunk, still full in its glass, that might have elicited a question as whether or not you liked it, giving you another opportunity to speak up.

          However, if this were a party whose host I didn't know, or the host's spirit was not so generous and more toward the prickly type, I probably would have said nothing...but I never would have had another sip. I'm sorry you took one for the team. Ouch.

          1 Reply
          1. re: maria lorraine

            Good call. There are a lot of "ifs," in this situation, but you cite possible routes to handle most of them. I think that the situation needed to be addressed, when the wine was first poured, as you stated. Still, the host's "wow," would have given me pause. On second thought, honesty, regardless of any possible pain, would have been the best, with all other aspects put into the rear.

            Had a similar, non-wine, experience years ago. I'd done a few weeks of photography for a client's initial brouchure. The work went to a small design firm, who produced the brochure. At the cocktail party for the unveiling of the finished brochure, the CEO came up to me and asked how I liked the end result. I prodded him a bit, and found that he really liked the piece. It was the first advertising/marketing effort and was being unveiled as his IPO was being issued. He was a friend, but not a very close friend. I pulled him aside, choked down all the niceties that flooded into my mind, and told him, in a whisper, "it looks like a f&%$*ing place-mat in a roadside diner!" Years later, he thanked me for my candor. The second printing of the brochure was done by a different designer, and looked very nice with the same assets.

            What does a brochure for a bio-med firm have to do with wine? You are right, that one should utilize candor and honesty, when faced with such a circumstance. I bowed to convention, in my initial post, and you have corrected me. Thanks for that. Plus, you offered avenues to face the problem.


          2. Thanks for all the replies. The host was a person that I am not really friends with, and this was the first time I have socilized with him outside of work. When he failed to notice the corked wine, I felt a little uneasy about mentioning it to him. He was generous enough to offer up his house, served some other wines that were quite good and have a private chef prepare a great meal in honor of my coworker.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Paul Weller

              It was brave of you to quietly sip your way through the corked wine, during what had to be a somewhat unpleasant hour. I've had only 10-12 corked bottles in my time, but it sure is nasty. I have wondered whether it is additionally unhealthy, but nobody here has indicated so.

              1. re: Veggo

                Veggo, I have read that although a corked wine is undrinkable, it is harmless. But I can't imagine drinking a wine with an off smell to begin with.

              2. re: Paul Weller


                You pose an interesting set of circumstances. They go beyond the normal, "how do I handle a bottle of corked wine?"

                Thanks for making me think. Also, thanks to ML for helping me decide what I should/would have done, faced with the same situation.

                Tough call - good thread,

              3. Paul -

                "Prominent department heads" who fail to recognize a badly corked wine probably don't want to hear from "Mr. Wine Dude" that the show-off bottle they just opened (and waxed eloquent over) was flawed - particularly in a setting that is a celebratory occasion, not specifically a wine event. I think you made exactly the right call.

                In other circumstances - for instance, if it was a wine tasting with a group of like-minded folks, or even a dinner among acquaintances - it would be more appropriate to say something. In the circumstances you've described, I think you risk embarassing your host by saying something - not so much because he served a corked wine, which can happen to anyone (though some unsophisticated types might perceive even that as some sort of slight), but moreso because he didn't notice but instead announced his wine was "just amazing."

                Sometimes honesty (and a good palate) must bow to etiquette, I think.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Frodnesor

                  Frod cites two key points
                  "Prominent department heads"
                  "but moreso because he didn't notice but instead announced his wine was 'just amazing' "

                  and closes with
                  "Sometimes honesty (and a good palate) must bow to etiquette, I think."

                  I concur

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    You make some good points, especially the one about Dept. Head waxing eloquently over a bad wine. (I wonder if he actually tasted it, or just wanted to pronounce it wonderful.) I imagined a relationship between the two (not knowing the nuances, as explained) that was a bit closer and certainly more conversational. Best, M.

                  2. These matters of social etiquette can be very tricky indeed. I know personally I would have done what you did - just quietly accepted the corked wine so that the host could save face.

                    Similarly, if food is specially prepared for me at a restaurant or friends house, I accept it with a smile even if I don't love it.

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