The rather long recent thread about corked wines combined with full retirement and too much time on my hands has inspired me to write what I expect will be a rather lengthy and perhaps controversial dissertation.
I will start with the conclusion: What we call “bottle variation” should be more correctly called “cork variation” and TCA is only part of the problem albeit a major part.
Next for those who do not know me come my “credentials”. I became passionate about wine in the early 1960s. I was still in college when a wine merchant knowing that I liked Lancers rose and Mateus rose sold me some new stuff. First, Tavel rose and then some red wine from a place called Bordeaux – they just happened to be 1961s. I have been totally hooked ever since.
By the mid-1970s I was actually earning enough to start collecting and I also joined the Phoenix chapter of the International Wine & Food Society. The Phoenix chapter has always maintained a very large and comprehensive cellar and I served as cellerar for more than 20 years. During that time the cellar ranged from 1000 to 2000 bottles, all bought in full cases and some cellared for more than 20 years. We did 8 or 9 dinners each year with 5 to 8 different wines at each dinner where entire cases were opened at the same time. Except for two or three dinners that I missed I tasted virtually every bottle that was opened during that time. Even after I retired as cellerar I made it a point to taste from as many different bottles as possible at the dinners.
During the past 40 years I have tasted at least 1000 different wine each year. I have also had the opportunity to taste numerous wines throughout their development over as long as 40 years since I purchased full and often multiple full cases of the same wine. They were stored properly and consumed over the years. I have spent the past 11 years in the wine retail and restaurant business. During that time I have tasted an average of 2000 to 3000 wines each year and it has really opened my eyes.
I can state from my experience that the amount of “bottle variation” I have experienced is shocking. Enormous in fact. The longer a case is cellared the greater the variation becomes. From this point I will refer to it as “cork variation”. In my experience “cork variation” in younger wines is generally caused by TCA or other anisol compounds. In cellared wine the additional problem is that corks are a natural product and despite all efforts at quality control there is still a great variation among them. This shows up primarily in the rate of maturation/oxidation. This latter variation is usually attributed to provenance. Keep in mind that my experience pretty much eliminates the provenance excuse as a reason.
The thread on corked wine recognition brings to light many of the problems regarding “cork variation” for both the wine aficionado and the wine professional. A big problem for those not in the trade is that there is almost never a “second bottle” to confirm the issue. Truth be told that is also a major problem for those in the trade as well. A second major problem for everyone both in the trade and the consuming public is that many people in the trade are clueless and/or choose to stick their head in the sand.
Over the years and the last decade in particular I have attended numerous trade tastings where I come upon corked bottles that neither the person pouring nor any of the customers realize is corked. I have watched winery reps and sales people open a bottle and “check it” by nosing and/or tasting. They then pour me a sample of obviously corked wine. I also, way too often, come to a table where other buyers are raving about at wine that is obviously corked. When either of these occurrences happen I always try to get them to open a second bottle. They frequently do (I have a “reputation”) and when they do almost everyone agrees with me.
When I was in my store or restaurant as the case may be I was brought wines to taste on an almost daily basis by wholesale sales reps often accompanied by a winemaker or winery rep. Often I would be presented with a corked bottle that had been shown to other buyers during the day, the sales rep claiming they had already sold multiple cases. In fairness to the winemakers involved I can recall only a tiny handful of them who were guilty of pouring a corked wine.
Perhaps the most egregious experience was so bad it is actually funny. The scenario was a small, exclusive tasting of high end wines. It was hosted by a major wholesaler and several importers one of whom brought their “Master Sommelier”. A real Master Sommelier, certified and all. The wine was Coulee de Serrant, admittedly a rather esoteric, even bizarre, wine but also one with which I am familiar enough to usually be able to identify blind. It was obviously corked yet the MS was adamant that it was not and that was just how the wine should be. As I said above, I have a “reputation” so several people at the tasting came up to me including another Master Sommelier to inquire if I agreed with them that the bottle was corked. The MS remained adamant to the end.
I seldom pass up the opportunity to bring up the issue of cork with a hapless winemaker that i encounter. After all I have a “reputation” to maintain. I cannot tell you how many winemakers have told me that they agree that Stelvin is a better option than natural cork but that they “don’t want to lead the way” or that “the customer won’t accept it.” The only excuse that I consider valid is the expense of converting the bottling line but almost none have used that one.
I contend that based on my experience of having opened multiple bottles of young wines from the same case at the same time that TCA and other anisols are to blame for the 15% to 30% variation I experience even in young wines. I do understand that TCA can come from other sources but let’s be realistic – it almost always from the cork.
The only real loser in all of this is the consumer. The problem is exacerbated by people like – wait for it ---- Jason and Bill Hunt, both of whom I respect and admire very very much. To what do I refer? The fact is that even when they get a corked bottle they seldom “take it back” because it just isn’t worth the trouble. To that I must also plead guilty though in recent years I make it a point take back the bad bottles. I now even take back even older bottles which, surprisingly, I usually get replaced even if only by a bottle from a current vintage. I contend that cork would have been abandoned long ago if those in the supply chain were forced to make good on even the 5% to 10% TCA affected that most in the industry acknowledge.
I have been listening to Mahler’s 4th and Beethoven’s 9th so as the Ode to Joy begins I will stop and listen. You may fire at will.