Posted: Jul 28, 2018
Buying wine can feel like a game of roulette. Will it be corked? Oxidized? Overpriced? Our wine columnist talks to pros and novices alike to investigate their wine worries
WHAT SCARES YOU the most when it comes to wine? For a beverage ostensibly all about pleasure, wine can be quite intimidating indeed. How many other drinks inspire self-styled “educators” or, for that matter, critics to rate them according to a scale of numerical points?
I’ve heard friends express all kinds of wine-related anxieties over the years, and I confess to having a few of my own. Some fears are restaurant-related: “Will the wine list be horribly overpriced?” “Will my friends order a wine that I don’t like?” Others relate to possible flaws in a particular bottle: “What if I spend a lot of money and the wine turns out to be oxidized or corked?”
I’ve found that quite a few oenophiles share this last worry. A “corked” bottle gets its musty flavor from the compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, which can linger in the cork or, more rarely, in barrels or elsewhere in the winery, and taint wine upon contact. The possibility of a corked bottle was the single most commonly cited fear among the wine lovers I polled. My husband has an alternative take: “What if I don’t recognize that a wine is corked?”
Failing to notice a corked wine or doing so belatedly happens surprisingly often. It’s happened to me and to just about everyone I know. You might take a few sips, maybe drink half a glass (or half the bottle) before you realize something is simply not right. I was even served a corked wine at one of the best restaurants in New York. The sommelier tasted the wine before presenting it, but a wine’s flavors, good and bad, will develop in the glass with exposure to oxygen; in this case, the cork taint came to the fore in the short time between his tasting of the wine and my own. I had to tell him the bottle was corked, and he was duly appalled.
The telltale taste of a corked wine can be subtle or overt, though it generally grows more apparent over time. This is particularly bad news for the fearful, since a flawed wine might start off as just a bit dull and inexpressive, but by the end of the bottle it could taste like cardboard and smell like a wet dog—and by then it’s too late to send the wine back.
Many wine fears are focused on situations that unfold in restaurants or stores, in front of other, presumably more knowledgeable people. Fear of public humiliation is a huge factor. My stepdaughter Leah fears ordering a wine and not liking it—but being afraid to send it back because she can’t explain why.
In this sense, Leah has a lot in common with many of the customers of Sara Sparks, sales manager at Astor Wines & Spirits in New York. Ms. Sparks often encounters customers “who think the bottle they opened is off in some way.” Sometimes the customer will even bring the bottle to the store and taste it with Ms. Sparks who finds a “high percentage” of the bottles aren’t actually flawed but simply present flavors or styles the customers haven’t encountered before. Ms. Sparks likes when this happens. “It’s an awesome learning moment,” she said.
By Lettie Teague
July 26, 2018
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