I Think My Wine is Corked, What Do I Do?
I was really excited to dig into a bottle of Beringer Quantum last night. I’ve had it before, so I know it’s delicious. I poured a glass for my companion and myself and put it to my nose to savor the aroma.
Dark fruits, cigar box, and… musty wet cardboard?
“It smells funky,” he remarked. That’s when I realized that we were drinking a $50 bottle of corked wine.
“Don’t drink it.” I told him as I got up to retrieve his glass. I emptied both of our glasses back into the bottle, vacuum sealed it, and stuck it in the refrigerator. Then I located the cork and kept it safe as well. I knew what to do because I’ve worked in wine service and retail long enough.
What To Do Next
It can be an uncomfortable situation to have to deal with a bad bottle of wine. There’s really nothing worse than this misfortune in the first place. I would now like to give you a few tips, as well as ease your mind when it comes to correcting an incorrect wine situation.
If you think the wine is bad, don’t drink it. You can return it.
I’ve had friends tell me that they’ve forced their way through an off bottle of wine. Don’t do that. Nobody wants you to do that, and you don’t have to. Wine professionals understand that corked wine is unpreventable. This is why so many producers are using screw caps these days (which actually costs them more to use than corks). Those who use corks account for the lost bottles from TCA, or cork taint, in the pricing of the wine.
When you return a bad bottle to a store, they in turn return it to the distributor, who then returns it to the winery. You are only doing a disservice to yourself if you choose to continue drinking wine that doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to.
Call the retailer that you purchased the wine from.
It’s best to call sooner rather than later. I’ve had people walk in to return bottles of wine that have been sitting in their hot car for over a week. This makes it a lot harder for me to detect if anything is actually wrong with the wine, which makes it harder for me to get the distributor to replace it.
In these circumstances, I tend to assume that the customer simply didn’t like the wine and wants their money back. If you think a wine is bad, call the store as soon as you can, and then store it in the refrigerator until you’re able to return it.
Don’t assume other bottles are bad.
Just because one bottle in a case is corked that does not mean that the others are. You shouldn’t try to return unopened bottles to a retailer unless there is something visually wrong with the bottle itself.
It’s important to note that some state laws prevent the return or exchange of alcohol. This being said, most retailers will still issue a store credit in the form of a gift card for a bottle of bad wine that is brought back to them.
Inspect Your Bottles Before You Buy
If you are purchasing the wine in person, there are a few things that you can look for in order to select a bottle that is less likely to be corked or flawed.
First, look at the gap between the juice and bottom of the foil. If most of the bottles have a uniform gap level, then you can use that to determine what the normal fill level for that wine is. Any bottles with less than this amount may be flawed on account of additional evaporation which usually indicates that something is wrong with the cork.
Secondly, inspect the top of the foil, specifically the tiny holes that most producers punch in them in order to allow a minute amount of oxidation to occur. If there is any discoloration around these holes, this can indicate cork taint or abnormal oxidation in the wine.
Lastly, choose bottles that are in the coolest and darkest spots in the wine store. Feel the bottle. Is it warm to the touch? Is the bottle sitting directly under a light or being displayed next to a window that gets adequate sunlight? Light and heat destroy wine.
I always choose bottles that are underneath or behind other bottles when I shop for wine. If I’m purchasing a wine that costs more than $40, I will usually inquire if the wine is also stocked in a wine cooler. Many retailers will stock mid-range-priced wines in both a fine wine cooler as well as on the regular aisles. It’s best to select one that has been kept cool and preferably been stored on its side.
Quick Tips on How To Tell If A Wine is Corked
I would like to close with a few tell-tale indicators of a bad bottle of wine, in the unfortunate event that you’ve brought one home. Some flaws are so subtle that only professionally-trained wine palates can detect them.
1. White wine that smells like apple juice or is dark yellow to light brown in color. Often this is indicative of heat exposure or oxidation. Instead of having bright, crisp fruit flavors, the wine’s fruit profile will be muted, nutty, and slightly bitter.
2. Red wine that smells like cooked fruit or port. While corked red wine has a musty aroma and bitter taste, oxidized or scorched red wine will be off-balanced and exhibit a metallic-like plum flavor.
3. White or red wine that smells like mold or mildew. This is the classic hallmark for a wine that is flawed with TCA (trichloroanisol), or cork taint. As I mentioned before, this is unpreventable in most wine and it has been estimated that as much as 10% of all wine bottled with a cork will have some degree of cork taint.
4. White or red wine that smells like a Band-Aid. This is from a large amount of Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast, and while some wine professionals will argue that “a little bit of Brett” is good for some wines because it contributes to the unique and complex flavor and aroma of those wines, if the smell is off-putting or dominant, this can indicate improper sanitation during wine-making and is considered a wine fault.
There are more wine flaws that are possible than I’ve mentioned above, but these are some of the most common. The takeaway is this: If you are drinking a wine that you’ve had before and liked, but feel that the wine is different this time, apart from variations between vintages, do not discount that the wine might be off. You can always take it to the retailer and see if it’s correct.
Any other tips for dealing with spoiled wine? Let us know in the comments below.