Cork This!

As the season of giving approaches, I looked in a different direction this week for blogging inspiration — giving back.

What are you supposed to do with a bad bottle of wine?

Bad Signs

Wine is an agricultural product, subject to variations of geography, geology, weather, growing practices, production methods, storage conditions and maturity. Sometimes, even a good product can turn bad.

Poor handling, extreme weather and fouled closures (like tainted corks) can all adversely affect the final product, which is also also evolving over time through the aging process.

Serious problems usually don’t present themselves until the bottle is opened, the wine is poured and the taste and smell indicate there’s an issue. By then, you’re committed. Right?

Not so fast.

While the odds of getting a tainted bottle of wine are not very high, it does happen. I’ve had only one personal experiences in restaurants with a purchased wine that was spoiled.

The two major failures are caused by oxidation and spoiled/tainted corks.


Oxidation literally means the addition of oxygen, which over time will interact with the wine and make it degrade.

If the closure is damaged, or if a natural cork dries out and shrinks, oxygen seeps into the bottle and the wine begins to spoil. If you have ever left an open bottle of wine in the refrigerator for more than a week, you know what I’m talking about. It tastes stale, maybe musty. Sometimes, there’s the flavor of overcooked fruit.

TCA — Tainted Cork

Corks can be tainted at the microbial level by TCA, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. The offending process that produces TCA commences when an airborne fungus combines with chlorophenal compounds that may come from pesticides and wood preservatives.

The presence of TCA is not harmful, health-wise, but it does produce unpleasant odors. Think wet newspapers or that wet dog smell and you get a pretty good idea of how bad it can be.

Bad Wine or Bad Winemaking

It’s not enough to not like the wine. If it’s not to your taste, that’s part of the risk you take upon ordering an agricultural product with seasonal, regional and varietal characteristics that may not appeal to you.. The wine may not be to your taste, but that’s not a good enough reason to demand your money back or exchange it for something else.

Modern winemaking methods have substantially reduced the risks, but some stinkers occasionally sneak through.

Some obvious signs of trouble ahead are discoloration, corks that have pushed up from the lip of the bottle, seepage and low fill line or ullage. Ullage is literally the empty space at the top of an unopened bottle. The lower the level, the higher the possibility of problems.

You’ll see ullage levels included in wine auction descriptions of older wines, as an indicator of quality.

Send It Back!

The first time I encountered a bad bottle was in a well-regarded restaurant in my hometown of Memphis. I was in my 20s and not a very sophisticated food or wine person.

Nevertheless, when I ordered an expensive bottle of red wine and it was brought to the table, the cork disintegrated upon opening.

The wine was spoiled and had an unpleasant odor. I was inexperienced, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I gathered up my courage and complained to the waiter. This wine was not right and I wanted another bottle.

He was resistant, sniffing the wine himself and insisting that it was fine. I asked for the manager, who finally agreed to send over another bottle.

The waiter removed the bad bottle and walked away. I saw him stop at the serving station and decant the bad bottle into a carafe, using a coffee filter to remove the bits of cork. Then, he brought the same wine to the table in the carafe. He’d missed a few pieces of cork, which floated in the carafe.

I was outraged, but really didn’t know what my rights were. I told the waiter I’d seen what he did and refused to pay for the bad bottle of wine.

He insisted the wine was fine and that dissatisfaction was due to tasting inexperience, not spoilage. I didn’t know what else to do, so I paid the tab, but didn’t leave a tip.

That was the last time I ever visited that restaurant, which has long since closed. But I never missed the chance to tell anyone who asked for a restaurant recommendation to look elsewhere.

The cost of insisting on serving a bottle of bad wine? A tarnished reputation spread by word-of-mouth or, today, via the Internet.

What You Should Do

If you think you have a bottle of bad wine, first take a few minutes to let the wine breathe. Sometimes, off odors will “blow off” or diminish in a few minutes.

Give the wine a few minutes to show its true colors. If you still think it’s bad, then get the waiter (or better yet the sommelier /wine steward, if the establishment has one) and describe the problem. Ask him/her to smell and taste the wine.

A competent taster will be able to identify a bad wine right away. If the server or sommelier disagrees with your assessment, ask for the manager.

A top-notch restaurant should placate a customer’s wishes and replace a bad bottle, if it’s truly bad, but there’s no law that requires it. A retail shop or wine store might refund your money, or replace an obviously damaged wine, but again there’s no obligation to do so.

Older wines are more susceptible to problems, but younger wines can also be affected.

Let the buyer beware.

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