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ADVERTISING: Advertorial — GEORGE BALLING: The most important wine flaw to know

| May 27, 2020 1:00 AM

There are many things that can go wrong in the winemaking process. Many are controllable and some are not. Wine is an organic product, and while from time to time we all might encounter a wine that is poorly made, more often than not, one of the things that goes wrong is not due to a poorly skilled winemaker or production staff, it is a simple flaw. Everything from bottle variation to volatile acidity or VA, to an unintended secondary bottle fermentation which can just get loose in the wine, resulting in a bottle that just doesn’t taste (or more likely smell) right.

There is one flaw that is common enough and it affects the wine in the bottle so significantly that it is vital for wine consumers to know, recognize and understand. The effects on the wine industry overall are substantial as wineries try to mitigate the economic impacts from this one single flaw. The flaw known as a bottle being “corked” is caused by a chemical that is present in natural cork called TCA, which stands for Trichloroanisole. To date, there is no reliable scientific process for identifying TCA in a cork. Back when Mary and I worked in wineries, about all winemakers would or could do would be to take a couple of corks out of a batch and float them in glass of wine to see if the TCA would blossom. When the chemical comes into contact with wine is when it does its devastating dirty work. The aromas of TCA or a “corked” bottle are unmistakable. The wine smells of wet cardboard, wet newspaper or a musty old basement. The “corkiness” of a tainted bottle also gets worse the longer the bottle is open and the wine can interact with oxygen. The even more devastating part is it completely strips the wine of all fruit flavors so you are left with a fairly smelly glass of wine that tastes only of alcohol. A rather unappealing combination.

This is why it is so important for wine consumers to recognize this flaw; it will leave you with the impression that a wine is poorly made, not to your taste or simply bad. In fact, it is none of these; it is just a bad piece of cork and it occurs in 5 to 10% of bottles sealed with natural cork. The best way for wine consumers to become familiar with TCA is to smell and taste a corked bottle. One time will do it. You will quickly establish the odor in your aromatic memory. Once you encounter a “corked” bottle at a restaurant, you should send the bottle back. If you bought the bottle at a retail shop, put the cork back in the bottle and return the bottle with the remaining wine for a refund.

At the Dinner Party we always refund on returned bottles. In the case of a “corked” wine, we too get our money back, as we return it to the distributor or winery for a credit on that bottle. It is, after all, a flaw and none of us should pay for that.

It has also been interesting to watch the effects of TCA contamination in cork on the wine industry. It is the reason for the move to synthetic closures on wine bottles. Most wineries that are making the change to twist cap and other non-cork closures are no longer willing to endure the economic impact of losing 5 to 10% of their product to a damaging chemical that is largely outside of their control.

While the perception among wine consumers is that a twist cap is a sign of a “cheap” wine, it is actually not at all. The twist cap closures actually cost about the same amount as natural cork. Add in the additional cost of bottling with twist caps, and in some cases they can cost more. It costs more to bottle with twist caps, as not all bottling lines are equipped to work with them, plus the technology to seal with a twist cap is more finely tuned and sophisticated than those that handle natural cork.

The next time you are at a wine tasting, or just out to dinner, and you encounter a bottle that smells or tastes just a bit off, ask the wine professional taking care of you to smell the wine. They will help you identify if the wine is indeed flawed from TCA. If they concur, smell the wine again, commit this smell to memory, and watch for it whenever you taste a wine. Your familiarity with this flaw will make it so you don’t have to suffer through a bad wine.

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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country.

After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at!/dinnerpartyshop.