Always Check your Cork

Ok, that title probably will bring up some interesting comments but its very important to understand something so simple.  I always check the cork when I remove it from a bottle.  Call it habit.  Call it Sommelier training.  Call it what you would like (some would state that I have issues).  However, it has saved me countless times over the years from serving a faulted bottle to a customer.

Here’s the scenario

Recently, I was teaching a beverage class and going over different types of red grape varieties.  Since I was in Texas, I believe that it’s important to show Malbec.  The blending grape from Bordeaux grows exceptionally well here and produces a great alternative to the classic red varieties (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon).  In any case, I’m describing the qualities of Malbec as I open the bottle for sampling.  Foil comes off in one piece and I check the inside of the foil where it meets the cork.  I’m looking for any wine leakage and don’t see any.  I move forward to insert the worm of my corkscrew and see lots of small black holes.

“Why would there be black holes?”  I stop and take a better look at the cork and see several small black holes in the top.  No wine is leaking out, but this is interesting.  I call it a flag.  Like someone raised their hands with a flag in it.  That tells me to slow down to take a good look at whatever the potential issue may be.  In this case…….holes.  It looks like someone took a small fine tip black marker and placed several dots on top of the cork.  HMMM.

A flag is not necessary a bad thing.  But now I’m curious.  The students have noticed too since I can normally pop open a bottle in about 10 seconds without sound.  Oh well…let’s see what happens. 

I use the corkscrew to pull out the cork which comes out easy.  I unscrew the cork and look at the bottom and see more black holes.  At this point, I know there is an issue.  In all the years that I’ve been in the business, I have never seen this before.  Honestly, it has me baffled.  I check the wine and I can smell it’s off.  However, to be sure I always taste it just to confirm my suspicions.   Ok, that was not wise.  Students always wonder why I position a trash can near me when I taste.  They understand why as I spit the faulted wine out as fast as I can.

What Happened?

In a nutshell, the cork had several small holes running through the entire body.  This allowed air to come into the bottle and turned the wine into expensive vinegar.  Does this happen often?  For a quick answer, no.  Cork when its wet (in contact with the wine), it swells and normally closes all minute holes and slows down oxygen from getting into the bottle.  In this case, there were so many holes, the cork was not able to close them all. 

The black spots?  Well, that’s mold growth that occurred as the air mixed with the moisture.  There were a few of these black spots on the top of the cork.  The bottom of the cork (where it touched the wine) was almost completely black.

The issue for the Winery?

The worst part of this?  Corks run about 20 cents (I checked on Amazon).  It’s even cheaper for wineries who are purchasing larger quantities for the production runs. So, a small, minute part of the process to make a wine, bottle and sell it to customers just had a major impact on customer perception.  I’m in the business and know that corks fail.  If you talk with some industry members, they say that corks can fail upwards of 25% of the time. 

Customers demand that every bottle (no matter the price range) should be perfect.  I understand the mindset and agree with it up to a point.  Not every bottle can be perfect.  Failures will occur (Think about how many car recalls happen each year).  However, give them a break as they are working hard to produce wine each year based upon ever changing conditions.

What should you do with a Bad Bottle?

The simple answer is to return the bottle to whoever you purchased it from.  Pour the wine back in the bottle, reseal it with the cork and carry it back to the vendor (have a receipt please and be nice).  They will either reimburse you or exchange the bottle.  I understand it’s a bit of a pain.  However, every person that comes in contact with the bottle from the vineyard to you wants you to have a great experience with the wine.  That way, you come back and purchase more.

Do not yell at the vendor.  They had nothing to do with a bad cork so do not be a rude customer (a.k.a. Karen).

Final Thoughts

Every time I get to sample, I think of it as a learning experience.  I get to try a new product and learn from it.  My students learned that cork failure occurs.  They learned to slow down and check corks better to make sure they do not serve something off.  They also learned that keeping a trash can close is wise. 

If you noticed, I never mentioned the Vineyard nor will I.  I’m very familiar with them and love their product.  Everyone received a bad cork in the system – it happens.


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