Bottom Line/Personal: Have you ever opened a bottle of wine and maybe it doesn’t smell like a wet basement, but it sure doesn’t smell right? Well, is it good? Is it bad? How do you know…and what should you do?
I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversations With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.
Today I’m talking to Amy Dixon. Amy is the former buyer and fine wine expert at Stew Leonard’s wine stores, one of the top 10 retailers for wine in the country. She is currently managing a portfolio of fine wine collectors at Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines in Darien, Connecticut.
Amy lost 98% of her eyesight in 2007. Now, in addition to being a wine expert, she is a paratriathlete on Team USA, and she’s also on the watch list for their cycling team. You can learn more about Amy and all of her cycling and wine expertise at BlogSpot.BlindSommelier.com. Welcome, Amy.
Amy Dixon: Thank you for having me.
Bottom Line : So there I am, I opened up the wine, not sure if it smells right or wrong. What’s the first thing that I should do?
Dixon : First thing you should do is feel the cork and take a look at the cork. So we’re going to pull up some examples of what you should be looking for and what should not be there. Specifically, think about wine—it’s in a vacuum. It’s in a sealed bottle. What happens when a liquid gets heated up? What happens? Does it expand?
Bottom Line: Expands, it bubbles, steams.
Dixon : Right, exactly. So if wine is in a controlled vase or in a controlled bottle, it has nowhere to go but up. In our first example here, we’ve got a cork that has the wine that has leaked about one-half to two-thirds of the way up the cork. This is a really great barometer as far as telling you that something’s wrong with this wine.
But it doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely flawed. You’ve got to trust your nose, and you’ve got to trust your palate. But these are all good detective clues to tell you that there could be something wrong with your wine. Do not smell the cork, because what’s the cork going to smell like?
Bottom Line: It’s going to smell like cork.
Dixon: Exactly, as it should, because it’s a cork. But your wine should not smell like cork, and that’s really the first telltale sign. The cork is going to tell you a variety of different things. It’s going to tell you how that wine was stored and transported. There’s a couple of clues that you’re going to look for.
We’re going to pull up an example of a wine cork that shows that this wine has been transported or stored improperly. What that means is that wine is a very delicate thing. What happens when a liquid gets heated up?
Bottom Line: It expands.
Dixon : Exactly. And a wine bottle has nowhere to go but up that cork, because cork is a porous surface. So the wine has been heated up during transportation, so it went up the cork. If it goes more than, I would say, one-eighth of the way up the cork, that’s a telltale sign that something has happened to heat this wine up.
And we want to really trust our nose and our palate, so if I look at the cork and I see that that wine has bled up the cork significantly and the wine isn’t smelling quite right, can’t really put my finger on it, those two clues are telling me that this wine is flawed, and I would absolutely send it back. I would never hesitate.
Bottom Line: Let’s take a look. So these corks that we have on the screen, the one all the way on the left, which looks like it’s kind of dark halfway up.
Bottom Line: That’s bled up, and that’s probably bad.
Dixon : That’s probably bad. But again, that could have been a quick temperature spike. It could have been that they were loading it on a dock and it was 80° outside…it sat out there for 10 minutes…and it shot up real quick…and it’s fine. So again, I urge people to trust their nose and their palate.
But if I got a cork like that at a restaurant or I bought a bottle of wine at a local store and I saw it has bled halfway up the cork and the wine’s not smelling quite right to me, it doesn’t taste quite right to me, these are all great clues.
Bottom Line: So should I feel the cork? Does moisture of the cork have anything to do with it?
Dixon: Absolutely. If a cork is bone dry and it’s flaking and it’s disintegrating, that means, again, that the wine was probably not stored properly. You want to have a cork that’s slightly moist at the tip, at the side that’s been exposed to the wine, and also that’s got some good elasticity to the cork.
If the cork’s really dry, it means that the wine was probably standing up for a long period of time-which is fine for a month in a local retail shop, but ideally you want that wine laying on its side so that the cork stays saturated and therefore has a good closure on the wine. Because when cork dries up, it shrinks, and you no longer have a good seal.
Bottom Line: So how about now-they have these synthetic corks. Am I able to use that as a barometer?
Dixon: Love, love, love, love me some synthetic corks. They’re great.
Bottom Line: You like them?
Dixon: Oh, they’re fantastic. I think everything should be coming in screw top and glass top closure and plastic corks.
Bottom Line: Really?
Bottom Line: I was going to ask you about that, whether screw top was…
Dixon: Yeah, absolutely.
Bottom Line: All right, so let’s talk about synthetic corks. They’re good.
Dixon: Synthetic corks are great, yeah.
Bottom Line: Does it keep the wine from going bad?
Dixon: Of course. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, again, a lot of things can cause a wine to flaw. There can be bacteria in the wine…there can be bacteria that was used in the barrels that the wine was fermented or stored in…or the wine could be heated up during transportation and it was cooked. So those have nothing to do with the type of cork that has been used…that has everything to do with transportation and how the wine was made. So it can have other flaws, but it’s not going to have a bad cork.
Bottom Line: And there won’t be any telltale signs on a synthetic…
Dixon: No, there won’t. So you’re going to have to really trust your nose and your palate. One thing that’s unique to cork, which is why so many people are switching over to screw tops and glass-top closures and synthetic corks specifically, is there’s a compound called TCA, trichloroanisole, and TCA is a compound that they actually use in newspapers.
If you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine and you get immediate smell of wet basement or you get that smell of wet newspaper that has been left out—you forgot to pick it up off of the front step—that’s that smell. And it’s no accident, because it’s actually the same compound that they use to sanitize newsprint before they print it. So if your wine smells like The New York Times, there’s a problem.
Bottom Line: So TCA is something that forms in the wine?
Dixon: No, TCA is actually a compound that they use to sanitize the corks before processing and sometimes they don’t rinse it off enough. So it’s not bad for you…
Bottom Line: So it’s bad from the start, basically.
Dixon: It’s bad from the get-go. You’re never going to have that problem with a synthetic cork or with a screw top, but you will have that problem with a real cork. Real cork has been used for centuries, and it’s a lovely closure. It works very, very well. But because of the way that they treat the corks with this TCA-the chlorination process of bleaching of the cork to sanitize it before bottling-some of that residue can be left in the cork and, therefore, can get into the wine.
Again, it will not hurt you. You can certainly ingest TCA. It is just incredibly unpleasant to drink. And trust me, I have suffered through many a bottle in order to be polite to a friend or customer who is very excited about a wine that they’ve been saving for a special occasion. They open it up, and immediately it smells like that wet basement or that cardboard smell. It’s very disappointing. And again, it won’t hurt you, but it’ll be very, very unpleasant. And the wine is flawed.
And always if that happens, I urge people to take the wine back to their local retailer, because the retailer will get credit from their supplier. Don’t feel bad. It is not a fault of the retailer. It doesn’t mean that the wine was stored improperly. It means that the cork started off with a bad cork.
And same thing at a restaurant. If you smell wet basement immediately—and sometimes it can be subtle; sometimes it can just be a trace of it and sometimes it can be very overpowering, depending upon the amount of residue that was left on that cork—never be afraid to send it back, because it is a flaw.
Bottom Line: Let’s look at another cork that looks bad, but…
Dixon: This is a good one.
Bottom Line: This cork actually looks like it has all sorts of crystals on it, like there’s something that’s gone bad on the cork or the wine.
Dixon: Right, and I actually call this wine rock candy. It’s actually delicious. These are called tartrate crystals. Going back to your high school chemistry class and using of centrifuges and things like that, this is a precipitate that falls out of solution when a wine goes from being fermented, where it’s a very warm process, to being cooled down. This falls out as these sort of crystals.
There’s nothing wrong with the wine whatsoever. For me, it actually sometimes is an indicator of quality because it means that the wine wasn’t filtered. The less intrusion that a winemaker does on the wine, the better. The less hands on and the less things that they do to manipulate the wine, the better. So this tells me that the wine was definitely not filtered, because there’s tartrate crystals left in the wine.
And they generally stick to the cork because the cork is a rough surface, unlike a glass bottle. There’s nothing wrong—you can eat them. They taste like wine, obviously, and they’re a little bit sweet because there’s grape sugar on them. They’re perfectly fine. That is not a bad wine whatsoever.
Bottom Line: So now we’ve got a dry cork or we’ve got a bad smell, or we’ve got the hint of a bad smell. How sniffy do you have to be to really be able to know if the bottle of wine is bad?
Dixon: Trust your nose. I don’t care if it’s your first glass of wine you’ve ever had. If something’s really putting you off, always trust your nose and your palate. And the nose is a great barometer, but if you’re also getting it on the palate, that sort of reinforces the fact that the wine is flawed.
When in doubt, ask the sommelier at the restaurant or ask the retailer. Bring it back the next day- don’t wait a week as a courtesy to your local retailer, because that’s really unfair. It is very hard to tell a week after a wine has been opened whether there’s something wrong with the wine. Of course something’s wrong with the wine after a week-it has turned to vinegar.
But after a day or two, bring it to your local retailer and say, “Hey, listen, I think this wine was bad. What do you think?” They’ll tell you right away.
Bottom Line: Where’s the fine line? Because everybody has different smells or different palates, so how do I know if it’s just I ate mint earlier or something like that, that’s making something smell bad to me?
Dixon: It’s certainly possible, but having an experience with that wine, if it’s a wine that you’ve had a number of times and all of a sudden something’s not adding up and not tasting right and not smelling right, trust your own judgment.
Bottom Line: Anything else that they should be on the lookout for besides the cork and the smell?
Dixon : Other than TCA being in the wine and the cork, there are other flaws that can happen to wine. Wine could be what’s called baked, which is exactly what it sounds like—the wine was cooked. During transportation, it saw some sort of extreme temperature and, therefore, the wine almost tastes like sherry. While some people like sherry, your Cabernet should not taste like sherry.
And sometimes it almost tastes like, rather than fresh fruit-if you’ve had a Pinot Noir or a nice lighter red wine that’s usually floral and soft-it tastes like stewed tomatoes or it smells like stewed, cooked fruit. That’s a good indication that there’s something wrong with that wine.
Again, it comes with experience of having tasted that wine once or twice. And when in doubt, ask somebody. Ask for a second opinion.
Bottom Line: That’s great. Thank you, Amy Dixon, BlogSpot.BlindSommelier. com. The bottom line on whether or not a bottle of wine is bad-if the cork has wine that’s going partway up the cork, not a tiny bit, but a significant percentage of the cork, then it’s likely that wine has not been stored properly and it has been heated. If it smells bad to you-and I mean it doesn’t smell like wine-then that’s a hint that something is bad. Or even if the wine does not smell or taste like it’s supposed to-if it’s fruitier than it should be or it’s flat, it’s very possible that that wine is bad.
So take it back to your retailer within a day or two so that they can still tell that there really is a problem. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line Publications.