Many years ago, when I was first getting into wine I got a great lesson in bad wine. We were having dinner with friends at a lovely restaurant and my host graciously ordered a very expensive bottle of wine. When the waiter brought it to the table, he poured a little for my friend to assess. After sticking his nose into the glass he turned to the waiter and politely said, “no, this is corked.” The waiter didn’t question my friend, he simply took the bad bottle back to the kitchen and brought another bottle. He repeated the routine of having my friend taste the wine and now my friend pronounced it “bon.”
There are three basic things that can go wrong with a wine and it’s good to know what they are.
1) It’s corked. This is the most common problem with a wine and this was what was wrong with the wine that night. “Corked” happens when a bacteria has entered your wine and ruined it. There is nothing you can do about it. You know a wine is “corked” if it smells like a wet basement. That musty damp smell means the wine is corked and should be discarded. Occasionally the stink will blow off – but that rarely happens. You should not drink a corked bottle of wine; you should throw it down the drain and open another bottle. Estimates are that about 10% of all wine is corked and this is one of the strongest motivations pushing the industry to find other “closures” – synthetic corks, and screw tops for example.
2) The second most common flaw in a wine is when it is oxidized. This occurs when a wine has been exposed to oxygen for too long and is moving towards becoming vinegar. The most common problem with wine by the glass in a restaurant is that it is often oxidized. The restaurant opens a bottle of wine for dinner, doesn’t finish the bottle and puts a cork in it. The next day they are going to finish that bottle before they open another one, but by then it is becoming oxidized. I often ask my server when the bottle has been opened before I order a wine by the glass. If the restaurant serves a wine that is oxidized I simply send it back and ask them to open a new bottle. Freakishly, it is common in France for them to drink oxidized wine. I don’t know why; it just is.
3) The third major flaw – and the least common – is that a wine is cooked. This happens when a wine has not been stored well and has been exposed to too much heat. I once bought a bottle of a pretty well known wine that was on sale at a very inexpensive price. The merchant had a case and I was suspicious so I bought a bottle and tried it that night for dinner with friends. The wine smelled and tasted like stewed tomatoes. It was awful. It was cooked. I think the distributor knew the wine had not been stored well so he dumped it to the retailer at a cheap price to try to move it, hoping that inexperienced wine buyers wouldn’t know what was wrong.
The real problem with not knowing that you’re drinking a bad bottle of wine is that you might think you don’t like that particular wine and never give it another try. You drink a bottle of wine that is corked, oxidized or cooked and say, “that was awful; I’ll never buy that wine again.” It is important to learn what the key flaws in a wine can be and spot them so that every bottle you drink is the wine the winemaker intended you to drink.
It can be intimidating to send a bottle of wine back, so sometimes we don’t do it because we don’t want to be a pain in the neck. But you are paying for the bottle of wine and it is supposed to be right. I was in Paris once and the waiter brought a bottle of wine that was corked. I began to apologize for telling him about the wine and before I could say very much he interrupted me and said, “bouchon est bouchon.” Corked is corked! In other words, don’t apologize and don’t drink bad wine. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”