When Being Booze Knowledgable is/isn't Helpful

This past Sunday I went to Modesto for my father-in-law's birthday celebration. We ended up going out for dinner to a fairly nice restaurant (really nice by Modesto standards) and having a few bottles of wine in the process. When the waitress dropped off the wine list everyone expected me to make the decision. They wanted red. No problem! We're not having the McManis, the Rombauer, or the Mondavi, so I guess we'll go with the Greek selection. Easy.

While I don't mind using my experience to make family decisions about booze, I really (really) don't like to put them on display while I'm out. There's nothing worse than dealing with some prick who thinks he knows everything (and that goes for me at K&L or any waiter in a restaurant). I like to keep it mellow and nonchalant.

"Let's do the Greek red."

A few minutes later, the waitress delivered the bottle and asked who would like to taste first to show their approval. I deferred to the birthday boy. The wine would be fine. No need for me to make a big deal out of checking its quality, giving my expert opinion, or some such nonsense.

My father-in-law tasted, nodded, but seemed unsure, as the waitress began to pour glasses for the rest of the table. I swirled my glass quietly while the others continued to talk, took in a whiff of the aromas, and suddenly felt an impending sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Musty, moldy, damp closet smell. This wine was corked. We needed a new bottle, but how in the hell was I going to explain to the waitress that we needed a new bottle without sounding like a pompous wine snob?

There were two things running through my mind at this moment:

1) I was perhaps being a total condescending and rather prejudiced jerk by assuming that a waitress in Modesto wouldn't know what a corked bottle of wine was. She might know way more about wine than I do.

2) If she questioned me or didn't agree, would I have to pull the whole "I work in the field" card? I was really hoping it wouldn't come to that.

What is a corked bottle of wine, you ask? First off, it has nothing to do with the quality of the cork. "Corked" is one of those terms that gets thrown around at parties or dinners, and then immediately misused so that people come walking back into K&L with pieces of cork floating in their wine claiming the wine is "corked." The term refers to the byproduct of a fungus called TCA that gets into the cork before the wine is bottled. It can result in a musty or damp aroma and flavor, but sometimes it may be so minor as to go unnoticed. Sometimes the wine may simply taste like nothing. It's very controversial at K&L wine dinners where some of us think a wine might simply be earthy or terroir-driven, while others think the wine is TCA-laden. If you want to know why more producers are switching to screwtops, this is the main reason. Some experts believe that as many as 1 in 10 bottles of wine have TCA cork taint. However, a bleeded, crumbling, falling-apart cork has nothing to do with TCA.

Back to the situation. When my sister-in-law asked me what I thought of the wine, I said it was corked and that we needed to get a new bottle. What? What did that mean? Was it harmful to drink? Was she going to get sick? No, no, no, we just needed to get the waitress over so that I could ask for a new bottle. When our server finally came back by the table, I began to explain that there was something wrong with the wine.

"What's the problem?"

"Well, you see, there's this thing called cork taint and it gets into the....," I replied, but I was quickly cut off.

"I know what it is," she said politely, but defensively.

"Oh, good, well then this wine is corked," I said, rather relieved, and handed her my glass. She ignored my offering and picked up the bottle to check the aroma.

"Hmm, maybe it just needs to open up. I don't smell anything wrong with the bottle and the cork isn't showing any signs of leakage."

Oh no. This was even worse than I had imagined. We've got a defensive server with a chip on her shoulder about wine knowledge, but who actually doesn't know what she's talking about. There's no way that I can get us a new bottle without being completely pedantic. What do I do? No time to sit here and think about it.

"Here, why don't you smell my glass? It's pretty clear that this wine is off when you put your nose into this."

"Ma'am, he's a sommelier and he knows what he's talking about," my sister-in-law chimed in. Goddammit! Not at all what we needed right now.

"Did you want to pick out another bottle?" the waitress asked with an unconvincing attempt at civility.

"I think we would just like another of the same." I answered.

"You don't think there might be something wrong with that one, too?" Oh man. This is getting worse. By the way, cork taint is totally random. It usually doesn't affect batches or cases of the same wine.

The waitress left and went back behind the bar where I could see her talking to one of her co-workers about the situation. The face of the other server immediately contorted into a combination of "What the F?" and "You've got to be kidding me!" There was obviously some mad shit-talking going on outside the range of our hearing. Wonderful. Would my food come with a healthy dollop of spit, as well?

"Here you are, sir." The second bottle was fine. The difference was night and day. I said nothing more about the situation and thanked her for her help, but the damage had been done. The serving staff was polite, but employed nothing but brevity for the rest of the evening.

My sister-in-law's boyfriend was utterly fascinated with the whole situation. "I never would have known there was something flawed, I would have thought it was just bad wine!"

Therein lies the problem. Most people, including most people who drink wine, have absolutely no idea when the bottle they're drinking is flawed. They simply blame the winemaker or they don't even notice. I'm sure that I've probably recommended at least 100 wines over the five years I've worked at K&L that ended up being corked. What did the customer take from the situation? Did they understand what was happening? Did they blame me for giving them a bad bottle? Did they think it was the wine? Did they decide that they didn't like pinot or Rioja because of it?

If you think cork taint affects only wine, think again! I've had at least ten bottles of corked whisky at K&L in my half-decade there. It can happen. It's important, however, to know what it is so that you can feel confident in asking for a replacement when the situation warrants one. However, just be aware that by bringing this to the attention of the retail store or restaurant, you might be in for a bit of a fight. People get very defensive about corked bottles. I don't know why, but they do.

That being said, if you ever think you have a corked bottle and you bought it from K&L (or even if you didn't) we can always help you access the situation and hopefully rectify it – without all the drama.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll