NAPA, Calif. -- On the surface, the wine tasting at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was another of those informal yet luxe get-togethers the Napa Valley is famous for, but the intensity with which the winemaker studied my every move underscored the fact that some very serious business was afoot.
Still, I was surprised at the winemaker's sharp reaction when I hesitated over a glass of the oldest, most expensive wine poured, the 2001 Cask 23 cabernet sauvignon priced at $150 a bottle.
"Bouchonne?!" she whispered forcefully, burying her nose into the glass. My high school French totally failed me, so I didn't have a clue what she meant, but I knew something had gone wrong.
"The bottle was corked," she explained the next day. She apologized profusely, regretting that there hadn't been a chance to appreciate the wine's full grandeur.
Frankly, I didn't think the wine corked. A little odd, yes, but corked? Not to me -- but then, it's human nature that one taster can detect a flaw while a second taster misses it. And, let's face it, you'd never think of a corked bottle being poured at a winery, particularly one as top-ranked as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. But it happens all the time, everywhere.
Such are the often-subtle vagaries of a good wine gone bad, which in the intimidating world of wine can pose a real problem for consumers in far less rarefied surroundings. People don't speak up when a wine isn't quite right. Reasons vary from fear of being wrong or, especially in restaurants, being challenged, to just not knowing or detecting the warning signs of a wine that's turned. They blame themselves instead of blaming the bottle.
A "corked" wine means the bottle has been tainted with a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloranisole, TCA for short. The culprit? Bad corks. TCA has become such a problem, spoiling some 3 to 5 percent of all bottles sealed with corks, that many winemakers around the world are looking for alternatives.
At its worst, TCA makes a wine smell like wet cardboard or, as Denise Cody of WineStyles Belmont in Chicago puts it, "a stray dog coming in from the rain." TCA is harder to sniff out at lower levels; some people are more sensitive to it than others. The key is to realize something is missing from the wine. TCA robs the wine of its character, dulling the flavor and aroma.
Other closures can trigger other problems.
"Reduction" has become more commonplace, especially with wider use of the screw cap. Reduction occurs when wines are made or bottled in an oxygen-free environment, and the wines take on a sulphuric or barnyard aroma and flavor. Some wine pros believe the smell can be blown off by decanting the wine and letting it sit a while, but others insist the wine has been irreparably compromised.
Oxidation is the opposite of reduction. Here, the wine has gotten too much air, probably via a defective or dried-out cork or an ill-fitting plastic cork. The color turns, lending red and white wines a yellowish or brownish hue. The wine takes on an overly aged sherry-like flavor and aroma. Be careful, though, in coming to a judgment.
"Older wines taste totally different than young wines and what some people pick up as oxidation is really the natural aging of the wine," said Alixe Lischett of Cabernet & Co. in Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Brettanomyces, brett for short, is a yeast that can infect grapes and wineries. It gives wine an off-putting earthy or barnyard smell.
"Cooked" wines result when the bottles are exposed to heat or sunlight and spoil, taking on an unpleasant jammy aspect. This can happen in shipping or at the store (never buy any wine placed near a south-facing glass window that's not treated to filter the sun's rays) or in your own kitchen if you keep that bottle too close to the stove or the room too hot.
What can you do when faced with all these possible pitfalls? Well, knowledge of a particular wine or winery helps you sniff out the occasional dud. There are times, however, when you'll want to strike out into unknown territory. This is when you can find yourself stranded between "bad" wine, as outlined above, and good wines that just don't taste good to you.
"We occasionally get people who try to return a wine because they just don't like it. That can be a little tougher, because many people are not familiar with wine etiquette," said Tracy Kellner, wine and spirits director of Treasure Island Foods stores in Chicago. "But this is a great argument for people to try and go to as many wine tastings as they can."
Do all you can to find out if the wine will be right for you before you buy. Talk to the store owner or restaurant sommelier. Inspect the bottle's physical condition -- are there signs that wine may have leaked out? Is the cork pushed out or pushed into the neck of the bottle? Check the vintage year as well, because wines can sometimes sit too long on shelves.
Fortunately, most retailers will take back the wine, although they may impose certain time limits for returns. Be careful, though: Repeat returnees come under increasing scrutiny -- and resistance.
Bill Daley writes for the Chicago Tribune.