Murder the moonshine: considerations on corkiness

The food and wine blogosphere went a little nuts a few weeks ago after Christopher Hitchens wrote this rant on wine service at Slate and Frank Bruni chimed in over at Diner’s Journal. Their core lament, it seems, is that waiters refill their wine glasses at inopportune moments or overly enthusiastically. I must confess that I share their frustration, mainly because when a glass of wine is topped off, the process of aeration is interrupted: I like to linger over my wine and observe how it changes with aeration. The other night in a very fancy Los Angeles restaurant, a waiter actually poured water into my wine glass (but that’s another story). As one commentator noted on Frank’s blog, this issue can be resolved simply by politely asking the waiter not to top off the glasses.

It’s another issue that concerns me most: the age-old practice of having the patron taste the wine to determine whether or not it’s “corked.” Corkiness is a delicate subject and I’ve seen it lead to heated arguments between wine professionals — the one claiming a wine is corked, the other claiming it’s not. And corkiness can be so subtle that its virtually undetectable. In fact, the lack of fruit on the nose of a wine (and in the mouth) can be the first tell-tale sign of cork taint and it often takes considerable aeration for the corkiness to reveal itself fully.

Above: a bottle of 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco. The cork crumbled as I pulled it but — with patience and my favorite wine key — I was able to extract it entirely. A crumbled cork is not necessarily a sign of corkiness and in fact, this wine was in great shape and drank beautifully.

Why then, I ask, do we force the average patron — who generally lacks the experience needed to detect corkiness — to make that evaluation? The other night in a San Diego restaurant, a sommelier poured tasting pours of a red wine for a married couple. The wine had just been opened at the bar for the by-the-glass list. The couple told him that they liked the wine and the sommelier poured them each a glass from the same bottle. Halfway through their meal, they called the sommelier over and asked if the wine should smell so “corky.” I offered to smell the wine and it was indeed very corked.

This all could have been avoided if the sommelier would have tasted the wine before he brought it out on the floor.

“Murder the moonshine,” Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti once exhorted. It’s time to do away with the anachronistic, obsolete practice of having the patron determine whether the wine is corky or not. How is she/he to do that — on the spot — when she/he is distracted by her/his dining companions’ conversation, the unfamiliar surroundings and smells of a restaurant? It’s generally accepted that up to 8% of bottles are corked. Check out the results of this study. The waiter should present the bottle, pour her/himself a tasting pour, evaluate its fitness, and then serve it.

What do you think?

Above: the 1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco (classico) was paired with a roast leg of lamb last Easter Sunday.