The cork conundrum continues

Above: why don’t you just walk all over me? A zerbino (doormat) made out of corks by my friend Dana.

My post “Murder the Moonshine: Considerations on Corkiness” generated some interesting comments last week. I’ve made a selection below. Also, be sure to check out Brooklynguy’s excellent post on corkiness, where he speaks with candor uncommon in the world of wine blogging, and Craig Camp’s I’m-as-mad-as-hell frustration with cork taint in a favorite Chablis.

The bottom line? The issue of cork taint in “on-premise” (restaurant) sales remains a conundrum.* There’s no easy solution.


The practice of handing the recently disengorged cork to the customer is equally confusing, since no one seems to know what to do. Sniff it, squeeze it, taste it?


Many people will object to the sommelier tasting the wine first, especially at today’s prices. On whether the wine is corked, sensitivity to corkiness will vary among persons, if the sommelier isn’t especially sensitive to corkiness it presents a problem to a customer who is.


It would be nice to see some of the more ridiculous aspects of so-called wine etiquette erased from Western dining culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this problem only seems to occur in countries without a long wine tradition (e.g., the USA and the UK).


It always presents an odd situation when you are forced to determine, immediately after the bottle is open, while conversation at the table has stopped, to tell whether a bottle is flawed. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious, but many times not. I hate that feeling after I’ve “approved” a wine and then consumed 1/3 of the bottle only to have a serious flaw to appear with aeration. Of course knowledgeable wine staff will get it, but less experienced servers will undoubtedly be confused…

Tracie B.:

I say yes, isn’t this the job of the sommelier? BUT, in restaurants without one (read: most of the ones I patronize), I would certainly prefer to determine this myself. Waitstaff is typically sorely undereducated, much more than some of them seem to think.


I always feel like I am being asked to perform a slightly embarrassing role in this – I completely agree, anachronistic – ritual. The sommelier pours the wine, and I am expected to knowingly swirl, sniff, quaff, pretending to know what I am tasting for (I haven’t a clue) and the sommelier pretends to defer to my educated judgment (no doubt sniggering inwardly at my obvious confusion.) It is a useless exercise and I always imagine a laugh track somewhere in the background at my expense.


Bring back the classic tastevin!

* “At the time of the Enlightenment, the OED reports, the word gained a sense of ‘a riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.’ In modern times, the punning sense of conundrum atrophied, unfortunately for wordplayers, leaving only the sense of helpless speculation. The meaning is now ‘a question whose answer can only be guessed at.’ Where in antiquity did Ben Jonson find the word? Lexicographers throw up their harmlessly drudging hands and say, ‘Origin obscure’; the etymology of conundrum can best be described by itself.”
— William Safire

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.