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Murray: If wine smells off, most likely it is

POSTED: March 4, 2009 1:00 a.m.

It was supposed to be just a good-quality, mid-range sangiovese - a red wine from Tuscany - served at a popular pizzeria in South Hall.

It became an exercise in a part of wine drinking you're not supposed to like: returning a bottle.

And it reminded me that a lot of folks who do enjoy a bottle or glass of wine when they dine out don't have a clue what to do when the wine they are served is not acceptable.

First, let me state clearly that I do not enjoy returning a bottle of wine - and it happens infrequently. I know of wine snobs who think this is great fun; to demonstrate to all in view or listening range they are superior people when, in actuality, they are spoiled brats. People who send back a bottle of wine for no good reason should have a special place in the nether world reserved for them.

But it will happen. The law of averages dictates that, eventually, you're going to get a bad bottle. And you need to know what to do.

The first clue that something might be amiss was the fact that the bottle arrived at the table already opened, the cork halfway out of the bottle - wet side up. That's, frankly, a no-no. Quality restaurants know enough to pull the cork - or crack the screwtop - at the table in front of the customer.

This place is not a big wine establishment. The wine list was meager; but with a couple of Chiantis, a merlot and the sangiovese, it was adequate. And the prices were reasonable.

But when I pulled the cork and took a sniff, I knew right away there was a problem: The wine was "corked." That's a term that indicates the cork itself had been infected with a chemical that occurs naturally in the bark of the quercus tree, which provides natural corks. The chemical is abbreviated TCA and it occurs randomly; you never know when it's going to pop up.

What it does is pretty nasty. It makes the wine smell like a compost pile, a heap of wet leaves, a damp dog that has just come into the house. TCA infection occurs at varying levels. I've occasionally thought, "Is this wine corked, or is it just a lot of oak that I'm picking up?"

Good news: The wine won't hurt you, unlike peanut butter products from south Georgia. Bad news: The wine is a loss. You can't drink it, because more often than not you can't get it past your nose ... and it tastes bad, too.

What to do?

Send it back. Which is what I did, explaining to the youthful waiter why I was refusing the wine. I knew he didn't get it, but he offered no resistance. He took it back and I saw him mention the incident to the owner, a large man who threw some harsh glances my way.

I ordered a Chianti, which was fine with our stellar pizza. I shared both corks with people in our group and they all sniffed and recognized the difference.

Although the place was busy I approached the owner to explain what had happened. I knew it was not going well when he told me he didn't know anything about wine. He seemed a bit hostile at first: "So you're the only one who would know this?" he asked, when I outlined what "corkiness" is all about.

"No," I responded. "Anyone who is truly interested in wine or who teaches about wine, as I do, will know about this." I went on to note that anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of cork-bottled wines will be affected by TCA. He seemed appeased and stuck out a hand the size of a catcher's mitt for me to shake.

He waved and smiled when we left, and I felt good about, once again, serving as a missionary for wine. I did not, however, feel very good about his parting statement: "Nobody else is going to know about that problem, so I've probably resold that bottle already." I call that unethical.

Americans, for the most part, are resistant to return a bottle of wine. We tolerate far worse service and products than those on the other side of the pond, and that's just wrong.

If the shrimp scampi is tough and rubbery, if the eggplant Parm is soggy and tasteless - or if the wine has a bad aroma and/or taste - for crying out loud, send 'em back! You need not be obnoxious, as too many wine snobs are. Just explain to your server or the manager or captain why this wine just doesn't pass muster. It can be corked, it can be cooked (exposed to heat, making it taste like a very bad Sherry) or it can be too old, making it taste flat and flavorless.

Remember: A wine, red or white, that smells like your golden retriever who's just bounded into the house from a romp in the rain is not a wine you want to put down your neck.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? E-mail him. His column runs on the first Wednesday of the month.



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