Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Corked Wine Etiquette - Poll Results and some Thoughts

Here is the question I initially asked: You and several other guests are at some one's house for dinner. The host serves a wine that is corked. What do you do? I put up a poll on the left sidebar of the blog offering various ways of handling the situation. The choices were:

1) Immediately inform everyone that the wine is corked.
2) Wait until everyone has had a chance to taste the wine, then inform the group.
3) Wait until everyone has had a chance to taste the wine, hope that some one else informs the group, if no one does, inform the group yourself.
4) Don't say anything unless the host notices the wine is corked.
5) Hey - I'm not positive that I would notice it myself.

Many readers agreed with Alex (whose comment contains an amusingly off-color typo - whoops, should I not have informed?) and Jack who said that the answer to the question depends on who is hosting and on the situation, and that the telling should be done in a discrete manner. The general sentiment seemed to be that the wine-geek host can take the news, but "civilians" might not be able to.

But 102 of you responded to the poll, and the most popular response (35%) was #1 - immediately inform everyone that the wine is corked. That's far from a majority, of course. But it is quite different from the sentiment expressed in the comments. Perhaps those who picked this answer assumed that it is a wine-savvy group at dinner.

The 2nd most common (26%) answer was #3 - wait until everyone has had a chance to taste the wine, hope that some one else informs the group, if no one does, inform the group yourself. This is the one that I personally believe in almost all of the time. Although I respect it, I do not subscribe to the "never say that the wine is corked, no matter what" philosophy.

Once I was a dinner guest at a highly knowledgeable wine maker's house, along with two of my friends who are incredibly knowledgeable wine professionals. The wine maker and one of my companions are friends. We began the evening with a vintage Champagne that I very much enjoyed. We ate wonderful food that night, and drank many wonderful wines. After leaving the wine maker's house we were discussing the night's wines and both of my friends agreed that the vintage Champagne was mildly corked, mildly enough so that it was difficult to discern, but mildly corked. I remember feeling surprised that they hadn't brought this up while we were drinking the wine - I assumed that the wine maker would have also noticed, or at least would have been interested to hear this opinion. I would have loved to taste the wine again, to learn about what it was my friends had noticed.

Several times I have served wine to fellow wine lovers who waited for me to point out that the wine is corked or otherwise flawed. I appreciate that because it is such a polite way of handling it. But it makes me wonder...what if I hadn't noticed? Would they have said nothing? Would they allow me to remain ignorant about that wine? I sincerely hope not. How many times have I served flawed wine to wine-savvy guests who noticed, but said nothing? If the wine-savvy host doesn't notice a flaw, saying nothing seems like a shame to me. There are delicate ways to say things, and clearly this is a person who wants wine knowledge. Help them, for goodness sake!

By the way, I try to find a delicate manner of informing even the non wine-savvy host too, and whichever of their non wine-savvy guests appear interested. It's not the same thing as telling the host that the cake they baked is too salty, or that the spaghetti they made is overcooked. The host made those things, and it obviously would be unacceptably impolite to criticize the host's cooking. But the host didn't make this wine - they purchased it and are not responsible for the flaw. And "too salty" and "overcooked" are matters of opinion. Cork taint is tangible, much more like spoiled milk than like "too salty." Perhaps the host would appreciate learning how to recognize this flaw.

I appreciate the premium placed on politeness and deference to the host's feelings, and clearly the social rhythm of the evening should not be risked over corked wine. But I also think that excessive politeness inadvertently advances the sad idea that wine and wine knowledge are for only the privileged few among us. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me a minute. When you don't take the opportunity to teach someone that a wine is flawed, you help them stay ignorant. You allow them and their guests to eat stale bread without explaining what stale means, without suggesting a taste of fresh bread for the sake of comparison. Why allow people to think that a flawed wine is an accurate representation of the wine? Why not seize the moment and empower people to understand and recognize the flaw themselves? I'm talking about civilians and wine-geeks. I'm talking about myself. Everyone has something to learn. Just don't be a didactic wine snob when you're the one teaching, be respectful and be helpful. People are going to drink a lot of wine in their lifetime, and maybe you'll be the one who helps them understand what corked wine is, or how to discern the faintest whiff of TCA in an old bottle of Champagne.


vinska klet said...

Definetly would tell them. One year we had literally every fifth bottle corked, nightmare i tell you.

There's a saying that man discovered almost everything, but flawless cork.

Weston said...

I guess if it is corked, are you still going to drink it, beacause if you notice it and not drink it...and don't say anything... I think Honesty is the best but being careful about it, even tho they didn't make the wine, tho it would really suck they didn't have any other wine to replace it...

Will Piper said...

I think it's always important to remember that sensitivity to TCA varies from person-to-person, greatly. It's a function of biology, like 50% of the population's genetic aversion to cilantro - to them it simply tastes "soapy". A few people I've known who are definitely fixtures in the wine/restaurant world have a very high threshold for TCA. Jamie Goode has done some really good writing on the topic.