The waiter puts the cork down in front of you and you cringe. What do you do with this thing? Chew it? Smell it?
The Wine Ritual, which includes the Perfunctory Pour for Approval, is intimidating. The snooty waiter expects you to say something cogent about the wine--"uh, capricious and undulating"--and he stands there, haughtily, waiting for the sign to pour. And what if, God forbid, you should find something wrong with the wine? What then?
The subject of the Ritual of the Opening of the Bottle came up in the latest brochure of Santa Barbara-based importer/distributor Larry Pearson.
"This whole wine-serving ritual immediately stops conversation among the guests at the table," Pearson wrote. "It subjects the host or the person who ordered the wine (if he or she is not an 'expert' or 'connoisseur') to emotions ranging from discomfort to sheer embarrassment."
I agree. There is an awkward moment when the untrained wine buyer is confronted this way.
However, Pearson suggests that it might be practical to eliminate the Ritual altogether, and in particular to eliminate the Perfunctory Pour for Approval. I disagree. It's true that a lot of folderol is involved in it, but there are good reasons to retain the tradition.
First: how to deal with the Ritual.
The cork is placed before the consumer to comply with a tradition, dating back hundreds of years, that was aimed specifically at avoiding fraud. More about that later. The reason for putting the cork down for the consumer today, some people say, is to permit the diner to smell it to see if it's "corky"--that is, if it has the smell of mold on it that can infect the wine.
But it's the wine I'm concerned about, not the cork. If the wine smells "corked," with that unmistakeable moldy smell, I send it back. If I'm not sure that the wine is corked, a sniff of the cork may verify it. If the wine is fine and the cork smells funny, I simply don't eat the cork!
Ah, but what does a "corky" wine smell like? Once you've smelled it, you'll never forget it, and the best way to learn what it is may be for you to go to a person who's certain what the smell is, to show you a good example from a spoiled bottle.
Another solution is to get a sample of the chemical that creates the corked smell (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or 246TCA for short) and doctor a glass of wine. Wine writer Jerry Mead is offering samples of 246TCA for $2 for a small vial. Write to Corky, P.O. Box 7244, San Francisco, Calif. 94120. The sample vial contains a few granules of 246TCA, which may be added to a glass of water or wine, infusing it with the corkiness.
Corkiness is more of a problem today than it's ever been. This is, in part, because of the high demand for cork combined with the shrinking supply of it, meaning that low-quality cork that previously would have been rejected for cork-making is now being used.
The corky smell is not as common in expensive wines, which use the highest-quality corks. (The best corks are approaching $1 each!) Pearson said author Hugh Johnson was told by a French Champagne producer that only 1.3 bottles per thousand are found to be corked. But in less expensive wines, the rate is much higher. In wines such as White Zinfandel, cheap corks are used (just pennies apiece), and the percentage of "bad" corks (those that impart a foul smell) is about 5%, according to my experiences at wine competitions where I sample more than 100 wines a day.
Corkiness was not the original reason corks were presented to diners. The practice dates from a time, decades ago, when fraud was rampant in the wine industry. Unscrupulous people would take cheap wines, soak the labels off the bottles and replace them with counterfeit labels from expensive wines.
To prevent this, the corks of fine-quality wines were branded with the name of the producer and the vintage date. When the bottle was opened, the cork could be shown to the buyer as proof that the wine presented was, in fact, the wine ordered.
The reason I believe the tradition of the Perfunctory Pour should be retained is simply that some wines are spoiled and, like an entree that is spoiled, should be returned. If you find a wine that has that corky smell and you're certain it is corked, restaurants should be happy to take the wine back and replace it. (Restaurants can get credit from the supplier for such bad bottles.)
And it's not just corkiness that can warrant the rejection of a wine. I spoke about this with Clark Smith, who teaches chemistry at UC Davis and is a consulting winemaker for Glen Ellen Winery. Smith said that besides corkiness there are four other major reasons to reject a wine:
* Oxidation in young wine. Young wine should be fresh. Excess oxidation in young wine makes the wine smell dull, lifeless. (I would also include here any wine that is "maderized"--a wine that has been "cooked" by bad storage conditions.)