Some years ago, I was on a date and was given the proverbial first sip of the red wine from the bottle to taste. I thought it tasted fine and told that to the server, but once my date had some, he soon realized I was wrong. He called the server back: Yep, the wine was corked. I apologized, and my date brushed it off, as we were getting a new bottle anyway. But after a pause, he added, “It would have been awesome if you’d caught it, though.”
Since then, I usually demur the first taste of the wine bottle, since I don’t really trust my own tasting abilities. (I’m also the person who flunks most wine tastings, as the wine steward will try to help me out with softballs like “Red fruit? Black fruit? Citrusy? Melon-y?” In almost every case, I will guess wrong.) But I’ve always been curious about what I missed there.
I’ve also watched the ascent of the twist-off wine bottle from a variety of Mad Dog 20/20 varieties to a popular choice now for even upper-level wine. But I’m confused there too: If it’s a twist-off, why do we still get offers to taste the wine at the restaurant? Can a twist-off wine bottle get corked?
To answer these perplexing questions, I turned to my favorite wine expert, master sommelier and Chicago restaurateur Alpana Singh, who is as knowledgeable about all things wine as I am ignorant. Best of all, she loves talking wine and so welcomed all of my questions. Her answer to my first one was an emphatic “no”: turns out twist-off wine bottles can’t really get corked after all. “The only way a twist-off wine could get corked is if it somehow got contaminated with TCA [trichloroanisole] before it went into the bottle. But since I’ve been dealing with screw caps, which is almost 20 years, I’ve never seen a twist-off wine that’s been corked. Ever.”
Still, I wonder about the difference between the screw-top and the corked wine bottle. Turns out for all their convenience, and preventing the inevitable search for the corkscrew, the screw-top has a definitive disadvantage to the older corked bottles. Singh explains, “The problem with the screw cap is that it’s too reductive. It doesn’t allow any oxygen into the bottle so the wine doesn’t even age. It doesn’t evolve. Where the cork allows just the perfect amount of oxygen, so it allows for some aging.
“It just stays. It doesn’t age,” Singh explains. “It’s like what her name? The actress?”
“Virginia Madsen in Sideways?” I suggest, remembering her seductive monologue about the ever-evolving status of pinot noir.
“No, in Interview With A Vampire, where she stays 12 years old forever,” Singh says. Turns out Kirsten Dunst’s vampire is the perfect analogy to screw-top wine bottles, because they will never age, and “She’s just like, but I want to grow old. I don’t want to be 12.”
I wonder if that lack of eventual maturity would cause people to pick cork over twist-off, but Singh points out: “Most Americans drink their wine within six hours of purchase… We’re not a society that’s concerned, statistically speaking, with aging our wine.”
Since I now have the knowledge of a master sommelier at my back, maybe I’m ready to be a wine taster again. Maybe I could possibly discern a corked wine. I ask Singh what I missed on that disastrous date. “Mold and mildew. It’s unmistakable,” which kind of made me feel worse. Ah, well. Next time. “It’s not apparent on the cork. It’s in the glass. That’s why when they pour it to you and it smells like a chlorine pool. You ever go near a chlorine pool and it has that mildew smell? That’s what it smells like.”
“If it’s not on the cork, then why do they have you smell it?” I want to know. “You’re not supposed to smell the cork,” says Singh, shattering my preconceptions yet again. “The only thing you’re supposed to do with the cork is if it’s a 20-year old bottle, you look at the cork to see the condition of it. If it’s dry and crumbly, then it was probably stored upright. But at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding in how the wine tastes.”
Okay, I’m not supposed to smell the cork, I’m supposed to be on the lookout for a mildew smell, and screw-top wine can’t get corked. So why do we still get the tasting portion with screw-top wines at restaurants? Singh explains, “There could still be something wrong with it. It could be the wrong temperature, it could be re-fermenting in the bottle. It could be spritzy when its not supposed to be spritzy. It could be too warm. It could be too cold. It could need to be decanted. Could be all kinds of things still with screw-cap. It could be sweet when you thought it was going to be dry. You could just not like it.”
Now, my mind is blown. So if I pick a wine at a restaurant and, given my limited wine knowledge, it turns out I don’t like it, I can send it back? “It depends,” says Singh. “Most places will. If I went to the table and I talk to a customer and I try to explain the wine, and then they tasted it and are like, ‘not what I expected,’ then I would take it back. That’s why I ask very specific questions like... ‘What was a wine brand that you loved?’ ‘Oh, I loved Kendall Jackson chardonnay.’ ‘Oh, I got you.’ It’s a little detective work too, but if you just told me, ‘I like a wine with a smooth finish,’ I’m like, ‘me too.’”
So just a brief conversation with Singh leaves me with a bunch of valuable takeaways: I will definitely question my server more thoroughly the next time I pick out a wine at a restaurant. I will take more time with that first sip when it’s time to taste the bottle, even if it’s a screw-top. And if I ever correctly identify a corked wine eventually—to me, the epitome of wine-tasting impressiveness—I will have only Alpana Singh to thank.