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Tainted love

When good wine goes bad

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Ever come across a bottle of wine that just doesn't smell right? I'm not talking about a Chardonnay that smells more like a Sauvignon Blanc; I'm talking about wine that has a moldy, musty odor with flavors to match.

That's happened to me plenty of times. But early in my wine-drinking career I didn't know what it meant. If a wine smelled and tasted funky, I just made a mental note to avoid buying that sucky wine again. Little did I know that I had come face-to-face with a corked wine. Now when I say "corked," I don't mean the bottle had a cork in it. I mean the wine had gone bad, due to a tainted cork.

This happens when a compound called TCA, produced by a fungus within the cork, develops inside the stopper. Though it isn't harmful to humans, this stuff can wreak all kinds of havoc on fresh, innocent wine, rendering it undrinkable. By conservative estimates, 5 to 7 percent of all wine (about one bottle in 20) has some level of cork taint. Wineries lose billions of bucks each year on ruined wines and suffer damage to their reputations when customers mistake corky wines for crappy ones.

So how can you tell if a wine is corked? As Toucan Sam once said: "Follow your nose." A corked wine will usually have an unpleasant musty smell, reminiscent of wet cardboard. The taste can be anywhere from dull and fruitless to plain awful.

If you encounter a corked wine at a restaurant, don't be afraid to tell your server. If the wine is truly tainted, he or she will most likely be happy to replace it. The same goes for decent wine shops -- just don't wait more than a couple of days to bring it back to the store.

Aside from becoming an expert TCA-sniffer, the easiest way to avoid the cork taint problem is to seek out wines with alternative closures. Though the cork industry has managed to reduce cork taint, many wineries have ditched natural corks in favor of plastic ones. In addition to their lack of TCA, these fake corks won't break or disintegrate in the bottle, don't leak and keep wine free of annoying cork floaties.

But as fab as the plastic corks may be, some say there's an even better seal out there: the screw cap. I'm not kidding! Much to the horror of traditionalists, screw caps are making a comeback -- and not just on gallon-sized bottles. In 2001, a boutique winery in California called PlumpJack stunned the industry by putting screw caps on its $135 Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then, 14 top Australian Riesling producers and more than two dozen New Zealand wineries have followed. According to these industry mavericks, screw caps have all the benefits of plastic corks with the added bonus of being much easier to remove and replace. Now it's a matter of convincing wine drinkers to forget the screw cap's lowly jug-wine image.

Australia's Grosset Winery sealed bottles of its 2000 Polish Hill Riesling ($29 1/2) with both screw caps and corks. I sampled 'em side-by-side, and here's how they compared: Both had nice apple and pear aromas, but the screw cap wine's bouquet was more intense. Flavorwise, they were pretty much identical: crisp and tart, followed by a bit of sweetness and a bone-dry finish.

Of course, not everyone will embrace the screw cap. Cork fans argue that, though screw caps may be fine for white wines and young reds, their airtight seals won't allow wines to age properly. Naturally, the folks on the screw-cap side say this is bunk. The debate goes on and on.

Perhaps the biggest problem with alternative closures is that wine lovers adore the romance of using a corkscrew to extract a real cork from a wine bottle, and hearing that satisfying "pop." Whatever your stance on the issue, corks aren't going to disappear anytime soon. And with thousands of wines on the market, there's plenty of room on the shelves for all types of closures.

Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com, write Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605, or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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