One of the most disheartening things as a wine merchant is having corked wines returned. It’s completely NOT the fault of the customer. We are more than happy to swap out another bottle or provide a full refund upon return, but the thing that makes me sad is had that wine been under screwcap the buyers experience would not have amounted to such disappointment, and it is disappointing when you’re settling down for the evening only to open a rotten bottle. Secondly, of course, we wouldn’t have to deal with replacements/refunds, and just to clarify, it is the merchant who picks up the bill for spoiled wines, not the producer.
This is all part and parcel of being a wine merchant, even though, as we and thousands of other wine writers have expressed, the issue of corked wine shouldn’t be, well, an issue. While I’ll touch once again on why I hate cork, I’m writing this post to get across the importance of educating the wine drinker. While we must persist with cork closure on many wines available to us for the foreseeable future, it is of utmost importance to educate people on how to detect cork taint.
Even more disheartening than having a corked wine returned to us is having a customer believe the wine is corked when it’s perfectly fine. It could be the slightest hint of funky herby earth that doesn’t agree with someones taste and because the wine was under cork it must be cork taint. Before Christmas I can recall a French Cabernet Franc being returned because it was corked. It wasn’t. Two French reds from the Languedoc were returned because they were corked. They weren’t. The worse case was a customer returning five bottles of one particular Chilean red wine, all opened on the same evening and all assumed corked. They were all drinking perfectly. Not even a hint of cork taint. I took one of the bottles home and enjoyed it myself.
Now, let’s be clear before continuing, we offer a 100% guarantee on every wine we sell. If you don’t like that wine for any reason, return it to us for a full, no quibble refund. All the aforementioned customers were given full refunds despite the wines being in excellent drinking condition. The point I’m trying to make is that a huge number of wine drinkers out there don’t know how to detect cork taint. Equally, I fear we have customers who purchase a wine that is genuinely corked and we never hear about it. This is the worst scenario. They drink it anyway and assume that the wine is just crap.
I was delighted to learn that Jack Barrett dedicates time in his wine course (new courses commencing in March – confirmed details to follow in the coming weeks in our newsletter) to teach people how to detect cork taint. He deliberately keeps wines that are not quite right, not only showing obviously corked and oxidised wines, but the varying degrees of each fault. Sometimes a wine can be suspect. For example, it could be mildly corked but still very drinkable.
I’ll leave you with a comment left by Gavin Quinney, owner and winemaker at Château Bauduc. This has been taken from Lar Veale’s sourgrapes.ie, the country’s leading independent wine blog for those who don’t know already. Lar also writes for the Sunday Tribune, and has recently been facilitating a cork vs screwcap debate (here and here) that might help you make up your own mind on the situation.
“Here in Bordeaux, I’m debating on our next bottling and will be in touch with customers, such as Curious Wines, today. I tried Stelvin for our Bauduc blanc 2002 and 2006 vintages, but now there’s much less resistance of course. A non-starter for French sales though – but I really want to go one way or the other, and not offer both corks and Stelvin as before. Logistically a dog for us to offer both and I think we have to stand by our beliefs.
Ireland is presumably fine with Stelvin – especially for whites and rosés? Technically, I’m convinced but we’ll probably stick with top grade corks for the reds. I’m just not sure that people want Chateau-bottled Bordeaux reds with Stelvin in the same way that they want Kiwi Pinots. Not for the moment. (I realise the ‘non-sense’ in my argument there though).
The Bauduc 2002 white – mostly Sauvignon Blanc – I tried the other night, by the way, was surprisingly fresh and delicious and in far better shape than the cork version, and two bottles of a top St-Emilion last night were corked just to drive the point home. As Tim Adams says, no romance in that.
From a practical point of view, I replaced the screwcap on the 2002 white and drank the remainder later. Still fine. I would have forgotten to squeeze in a cork, so the instinctive reaction to replace the screwcap is a big plus when you don’t want to drink a bottle.”
Does Gavin’s experience with the 2002 Bauduc Sauvignon not say it all?
It will be hard, or impossible even, to educate the massive body of ever-changing consumers about faulty wines, in my opinion.
For a start, most of them aren’t motivated enough to expend the effort needed to aquire this information.
And how can you teach about faulty bottles anyway when it would be so hard to get a range of bottles, for a class, say, that each has a different fault that consumers ought to know about? I know there was a class run on this in the past year in Dublin but, still, it isn’t simple to set up. And there’s the “Faults” part of Le Nez du Vin – expensive!
There are degrees of TCA / oxidation fault etc. Add in differences in people’s sensitivities to these faults and I think there is always going to be a murky grey area where some people either correctly perceive, mistakenly diagnose, or miss altogether – various faults.
Bit gloomy, I know!
TCA or cork taint is only one of a number of potential problems with a wine. There’s reductiveness (if that’s a word), Brett, oxidation, and a lot more. John McDonnell hosted an excellent evening in 2010 with the Australian Wine Research Institute. A truly disgusting but informative night.
Education is one part, but there’s also the ability to perceive or sensitivity to faults or taints. Some people can pick up presence of TCA at X parts per million, others can’t, at least not until it becomes more concentrated.
Just reading Paul’s comment now and I’m repeating it, so apologies.
I think the no quibble returns is a valiant customer service differentiator, and even though you have it I’d assume not too many people take the p155 just because the wine, like…
the watah in Majorca don’t taste like what it oughta i.e. a bit different.
I do, however, agree that education is part of it, and that any wine course worth its salt, should cover common faults & taints.
It’s a really tricky one, from the customer service perspective. Our policy is no quibble swap or refund, so we back this up with an in-house rule of never disgreeing with the customer for fear of embarrassing or alienating them. It’s a straight apology, and deal with the fact that the customer has been disappointed.
But does this actually do the customer a disservice? Does *not* saying anything perpetuate the lack of understanding of wine faults? There’s a clear argument in “the customer is always right”, as perception is reality when you’ve handed over hard-earned cash for an experience that doesn’t deliver.
Only once have I disagreed with a customer (the five bottle incident that Matt refers to in the post), and only to say they should’ve brought them all back in once they suspected the second bottle wasn’t right either. Needless to say, I still ended up feeling completely in the wrong as the customer was clearly convinced the wine was faulty. What did I achieve by suggesting the contrary?
In a way, the increasing proliferation of screwcaps helps – I can’t recall receiving one “faulty” screwcapped wine back in two and a half years. So, it’s a perception, even in the consumer’s mind, that cork is inconsistent and unreliable – if the wine doesn’t taste the way I expected to, it must be the cork.
I agree with both comments on the folly of trying to educate such a large and varying consumer base on such a complex and subjective area, so our over-riding policy of “if you don’t like a wine, for any reason, we’ll take it back” acts as a (generally very) satisfactory cover-all.
I echo the wise words of Paul & Lar above. Difficult to educate the masses. Your policy of no quibble swop or refund is the only way to go. In general people will not take advantage of the situation and it can turn a negative into a positive as they say (though ironically it probably was not an actual negative in the first place in that the wine was perfect).
As for wine education, I am a huge supporter of it. I know through my study I made better and better purchasing decisions (speaking as a consumer here) and certainly went down wine roads I otherwise would not have ventured. So education is always good. It is very important to educate people on faults as part of any wine education course for sure.
“Nice one. Just opened another Bauduc blanc 02, to be sure. Perfect.” says Gavin via Twitter.
Down with cork ;)
I remember seeing a cartoon many years ago, where a sommelier is wearily trying to educate a complaining customer:
“I’m afraid Sir doesn’t understand – it’s precisely because it smells of shit that we charge £50 per bottle for it.”
I would love to leave a comment but when i left one on Lar’s site I was lambasted & ridiculed by another GG
Just following on from the point that Lar made up above I had the pleasure of attending one of the Faults clinics that the AWRI did in Dublin. Huge achievement by John Mc Donnell to get the first one held outside of Australia in Ireland and it was absolutely fascinating. Some of the levels of taint can be so small that most people wouldnt notice but in other instances you could smell them without lifting the glass to your nose.
Education is the way to go and ultimately it is the consumer to choose – maybe we should get Tim to do a “vinyl” video :)But I guess with Leasingham he will be even busier now !
[…] one bites the dust, but this time I can’t blame the function of cork, or the doubt and insecurity it places in the mind of the wine drinker. Over to the winemaker for […]