The Proper Way To Send Back A Bottle Of Wine At A Restaurant

Corked wine is more common than you might imagine. According to the estimates of wine expert Sean P. Sullivan, founder and editor of the Northwest Wine Report, if the fruity notes of your red seem muted and tinged with musty wafts, you may have received one of the 247,000 TCA-contaminated bottles that are considered "corked" each year in the U.S. If such a situation comes up at a restaurant, more important than the statistic, perhaps, is to know what to do next.

The first thing to remember is that it's impossible to know whether a bottle is corked or not before it is opened. If it's opened in front of you, there's no reason to believe that the restaurant or your server is trying to pull a fast one on you. Second, most places that serve wine recognize the possibility of corked wine and will change the bottle. However, if you feel intimidated telling a restaurant sommelier that his establishment's wine tastes off, it's best to know what's what so you can stick to your guns.

The severity of cork taint can vary greatly, as can people's sensitivity to it, therefore, individual perception plays a role in recognizing a tainted bottle. Even when it's not obvious, it can mute the flavors of the wine. However, this doesn't give you the right to return any bottle of wine that you don't like the flavor of, and sending one back at a restaurant will generally require some discussion.

Get the waiter or sommelier's opinion

No one wants you to have wine you don't enjoy, and most restaurants expect this sort of thing to happen from time to time. Sullivan estimates that between 3-6% of wines sealed with natural corks become tainted, while the Cork Quality Council's audit found 98.4% of cork shipments to be acceptable (and, therefore, not at risk of becoming contaminated). Since it is considered good form to bring up any issue you may have with the wine before too much of it is consumed, if you feel it is corked, express that to your server during the tasting phase.

The name of the game here is politeness. Instead of presuming the restaurant staff will take your word for it, ask the restaurant somm' to taste the wine to help corroborate your claim. If there's no sommelier, you may invite your server to do the same or get a second opinion. At this point, the restaurant will most likely change the bottle, and if they don't have another of the same vintage, you may have to choose an alternate.

In the unlikely scenario that there is resistance to your request, you can ask for the cork and see if that smells musty as well. Or, swirl the offending wine in the glass as aeration helps bring out its flaws, making it easier for you and the restaurant to come to a consensus.

What you need to know about corked wine and TCA

Though nothing can replace real-world experience, knowing the basics of corked wine can help you identify it and also, if required, politely discuss the matter with restaurant staff to get the bottle changed. And don't worry if you've taken a few sips; TCA is harmless to humans.

At the root of most tainted wine is the chemical TCA (short for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which forms on cork tree bark as a result of interactions between mold and certain insecticides and fungicides. Difficult to detect, it can make its way into a bottle of wine through the cork or sometimes through barrels or winery equipment. Therefore, no wine sealed with natural cork can guarantee not being tainted with TCA — from the most expensive to the cheapest;cork taint doesn't discriminate. This is one of the reasons screwtops are gaining popularity.

At its most detectable, cork taint gives wine musty notes like that of wet cardboard or old clothes. The human nose is highly sensitive to such odors, so even a little bit is usually detectable, which is why using corked wine for cooking or wine cocktails is not recommended. TCA also generally mutes fruity notes, so if your wine tastes and smells subdued, it could be corked. It's usually easier to detect TCA in white wines, while wines with robust aromatic profiles and deeper, more complex notes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, are better at hiding mild cork taint.