it was a mellow february tuesday night, a couple hours into my weekly bar shift. though i’m called a bartender, when speaking to guests my fellow employees and i are supposed to refer to my area as the “chef’s counter”. this gives it a nice touch of pretension (particularly if we have to send you there because you didn’t think you’d need a reservation for saturday night), and it is true that you look right into the kitchen, and at the chef, from your tall chair.
on this tuesday, a couple entered, the man gripping the neck of a bottle of wine, and requested to sit at my chef’s counter (though i’m sure they used the word bar, as is the natural inclination).
each half of the couple was in their maybe-fifties, just a bit heavier than was healthy, both jeaned and sweatered. they were jolly and gregarious, started off with a cocktail and informed me this was an anniversary celebration. they’d been saving this bottle of wine for the occasion, they told me.
actually, they told me much more. their son had bought it for them. they hadn’t opened it right away because they’d been waiting for his next visit to share it with him, and in the meantime the mister had looked it up on the internet. from what he read, he understood it to be a good wine and so they decided to save it. just this afternoon he’d come across the bottle where it was stashed in the basement, and the two agreed this was as good a time as any.
i brought them glasses, sliced the foil off the top of the bottle, and twisted my corkscrew into the cork, all without issue. it was the actual removal of the cork that was the issue. it didn’t want to leave its neck of the bottle home, first of all. when i demanded that it do so, it threatened to rebel by breaking at one of several rather sketchy looking points.
like a surgeon easing a tumor out of a spinal cord, i removed the cork, delicately, with concentration, centimeter by centimeter, both preserving it and avoiding a pop.
“you can tell that cork’s been in there awhile!” the hubby at the bar exclaims.
my serviette wiped some dusty bits from the mouth of the bottle, and i poured the (very excited by this time) couple each a taste. my nose couldn’t help but become involved at this point. it’s a rather suspicious, protective orifice and wasn’t digging what it was getting, twitching invisibly, trying to indicate to me that something wasn’t right.
the noses of the wine’s owners, however, seemed to be having the time of their lives. as they sipped, the couple exchanged “mmm’s”, and even went so far as to say, “this was worth the wait!”
i smiled encouragingly and said something neutral, and they asked me to pour myself some. i was polite – and curious – and did just that. as the glass neared my face, my nose’s warning signals went crazy. it was too late to back out, so i sipped, tasted, and the deal was sealed – their precious bottle was corked.
it wasn’t like biting into a moldy piece of bread. not like finding a worm in your apple. it’s a far subtler flaw, to the extent that it’s often missed. it’s not something you can blame on anyone. sometimes great parents produce a criminal, sometimes a reputable cork producer makes a bad cork. because the cork may outwardly appear perfectly sound, there’s no reason a winery would be able to detect a bit of fungus in it. in the bottle, this fungus produces a chemical, known by it’s friends as TCA, which (negatively) affects the wine’s taste.
in nyc, i worked in a restaurant with a unique wine-opening routine. the ordered bottle was presented to the table, and then taken behind the scenes to be opened. servers were required to taste every bottle in order to ensure that a corked bottle was never brought to a guest. they were still given a taste before pouring, but it was merely a ceremonial gesture.
as tasters, we caught at least one corked bottle every few days. now that i’m back working in a restaurant where the guest is generally the only taster, it is extremely rare for anyone to find a corked bottle. this isn’t because there are more in nyc than seattle.
when a corked bottle goes unnoticed, it gets drunk, maybe even savored. perhaps the mustiness is even found to be an attribute, an indication of an older wine (as age is so often assumed to be directly related to quality). it seemed odd that the off-ness, so apparent to me, was completely missed by my celebrating couple at the bar. do you really need any background in wine to know when it doesn’t taste delicious?
well, yes, i think you do. wine is treated as possibly the most subjective beverage. “the best wine is the one that tastes good to you,” books trumpet. it may be the best wine for you to drink because it makes you happy, but there are real, science-based rules to identify wine that is well made. balance is crucial. so is the age of consumption and proper grape growing temperature. so is an untainted cork. and in order to identify these qualities in wine, you need to be taught to even search for them in the first place.
when lifting their glasses for the first time, my customers weren’t thinking about the actual reason why i’d poured them a taste. they were eager to experience this thing they’d waited for, been excited for, this thing they knew was going to be delicious. in contrast, without even thinking, i always use my first sip to check for corked-ness. i’d gotten a whiff of this wine early on and fully expected to taste wet dog. everyone’s expectations were filled.
telling this couple the truth about their wine wouldn’t have helped them. they might have thanked me for my awareness and dumped the bottle, feigning appreciation. but they would have been disappointed, nonetheless, a little puff of air gone from their night of fun. by letting them continue as they were, sipping something i thought was like a damp basement, they found something loveable in the wine, and could congratulate themselves on their patience.