Heck no, I'm not drinking box wine!

Can a Boxed Wine be Corked? The (re)Search Begins. Part One

“I find that a great part of the knowledge I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.”   Franklin Pierce Adams (paraphrased)

Heck no, I'm not drinking box wine!

Heck no, I’m not drinking box wine!

It all began a few months ago as a lark when I had a boxed wine tasting at my home.

First of all, getting wine people to attend was not unlike pulling the proverbial teeth.  Even the most laid-back and gentle of wine folk sent their respective noses skyward on mentioning boxed wines.  “Ew” was the typical RSVP reply.

Nevertheless, the tasting went well enough and everyone was surprised by the quality.  The tasting sheet I provided was loosely based on one I found on Forbes.  The rankings were listed from “Great” to “Meh” to “Swill.”

One of the surprising favorites was a rather unpresumptuous Aussie Shiraz by Trader Joe’s. At about $10, it’s a nice glass-of-wine-on-a-weeknight wine and is only 13% ABV.  Good for sipping, good for cooking, and no worries about a morning-after headache. No pondering necessary.  I had planned a “Ain’t No Party Like a Boxed Wine Party” posting. It was going to be great. And then…

A week or so after the tasting, I’d run out of the Shiraz but wasn’t going to be anywhere in the vicinity of a Trader Joe’s.  So I stopped at another wine shop and picked up a box of Black Box Shiraz, Paso Robles.  Yes, the price was about a third more, but it was convenient and I didn’t want to open a bottle that I wasn’t going to finish.

Later that evening I popped the box – or whatever it is that you do to box wine – and poured myself a glass.  After curling up on my recliner with (still yet another) wine book, I started to swirl and sniff the wine and drew back.  It wasn’t corked, but it was, well, *something.*  According to my notes, it smelled like Shiraz that had been filtered through salad. And maybe newspaper.

This is a reputable brand of wine of a varietal I enjoy from a region I love. This was a complete surprise. I had expected mediocre at best.  Since I was reading rather than having a “moment” with a glass of fine wine, the wine didn’t have to be great.  But it had to be at least drinkable.

I never figured out what was wrong with it – and yes, I got other opinions and revisited it over the course of the following days.  It was flawed, no doubt.  I just couldn’t figure out with what.

How could that be?  Well, I didn’t take it back – should have – and chalked it up to being a faulty box.

Not too long after that I purchased a wine under screwcap, opened it, and poured a glass for Zach and one for me.  After I gave him his glass, I looked over at him and saw a puzzled look on his face.

“Something’s wrong with this wine.”

Sure enough, there was.  It not only smelled like a stack of old newspaper, but there was a sulfur-like quality to it as well, as in week-old egg salad.  This had me even more perplexed than the box wine.

But it got me to thinking.  Box wines and wines with Stelvin® closures are supposed to be panaceas according to their advocates and “conventional knowledge.”  Yet within the course of just a couple of weeks I had run into some seriously flawed examples of both, and both were purchased from two separate but reputable wine shops.

I decided that I needed to do my own personal research on corks, screwcaps, and other closures and alternative packaging for wines.  This is what I do when what is perceived as being truth doesn’t feel like it’s truth to me.

Yes, I know that this topic has been covered ad nauseum by every wine blog, website, magazine, book, opinion, study, expert, editorial, blah blah blah.  I saw the dead horse. I decided to beat it.

Which brings us to the first question that popped into my mind.  If a flawed wine with a cork closure is said to be “corked,” can a flawed wine under Stelvin® be considered “screwed”?  Just wonderin’.

I noted several months ago that I like to listen to wine podcasts because I find them educational and entertaining.  Well on Vin Village Radio there was an episode with the famed Kermit Lynch who discussed the phenomenon of flawed wines.

“Consider the Glass” was the topic. Mr. Lynch noted that at a very nice French restaurant (yes, in actual France), the sommelier retrieved the wine – an outstanding Bordeaux – and a Momentous Wine Glass out of the good wine glass cabinet.

One sniff and he knew that something was wrong.

“The wine smelled awful. It had a shocking, chemically smell.”

The sommelier was humiliated and apologetic and offered to get another bottle.

Mr. Lynch stopped him and instead, swirled the wine thoroughly in the glass, and then poured it into a glass that had held an aperitif.

Ah.  That’s better.

As it turned out, the antique wooden cabinet that held the great glasses for the great wines was old and well contaminated with the odors of furniture polish, bug spray, and any other number of chemicals whose lingering odors remained tightly enclosed with the crystal. The crystal was also stored upside-down which trapped the odors even more completely.

After a thorough washing of a new glass, the wine was everything that he had expected it to be.

The next topic was that of corked wines.  The host noted that she was happy whenever she went to a tasting and there were wines under screwcap. Then she knew that there would be no corked wines.

Well…

At first the phenomenon of corked wines was blamed entirely on faulty tainted corks, and according to Mr. Lynch, there were a lot of lawsuits. However it was later discovered that the wines that were bad weren’t corked in the assumed sense of the word but had an aroma that people wouldn’t be able to tell from a corked wine.  After a lot of analyses, it turned out that it wasn’t the corks. In the meantime, however, cork companies still had to clean up their act. Reputations were ruined. Lawsuits were rife.

Fast forward to today where you’ll find that there are a lot fewer incidents of truly corked wines.  It’s an ever more rare experience, according to Mr. Lynch, to run into a corked wine.

The host was obviously perplexed and asked, if it wasn’t the cork, then what was the problem?

A contamination in the wooden pallets that are used to stack wine cases in wineries; a South American factory – where many wood products are sourced from – was treating the wood with an insecticide to keep termites, etc., from destroying the pallets.  There was a terrible after effect in that this chemical under certain conditions travels and in particular climatic conditions and in some cellars can be an invisible cloud. Nobody can see or smell it in a cellar.  Everything that was permeable sucked it up including barrels, labels, and corks. Wine – being like a sponge – sucked it up, too. It took years to figure out what it was and many cellars worldwide were contaminated with this TCA-alike noxious smelling chemical.

So what was this chemical that made everything smell like there was faulty cork? And does it affect anything else?

Hearing this story from the esteemed Mr. Lynch sent me searching for other causes of flawed wines that may have been blithely passed off as “corked.”  Oh my.  This little item hasn’t been discussed nearly enough.

Up next – Cork Taint and Box Wine – Is it Possible?

 

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