The act of smelling a cork at a restaurant brings about images of men in suits—perhaps with ascots—full of themselves, showing off their knowledge of some old vintage bottle from France. Maybe it’s a 1998 Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a ’64 Bordeaux; whatever it is, they can tell so much from that single sniff that your immediate thought is they should replace bloodhounds.
Yes, somehow the idea of smelling a cork can bring about these connotations, and instead of sweet scents of strawberries and plums the thought reeks of pretentiousness and snobbery. So when presented with a cork when you’re ordering, say, a $30 bottle that would have cost you half as much in the store, it seems, well … odd. You fumble about, smile at your friends, shrug, then give a nod to your server after putting the plug by your nose in a good gesture effort. Not to mention the uncomfortableness when you realize you ordered a screw top.
But here’s the thing … smell the cork. Because the reason for doing so? It’s not to help you identify a particular grape, vintage, or region. It’s not so you can expound upon your knowledge of the nuances of berry scents in your odoriferous findings. The reason to smell that cork is to make sure you’re not about to imbibe something that’s off, spoiled, or ruined.
Take a whiff. Does it smell like wet cardboard? Your mother’s mildewy basement? Dare I say it … dirty socks? Because if it does, you might have a corked bottle on your hands. There’s a lack of agreement from the industry, but there’s likely a corked bottle—a bottle that is tainted by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a compound found in natural cork that can blemish a wine)—in every case of wine sealed with natural cork. It’s why so many wineries are moving to synthetic corks and screw tops; less spoilage and more consistency for the buyers. A lot of the time the average consumer might not realize he’s drinking a corked bottle; instead, he finds that the wine just doesn’t do it for him, it’s not his style, it’s “eh.” And that bottle—which he may have loved if he had it in its true form—is never purchased again.
Smelling the cork is the beginning of seeking out knowledge about a bad bottle. There are other clues as well: the smell of the wine in the glass, coloring, and taste. But smelling that cork? It’s your first line of defense. And if you smell those distinct musty, wet basement odors, you likely have a culprit on your hand.
So do it. At the restaurant. In your home. Don’t feel sheepish if you need to tell your server, after you’ve sniffed something dank, that you think the bottle might be corked. Don’t think twice about bringing a bottle back to a store if you got a bad one—they should replace it. And if it makes you feel better, buy an ascot.