Put A Cork In It

Imagine you’re out to dinner with clients. You’ve taken them to a nice place, the kind of restaurant that employs a sommelier to help you with your wine selection. It’s high class all the way and you know you’re going to get something delicious no matter what. Then the moment of truth arrives: The sommelier opens your bottle for you and then hands you the cork cradled inside a serviette.

While that’s all well and nice, what the heck are you supposed to do with that cork? Your cheeks probably flush knowing that your clients, let alone the sommelier, are staring at you to see what you do. How do you not embarrass yourself? Do you smell it, feel it, lick it or what?

It turns out there is a simple answer for handling a newly opened cork. But let me first share a little history for context.

Wine has been around as long as man has had access to grapes. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that vintners began using corks as stoppers to wine. Prior to that, most vintners would use rags instead. One of the reasons that corks became popular was that they gave wine makers the ability to mark the name of the wine and the year it was made at a time when counterfeiting was quite prevalent. While it was easy to switch the paper label someone might glue to a bottle (the adhesives weren’t that good back then), branding the cork was an effective way to ensure you were buying and drinking what you thought you had purchased.

New technology has led to alternatives to corks in more recent years, such as plastic or synthetic corks and even screw tops. They have an advantage in that when you use natural cork, there is the potential threat of contaminating the wine with something called TCA – which is something I’ll get into in a later article.

But about 60% of the 20 billion bottles of wine that are produced each year still use cork stoppers. There is still nothing like that visceral feeling of levering a cork out of a tasty bottle of wine. Pop!

Most of the cork used in bottling wine, some 80% of it, is harvested in Portugal and Spain from the bark of cork trees. Each tree can replace its bark every 9 to 12 years and the very best quality corks come from a tree’s second or third or subsequent harvest.

Now that we know where our corks come from, we can get back to the question of what the heck are we supposed to do with it when someone hands us one at dinner?

The most common answer I get when I ask my dinner companions what they think they should do is to smell it. While that might seem reasonable, it’s not the correct answer. In fact, if you see someone taking a big whiff of a newly popped cork, you might feel a little embarrassed for them – as was the case recently when a waiter at a fancy restaurant made a big show of sniffing my cork for me like it was a newly found truffle!

When someone hands you a cork, the right response is to first read the cork to make sure it’s the same vintage that you selected. Even though a good sommelier will have already pointed out the estate and year before they open it, it can’t hurt to check, right?

The other thing you can do is to feel the tip of the cork. If wine has been properly stored, the tip should be somewhat moist and pliant and, if it’s a red wine, stained red as well. If your cork is dry – or, worse, crumbly – then you have a serious red flag.

One key advantage of natural cork is that it allows oxygen to interact with the wine at a very slow rate, which allows the wine to age gradually over time. But the drier a cork is, the more oxygen it allows into the wine – which ages it faster than the vintner intended. If your cork is dry enough that it crumbles to your touch, you will want to immediately point this out to your sommelier or waiter as it is a sure sign that something has gone wrong with your wine.

So the next time you’re out to a special meal, don’t sweat it when the time comes to uncork your wine. Act like a pro and give it a quick glance at the labeling and a little squeeze without ever putting it near your nose.

Of course, that then begs the question of which wine should you choose to go with the meal you plan to order. We’ll tackle that question in my next post.

Until then, Cheers!