The Last Detail

Michalen Busico

Every wine lover knows that terrible moment when the joy of opening a great bottle is jolted into the despair of discovering it has been ruined by a tainted cork. The culprit—a chemical compound known as TCA, short for 2,4,6-Trichloranisole—remains one of the wine world’s mysteries. But this much is known: TCA occurs at some point during the cork manufacturing process, and its symptoms include wine that smells like a wet dog and tastes like cardboard, and fills wine drinkers with despair proportional to their anticipation. 

During his years at Quintessa, winemaker Charles Thomas led the charge in the battle against bad corks by instituting a laborious system called the cork sensory trial: Put the cork into a small jar. Add a few drops of distilled water. Close the jar and let it sit overnight. In the morning, have two TCA-sensitive testers sniff the cork. If either detects an off aroma, throw away the cork. “Repeat 100,000 times,” Thomas says. 

He isn’t exaggerating. In 2009, Quintessa became the first vintner to test 100 percent of its corks—a process that, for every vintage, takes two cork sniffers three months to complete. Do we sound a little … obsessive? Perhaps. But the cork trial is just the last of many obsessive things we do in our quest for perfection. By some industry measures, as many as 4 percent of all corks are tainted with TCA. At Quintessa, our rigorous trials have brought the level down to almost zero. •