Wine: Cork Smell Says Little About Wine Quality

Show & Smell: Do you think you can sniff out a wine’s quality by smelling the cork? Sorry, but the nose doesn’t know.


The tradition in restaurants of presenting the cork from a wine bottle may seem a little pointless and obscure, but it exists for a good reason, although one somewhat lost in time.

The cork “thing” has evolved into a pretension, of sorts. I’ve seen guys (for some reason, it tends to be men who do this) pick up the cork when it’s presented in a little silver dish by the sommelier, and pass it delicately back and forth under their noses, as if to suggest they can detect a flaw in the wine by the aroma of the cork.

Nice try, but the only thing sniffing will get you is, well, the smell of cork.

Many people believe the cork is some sort of coal-mine canary and, if it’s moldy, the wine will be moldy, or if the cork is crumbly, the wine will be bad. I suppose that, on rare occasions, those correlations may be true, but 99 percent of the time, there’s no connection between the extracted cork and the wine.

The exceptions are if the cork leaks and allows air into the bottle and wine to evaporate, or the cork leaches a chemical compound, TCA, and the wine becomes “corked,” which is noticeable in the wine itself, not by sniffing a cork.

No, the origin of this little cork ceremony is not to test how well you can smell, but rather how well you can read — yes, read.

Decades ago, counterfeiting of old and rare wines, particularly those of the expensive French Bordeaux and Burgundy houses, was much more of a problem than it is today. As a security measure, the wineries figured out how to have their corks marked with their logos or names so that, when the cork was pulled, the customer would know the bottle was genuine.

Fast forward to Los Angeles two months ago, when federal agents arrested a renowned collector and dealer and charged him with selling fraudulent wine. The man, quite well known in the world of high-stakes wine auctions, such as Sotheby’s, and charity wine events, is Rudy Kurniawan, 35, of Arcadia, Calif. When agents executed a search warrant on his home, they came away with materials they suspect were used to make fraudulent wine labels.

According to published reports, Kurniawan gained the confidence of his clients — among them, the billionaire William I. Koch, a backer of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign — by offering them a no-questions asked return policy on the wines he sold. Prosecutors said Kurniawan had a thriving business and, in 2006, sold $35 million worth of wine, although it’s unclear how much, if any, was fake. The FBI charged that, at the time of his arrest, Kurniawan was attempting to sell counterfeit wine that would have netted him $1.3 million.

The undoing of Kurniawan, according to a criminal complaint, came when he put 84 bottles of falsely labeled wine in a 2008 auction, supposedly highly desirable Burgundy, Domaine Ponsot that could have fetched $600,000. All were impostors. He also attempted to sell a bottle of the 1929 Domaine Ponsot at auction (that winery did not make wine under its label until 1934).

Certainly, that was one cork worth turning your nose up to.

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