by Andrew Chalk
I was in the excellent Stampede 66 some time ago and reported to our waitress that the bottle of wine that I had ordered was “corked”. I might as well have told her “Young lady, you are unfit to be a mother” judging from the indignant expression that this statement brought to her face. The faulty example was exchanged for a sound bottle of the same wine and just before pouring it she glowered at me, saying pugnaciously, “This bottle is not corked, I tasted it myself”. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
I am writing to assure this waitress, and servers generally, that wine corkage is never something that they should take personally. It is never caused by the server. In fact, it is almost certainly not the establishment’s fault either. That bottle arrived corked at the restaurant. All wines sealed with the environmentally friendly but technically flawed traditional cork run a risk that the cork is bad, causing a chemical reaction with the wine. Servers are just at the front end of the bad news from the customer because the condition cannot, with currently available technology, be detected before the bottle is opened (Shark Tank contestant wannabe’s: patentable opportunity here).
The way to handle this is…graciously. As something that is part of the job. Offer to exchange the bottle for another of the same or different wine. If the corked taste is egregiously bad, the establishment can them turn adversity to advantage. Open a good bottle and place both bottles at the pass in the kitchen. When servers are not busy, have each taste just a sip of both wines as an impromptu lesson in recognizing corked wines. Ask them, “which one is corked?” and “describe the smell of the corked wine”. Prizes for correctly recognizing smells like ‘musty’,and ‘wet cardboard’. If the returned bottle had an inventory cost of $20, then $20 has just bought a valuable lesson for the restaurant and the staff. Pretty cheap education these days.
For my part, I have changed the way that I report corked wines. I ask the restaurant to replace the bottle but leave the corked wine at the table until the new one is served so that the smell of the two can be compared side-to-side, both by me and by the server. The experience is a welcome reassurance to experienced sommeliers and a revelation to servers who have never been formally taught to recognize corked wine.
One other restaurant concern about reports of corked wine is when the report is false. One option is capitulation. To reject these reports the restaurant must have a qualified sommelier on the staff who can unambiguously vouch that the wine is sound.
Corked wines are rare, but not rare enough. I reckon I come across two or three on wine lists each year. It pays to recognize that servers, restaurants and customers are all on the same side on this one.