Cost of Living

How to Tell if Wine is Corked

As the waiter watched, I tried my first sip of a new bottle. It was bad. Not like an inexpensive bottle bad, rather the smell of a wet dog bad. Confident, I said “sorry, no this bottle is bad.”

At the time, I had only been drinking wine for about two years. The waiter, had been serving for many more and he looked annoyed. Smelling my glass, he announced “You just need to let it breathe and left the table.” My confidence, wavered.

Waiting, fifteen minutes later, I still sent the bottle back.

For some of us, we have to steel our nerves the first time we have to send back a corked bottle. Especially against opposition.

So how does one know when a bottle of wine is corked anyway?

Like anything else, learning about wine, comes with certain markers of progress. That marker for me, was knowing, with confidence, when a bottle of wine is corked.

I learned how to tell from returning a bottle I suspected was corked to Union Square Wine & Spirits in New York City. Two employees sampled the wine and agreed, corked. I asked “so how do we know for sure if it’s just bad wine or corked?”

The answer was actually pretty simple.

“Think of the smell of something really musty like wet cardboard or newspaper even a damp basement.  The taste can be equally as bad but in some cases there is absolutely no taste at all.  Sort of neutral, more like water than wine. Trust your nose first and your palate second.”

Good advice. While drinking corked wine is not unsafe, it’s just damn unpleasant. Being able to tell by smell saves a face cringing experience.

Still as gross as this sounds, trying corked wine is the quickest way to learn how to identify it. Trying a corked bottle next to the good bottle, makes the difference undeniable.

Can You Return a Bottle of Bad Wine?

Absolutely. Once you learn how to tell if a bottle is corked, returning it, is much easier. In the end, when you’re watching every penny you spend, never paying for bad wine, is a win.

In restaurants, if you’re dealing with a waiter and not a sommelier, sniff and determine before additional glasses are poured. Don’t hesitate, signal there is something strange right away. If a sommelier is present, using a little wine etiquette can go a long way. Let them know something smells off to you and ask their opinion.

When buying wine at a store, get to know your local wine store return policy. Ask if they allow returns on bad bottles before you buy. Many good wine stores do. Always keep your receipt and the same as a restaurant, sip before you pour. Otherwise, grab the funnel. Half bottle returns cause a little more pause.

Other stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes take returns as well. My opinion, its smart business. I’m guessing I’m not the only customer more likely to buy a $20 plus bottle if it’s less of a risk.

Can You Return a Glass of Bad Wine?

Bottles can be sent back at restaurants and so can wine by the glass. Two things are at stake with wine by the glass. Corked wine and wine that’s been open too long.

Many places that sell wine by the glass less frequently, will mark the bottle with an open date, precisely because wine goes bad quickly. We’re talking a couple of days max. Especially if the original cork is jammed back in the bottle.

If you order wine by the glass and get a whiff of vinegar, the bottle has been open too long. Don’t be afraid to send it back. Stand strong!

How to Recork Wine

Exposure to air is what turns wine bad. It’s actually part of the argument for trying boxed wine for occasions when you just want a glass. Which really, when does that ever happen?

Jokes aside, there are plenty of tricks. From wrapping the cork in wax paper to keeping clean half bottles at home to reduce air exposure. 

For my part, I pull out a wine gadget that’s worked well for us. A wine saver pump with a vacuum bottle stopper. Although unfinished bottles don’t happen often in our home, we have noticed this little gadget gets us a day or two more.

Wine Pump With Vacuum Bottle Stopper
Wine Pump With Vacuum Bottle Stopper

You’re not alone if some aspects of learning about are intimidating. At least I hope I’m not!

One thing I’ve seen with wine lovers is a respect for curiosity. Willingness to sip, sample and share are highly valued. While having knowledge of what a particular bottle of wine holds is respected, it’s not expected. The only real expectation is being able to tell if a bottle is corked if you’re the taster at the table.

I am very grateful to the guys at Union Square Wine & Spirits. Their description of the smell of corked wine clicked. Since then, when wine is corked, I know it.


A Toast From Spain
A Toast From Spain

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