How to Return a Corked Bottle of Wine (and Why You Should)

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The incidence of cork taint has been variously reported to be as little as 0.7% and as much as 10%. However, for most retailers, distributors, and wineries, it often appears to be a non-issue for one simple reason. Consumers rarely return corked bottles of wine. Here I discuss what steps consumers should take when they discover a corked wine and why returning the bottle is important to help reduce the incidence of cork taint.

First let me say that when I am referring to ‘corked’ wines, I am talking exclusively about bottles affected by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or bottles that appear as such.

People often ask me how cork taint presents itself. TCA can affect both aromas and flavors with a fairly wide spectrum of presentations. Aromatically, wines affected by TCA often have a moldy, musty smell that may be anywhere from very prominent to extremely faint or even undetectable. I often liken it to the smell of a very old, dirty dish cloth, which a startling number of people seem to be familiar with! In some cases the fruit aromas may be muted as well.

This same musty aroma may be detectable on the palate, especially on the back end. The wine may also seem stripped of its flavor. However, sometimes the flavors may seem largely unaffected and what you noticed aromatically may not be detectable or visa versa.

The taint itself is most frequently coming directly from the cork and leeching into the wine. The aroma is therefore often quite noticeable on the cork itself, which is why some smell the cork after opening a bottle of wine (NB: Historically, people also used to inspect corks at restaurants to make sure the wine in the bottle was what it was supposed to be, and inspecting cork integrity is always a good idea).

Once you’ve identified a corked bottle of wine, what you do next depends on the circumstances.

If you bought the wine from a retailer and you still have the receipt
, bring the bottle back to the retailer with unconsumed wine still in the bottle. This shouldn’t be too hard given that the vast majority of wine is consumed within twenty-four hours of purchase. Note that it is important both to bring back the bottle and the unconsumed wine because it determines who is going to pay for the corked wine as explained below.

If you bought the wine directly from a winery, you don’t have a receipt, and/or a large amount of time has passed since you purchased the wine
, contact the winery directly, explain the situation, and ask for a replacement bottle. Of course, the winery may not be able to replace the wine with the exact same vintage. Many will provide the current vintage instead.

Why is it important to actually have the bottle in hand with unconsumed wine when you return a corked bottle to a retailer? First, this ensures integrity at every step of the process in returning the corked bottle. Second, it allows the proper party to shoulder the expense, which in all cases should be the winery. Here’s what happens after you return a corked bottle of wine.

Once you return the bottle, what the retailer does next is contact the distributor to get a replacement bottle, perhaps even giving the distributor the actual bottle of corked wine. The distributor then either gets a replacement bottle from the winery, in which case the winery pays for the corked wine, or, for the sake of convenience, does not, in which case the distributor pays for the corked wine.

However, if you bring an empty or almost empty bottle of wine bottle back to a retailer and say that the bottle was corked, the retailer has to pay for the corked bottle! They can’t contact the distributor without any evidence of a corked wine! Doing so could obviously lead to shenanigans (“Remember that bottle of 2005 Lafite you brought us? A customer returned an empty bottle and said it was corked. Can I have another?”)

As consumers, we rarely return corked bottles of wine for a number of reasons. We often paid for the bottle some time ago, so the money is long spent. We wanted that exact bottle of wine at that particular moment, so the moment is lost. It’s a hassle to return a bottle of wine! For some, it’s even intimidating (“You say it’s corked? Doesn’t seem like it to me!”). And of course, sometimes people don’t know the wine is corked. They just think it’s bad wine.

However, returning corked wines and asking for a replacement bottle is important because it makes all parties aware of the problem and hopefully reduces the chances of it happening again. Many things can be done to reduce or eliminate cork taint, but unless there is an obvious problem, why bother? As consumers, we are actually part of the problem by remaining silent.

So here’s my New Year’s resolution - and I encourage you to make it yours as well. I’m going to return bottles or contact wineries about each of my corked wines this year. As some will recall, last year I decided to count how many corked bottles of wine I had throughout the year as well as the overall incidence. The final tally was 45 corked bottles in 2011, 3% of wines sampled. Interestingly, to some people I spoke with, 3% seemed unacceptably high. To others, it seemed pleasantly low, and, of course, to others, it seemed just right.

What level of cork taint is acceptable is a question for another day. Suffice to say though that if consumers don't let wineries know a bottle of wine was corked, the next bottle is just as likely to be tainted as the one that came before it.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. I would like to see you take up the issue of what level of cork taint is acceptable. Were the people you spoke with consumers or vintners? I'm not sure any manufacturer would be happy with a 3% product failure rate.

  2. Another aspect from the winery's point of view, is that they would like to replace that bottle to ensure the customer has a great experience with their wine. Most consumers don't know what flaws taste/smell like, so they just think that the wine isn't any good, and won't buy wine from that winery again. If the customers would instead contact the winery if they don't think the bottle is right, every winery I know of would gladly replace the bottle to give the customer the right kind of experience.

  3. Jameson, most of the people I spoke with were actually vintners, and I was quite surprised that some felt 3% was acceptable. I don't. I think about it this way. That's 3 customers out of 100 that might be having a bad experience. Let's say you make 400 cases of a wine. At 3%, that's 144 corked bottles of wine. Wow!

    John, I agree with you. I've found two general approaches at wineries to corked wines. Some don't think they have an issue because they never see returned bottles. Some of these people take it as some sort of affront (!) to suggest a wine was corked. Others know they must have the problem (everyone does to a greater or lesser extent) and live in fear that customers are thinking they make bad wine when they have corked bottles. In my experience, most wineries would much rather have you return a bottle of corked wine than think their wine stinks and go around saying the same.

    Clive, that 20% off story is one of the more preposterous things I've heard. Reminds me of a restaurant I got food poisoning at once (everyone got sick). They offered the next meal free which was not too appealing somehow. In the interests of good business, a winery should replace the bottle for you *at their own expense* as in not saying, "If you drive hundreds of miles out here...". If they don't, I'd take the business elsewhere. There's over 1,200 wineries in the Pacific Northwest and many who'd appreciate the business.

  4. Just one more argument for alternative closures, IMHO. I really do not understand any manufacturer that thinks 3% is an acceptable rate of failure for their product. There is nothing romantic or up-market about corked wine... time to move forward with closure technology.

  5. I would take the mildest form of issue with only one part of this excellent write-up: "As consumers, we are actually part of the problem by remaining silent."

    Frankly, no, we're not. As consumers, our obligation begins and ends with paying for the product. If the thing we pay for turns out to be faulty in any way, and we choose to inform the producer, we're going above and beyond any duty.

    It is not our job, merely because we have chosen to purchase a given product, to then act as beta-testers. We may choose to do so, and it may be in our own immediate best interests to do so, but we are not obliged to do so, and quality issues should not be laid to our account should we choose not to bring the matter to the winery's attention.

    That said, a most useful post that clearly describes what corked wine is and how to discern it.

  6. I recently contacted a Woodinville winery about 2 corked bottles with no response. I had two previous attempts at contact about buying more wine, no response. I ended up driving up to buy more. Needless to say, although the wine in question has been one of my favorites, I'm opting to buy from others in the future. It's frustrating enough getting no response when inquiring about purchasing, but all the more when stuck with $100 of bad wine after going the extra mile to get it. Not sure what I'm going to do now, but I won't buy from them again.

  7. pericat, my point was mainly to suggest that many producers don't believe they have a problem with cork taint in part because so few consumers return corked bottles of wine (and few systematically track it in their tasting room). I agree wholeheartedly that, as a consumer, contacting a winery to make them aware of the problem and asking for a replacement bottle is going the extra mile. Personally I have rarely have done this for the reasons mentioned in the post, foremost that it's a pain the neck. However, I do feel that if more consumers make it a point to reach out to wineries when a bottle is corked, perhaps more wineries would take additional preventative measures.

    tks, that is an extremely discouraging story. I believe you have touched on something of a larger issue here - that some wineries are not particularly responsive, especially to email. I come across this frequently when looking for additional information about wines. No doubt part of this lack of responsiveness is due to so many wineries being extremely small operations. However, this is no excuse, certainly when dealing with customers, as running a winery needs to have a strong customer service component. If you're not going to be responsive via email, don't list an email address!

    Many wineries do the customer service aspects extremely well, which makes the ones that don't stand out. As consumers, we vote with our wallets. I'd look to spend my money elsewhere if I were you, as sad as that may be if you truly like the wines.

  8. Good post Sean, and I would like to see you blow out the entire discussion of flawed bottles into a series of articles educating WA wine drinkers.

    A few points I think would be helpful for new wine drinkers to understand.

    One- TCA tolerance varies from individual to individual. Scientific testing has shown some users can detect this compound in amounts as tiny as 1 or 2 parts per trillion. Your drinking partner may smell nothing, you smell mold... or vice versa!
    Second- you touched on this but it bears exploring further, TCA amounts can very from bottle to bottle. When slight, it strips the wine of fruit but does not necessary reveal itself via the traditional wet dog, moldy, mushroom smell... I think this is important because many consumers have experienced a great bottle of wine, shared a new bottle with a friend later and then experienced great disappointment... where is that great wine I just had a short time ago? TCA a likely culprit.
    Three- part of this return cycle consumers should be aware is not just TCA. Volatile Acidity (VA), reduction aromas (burnt rubber), mercaptans, heat damage et al. contribute to flawed bottles and ruined evenings!

    Good retailers are aware of the dangers lurking in bottle. It takes educated consumers as you point out who have the ability to identify flaws and request an exchange. My personal findings of "flawed bottles" is in the 5-7% range.

    Hope to see more in the future!


  9. Tom, excellent points! Thank you for adding them. The percentage of flawed bottles definitely goes up considerably if you bring in other culprits you mentioned.

  10. I've contacted two different wineries in the past year, one just at the holidays. I didn't even ask for another bottle at their expense I just asked if they had any issues with that year of wine/variety. In both cases they offered to replace the wine at their expense and not they did not want my bottle back.

    Neither winery (one oregon, one washington) said they had experienced any other issues with the wine in question. Great customer service in both cases.

    Neither winery is a 'goto' favorite winery but I will certainly buy more of their products on occasion.

  11. great posts and very helpful. Just happened to open a corked bottle tonight. Opened a second of the same wine and it was just fine. Rarely return a bottle but definitely will after reading your article.

    After reading comments above I need to compliment Spangler winery in Southern OR. I bought a closeout "mixed case" of whatever was left in their cellar at a bargain price. We had a bad bottle and I felt bad calling them as it was so highly discounted. Their response was to ask what kind of wine I liked (since it was closed out and they had none left of this wine) and to send me a new bottle of that wine. Great service and I ended up buying a lot more of the new wine.