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Wine Tip: Problem Corks

CorksA lot of things can go wrong when you try to drink a quiet glass of wine after work. The cork can break off while you’re screwing it out or it can slide down into the wine as you’re trying to put the corkscrew into it. I’ve even broken a piece of the neck off a few bottles while trying to pull old, hard, dry corks. What do you do when this happens?

You don’t have to throw the whole bottle away just because the cork falls into it. Except in rare cases, corks won’t hurt wines. The easiest thing to do is ignore it and drink the wine. The only problem may be that every time you try to pour it, the cork will come up into the neck, shutting down the pour. Then when you shift it a little, the wine all comes rushing out at once, drenching your clothes instead of the palate.
If this happens, just pour the wine over the sink into a decanter, or even an ice tea pitcher will do. If you insist on using the same bottle, for about $10, most wine supply stores sell cork retrievers just for the purpose. They work like a fishhook. My experience has been that these things are more trouble than they’re worth, but bobbing for corks can at least be a new experience once.
A trickier problem is breaking the neck, or even a small piece of it, off the bottle. You never know for sure that none of it fell into the wine. Here you need a simpler, handier tool – an ordinary paper towel – to use as a filter while pouring the wine off into a clean bottle or decanter My advice is to take it into another room where no one can see you. Some people are squeamish about broken glass and keep staring so intently  into their wine looking for bits of glass. That bugs me. Some would say you need a coffee filter, but that’s only when you have sediment that needs filtering from a wine; paper towels will handle all glass bits.
Recently a friend called with multiple problems: He had pushed the cork down into his bottle trying to get the corkscrew in, then chipped the glass into the wine trying to get the cork out. But those were not enough. He also wanted to know if wine was bad for two reason: It had dark-brown gook on the top of the cork and little things that looked like salt on the bottom and in the neck of the bottle. Ruined? Not at all.
The brown stuff is usually dried wine which seeped out when the bottle got to hot in shipping and storage. Some delicate wines may be ruined in this way, especially whites, but usually not. And its not uncommon. Just wipe it dry with a damp sponge or towel and go on. The shiny salt-looking things are tartrate crystals precipitated during the wine-making process or from the bottles getting very cold. Winemakers do this sort of thing on purpose as a method of filtering in steel tanks. Just reach in with your little finger and lift them out and go on. You can rinse them off the bottom of the cork by putting it under running water and rubbing them with your thumb before replacing the cork.
My friend’s bottle seemed to have had an usually harsh childhood, but he reported it tasted excellent once he used the right boy scout first aid. He also admitted learning that there is more to the business of drinking wine than opening your mouth and pouring it down.
Satisfied with my free advice, he asked next what to do with very old bottles of fine red wine, whose corks have begun to fall apart. The answer: top up and re-cork. If you have more that one bottle, use a little of one to raise the level of the one you intend to keep. Then shove in a new cork, preferably after putting a shot of nitrogen from a pressurized can  like they do on bottling lines in wineries. Then drink what’s left of your bottle.
In wine, there’s always a solution.
Written September 3, 1989
John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

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