Corked wine etiquette [reader mail]

Laurie comments:

Would love to start a conversation on Thanksgiving wine etiquette. What do you do when a guest brings a wine to dinner telling you it is special large format bottle, given by friends, saved for the occassion? Although I didn’t mind pouring the wine (quite different from what I would usually pair with the meal), the wine was corked and my husband and I seemed to be the only ones who noticed. Can I point out that it is corked and suggest that we open my wine, or do I have to grin and bear it?

This could easily descend into a lose-lose situation, as Laurie depicts: either the hosts stoically endure bad wine or the guest is possibly offended that the special wine somehow doesn’t pass muster.

However, I see two ways out. You could seize the opportunity as a “teachable moment” to talk about cork, the bark of quercus suber, and 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), the cause of cork taint. Or, more discretely, bring out another set of glasses and pour another wine for whoever was interested in making a side-by-side comparison of two wines. Then you could enjoy the untainted wine while not overtly dumping out the corked wine. This seems especially acceptable at Thanksgiving when there are presumably multiple bottles open for the big feast (but certainly can be done at other times too since few guests would object to trying more wines).

What do others think?

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16 Responses to “Corked wine etiquette [reader mail]”

  1. The Host could reply that they also had a special bottle(s) of wine to serve with dinner. Both bottles could be opened and served with side-by-side comparisons. It would be presumptuous of the guest to think that a Host would serve ONLY the guest’s wine! If other guests were invited and brought wines, then all bottles should be opened for ALL to enjoy. Wine is meant to be shared amongst friends!

  2. At any other dinner, I’d suggest using it as a teachable moment and offering up your own horror story: “I had a hot date, and everything was going great until we opened the wine, and it smelled like a full baby diaper had been dumped all over the table.” Then send the person home with a bottle of wine from your stash and thank them heavily for their gift.

    But it’s Thanksgiving, and it’s a time when you grin and bear it through a dry turkey, instant mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce that plopped out of a can into a perfect cylinder. Typically not a good time for criticism, especially around folks who may not think deeply about food and wine for several hours every day.

    Ninja option: “I think this needs a little time to breathe. I’m going to go pour this into my special decanter. Hey (insert name here), can you keep an eye on this gravy for me?” And then you quietly replace the wine in another room.

  3. First, use “depicts” correctly. Then consider, just for a moment, the possibility, wisdom and pleasure of showing good manners.I’m a brown-show-army guy on this point, maybe because I’m old v(indeed, I’m so old probably on one reading thios knows what ‘brown-shoe army’ means). But mu piount ,and I do have one here, is that good manners consists in large part of never causing pains or embarrassment to other, to never making another person ill at ease or uncomfortable. So, you accept the fact that your guest meant no harm, and you pour the wine. And then you shut the hell up. No one, no one in theu niverse, I can assure you, wants your bloody teachable moment and everyone with a lick of sense will; set you down a fautuous ass if you provide one. After the question of good manners, there are other compelling reasons to shut up. 1: someone people won’t notice 2: others might but they probably won’t say anything (if they do, you’re off the hook). It’s Thanksgiving dinner, not Wine 101. Serve the stuff and suffer one day rather than be a jerk that everyone remembers every Thanksgiving.

  4. Easy decision: Be gracious and drink up.

  5. Drinking only one wine on Thanksgiving is a terrible idea no matter how large the bottle, whether or not it’s corked.

    The hosts should have thanked the guest effusively, and said, “This will be the star attraction of the wines we’re serving!” and gone ahead and opened a few other bottles.

    Guests can’t dictate what the hosts and other guests drink. I don’t care if it’s a 9-liter of Romanee Conti, the hosts should still have opened some other stuff in the name of giving their guests a choice.

  6. Top marks to Blake Gray!

  7. I think screaming “your wine sucks!” is generally the best approach, and then move on to that special bottle of Mad Dog you’ve been saving for the occasion.

    Open multiple bottles, pass them around, add extra glasses to the table, let people drink what they want, it’s half the fun of the dinner.

  8. Am I missing something? Having a corked bottle is not that unusual. It happens 3% – 5% of the time. If you have ever had a bottle contaminated with TCA you know that the wine will be fairly lacking in terms of the fruit and taste and smell more of wet cardboard. Now, please explain to me why you would subject yourself and your guests to drinking something akin to wet cardboard? There is no shame in bringing a corked bottle… only bad luck. So put the cork back in.. let the guest take it back hopefully for a refund, and open something that hasn’t be ruined. There is no bad manners here… just common sense.

  9. Richard: I think the situation that he’s talking about is where the person bringing the wine is unfamiliar with TCA. It’s not uncommon for a non-wine fan to hang onto a bottle for years, thinking that it’s just steadiliy improving with age even if it’s a gallon jug of Rossi. (More commonly, what I see is someone keeping a bottle of wine as a decoration beside the stove, where it spoils from heat damage over months or years, and then they break it out for a holiday and it tastes terrible.)

    Obviously anyone that knows enough about wine to properly identify a corked wine would spare the host and dump it down the drain himself. The question seems to be more about a gift giver (and guests) that don’t notice it or feel that all wine tastes the same. Definitely a tricky situation, and if it’s something that the gift giver has been holding onto for a long period of time, a refund is probably out of the question.

  10. Benito has nailed the situation. The dinner was just the four of us, so opening multiple bottles (especially when the bottle they brought was so large), did not initially seem like a good idea. The bottle was a gift, a German Reisling given to them when he was stationed at The Hague. When I tasted the wine, I said, gently, that it was corked, a flaw caused by the cork, not the wine. My guests did not appear to be interested in hearing that the wine was flawed and proceeded to pour the wine in each glass.

    I have used corked wines as a teachable moment (even to the bartenders at the well known restaurant Lee in Toronto), but this moment felt awkward; my guests were so pleased with the wine. I grinned and finished my first glass and then proclaimed that I’d like to taste both wines the dinner and switched. My poor husband suffered through a second glass before he switched. (When I later asked him why, he said he felt bad… there was still so much wine in the bottle).

    I agree Bill, that as a hostess, I do not ever want to make my guests uncomfortable which is why I was looking for a delicate way out of the situation. By the same token,I worked my backside off for two and a half days to put that meal together and do not feel completely obligated to ruin it for myself by finishing the bottle with them. I hope I found the balance. Interesting discussion.

  11. I think a lot of your answer depends on a couple of factors:

    -How direct are you willing to be? Are people at your table willing to accept you as a wine expert?

    -Who brought the bottle in question? If it’s my mother in law, I probably take a different path than if it is a neighbor.

    It’s a bad situation all around because you don’t want to embarrass anyone, but serving bad wine with the 1 meal which takes the longest to prepare, sounds like a bad combination as well.

  12. The best wine advice I ever received was at a wine tasting a couple years ago. The director of the event went on and on about this wonderful wine he was pouring, but when I tasted it, I wanted to spit it out. His response: “Eh, some like it, some don’t.” That’s so true of any wine. Don’t be bullied into drinking something you don’t truly enjoy!

    Now to the question at hand: To use an old cliche’, “Life’s too short to drink bad wine.” Having planned the Thanksgiving meal for weeks in advance, and having worked all day to prepare it, I might sample the guest’s wine, but then I would bring out the wine I have painstakingly selected to compliment the meal. If others want to continue to drink the swill, then let them.

    And everyone can enjoy the day!

  13. I’d offer to decant the wine, take it into the kitchen, and drop it on the floor. Then apologize profusely.

  14. Thank you, Bill and Blake! I’d be crushed and embarrassed if I was the giver and received a lecture. The gift is, as Bill said, a gracious gesture.

  15. For such a special bottle, I would have opened it before the dinner with the guest to taste as well as offering to decant it if needed. A host’s way of making a fuss and thanking one wine lover to the other for bringing the bottle but also ensuring they were happy with how the wine was tasting as well as to make sure it wasn’t corked.

    Always taste and share wine together first! Once the wine is poured into glasses on the table – it’s too late.

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