Wine Flaws – How do you find them at a restaurant?

Have you ever ordered a glass of wine at a nice restaurant and felt like it tasted a little off?  Like it was oxidized from being open too long, or maybe it was corked, maderized, or had some other ungodly flaw that made you dry heave?

Depending on the venue, wines by the glass can vary greatly in style, quality, and price. When you are expecting to spend more than $75 or even $150+ for your meal, you should expect to enjoy it thoroughly, and your wine should be no exception, even if it is a $12 glass! If you are ordering a bottle of wine, chances are there will be someone to at least open it for you, and hopefully they have a little wine knowledge to help you out.

My wife and I went to an upscale restaurant for our 10 year Anniversary, and I decided to order a glass of Albariño to go with my fish. I took a small sip, and noticed that it wasn’t very fresh, it was just kind of flat and slightly oxidized. Since I know what Albariño should taste like (even that specific brand – I had just tasted it very recently), I knew right away the wine had to have been open a bit longer than it should have, and it wasn’t fresh.  I politely asked the server if he knew how long the wine had been open (it seemed at least a day or 2), and would he mind bringing me a glass from a freshly opened bottle. He obliged, and sure enough, the new wine I got was as delicious as ever!

If I decided to drink the glass, I would not have enjoyed it, knowing that with every sip I’d be drinking a bland, acid-less expression of a wine I usually love for it’s fresh, crisp acidity and food pairing awesomeness.  I’ve tried wines that aren’t my favorite style, and happily tasted them as a learning experience…this was not that type of situation. There is a big difference between a wine that doesn’t taste good to you because you don’t like the style or varietal and a wine that flat out tastes or smells bad because it has a real and noticeable flaw.  So how do you know when it is appropriate to send a wine back at a restaurant? Especially when you have never tasted it before, or may not even know what what to look for?  Hopefully I can help you with that,  keep reading…

There is nothing wrong with sending a wine back if it is truly flawed.  In a restaurant with a Sommelier, you should always count on them to do their job.  It is a big part of their reason for being there!  Sure they get the fun of picking the wine list, discussing wine and food pairing with guests, but they also are trained to notice flaws in wines, and educate the customer on the wines they pick.  So if you have the option, use their expertise!  In a more casual restaurant, you are on your own, and may not want to bother, but I encourage you to use 3 simple techniques to check for flaws, and understand the main flaws to look for…

  1. Know what you are ordering. As an example, Pinot Grigio should be light pale in color with nothing floating in it, Pinot Noir should be ruby red, slightly see through, etc.  When you have some knowledge of the wine you are actually ordering, it will help you to LOOK for noticeable flaws.  Use your eyes.  If you see something floating in the glass, it doesn’t mean the wine is flawed, but come on, who wants to drink pieces of cork, or worse…, right?  I know that one is too obvious… but it is a necessary set up for many other indicators and really does help you to understand a lot more about your wine.  So always take a good look at your glass before you move on…
  2. Smell your wine and/or the cork.   This is the MOST IMPORTANT step in finding flaws in your wine.  Not all wines will be “fruity” or “aromatic” or “oaky”… but most wines should have some sort of “fruit” component when you smell them… after all, they are made from grapes.  If there is nothing OFF-PUTTING (see some of the flaws below), chances are you are good to go, and you can move on to tasting and enjoying your wine!  But what if something does smell a bit FUNKY or OFF?  Here is where having a little knowledge about what is a flaw vs. just a funky and “unique” wine will really help. If you know you like “earthy”, “dusty”, “forest floor” wines, then you most likely have an idea if they are flawed or not. Even wines with those unique characteristics should still contain (and be relatively balanced with) the other components of fruit, acid, texture, etc.
  3. Taste for enjoyment. Many flaws will be detected before this point, but if something tastes off, don’t discount the power of your palate. A wine with a flaw may not have been picked up by your nose, but surely if there is something wrong with it, you will notice on your first sip… so take your time with that first small sip, and go in expecting to appreciate what you are tasting. If something seems wrong, speak up. The better you understand your palate, the more confidence you will have when noticing flaws. The first time you do it, may seem uncomfortable, but it is well worth the effort to make sure you are getting the quality wine the producer intended you to get, and not a flawed version they had no control over. I’ve had times where a wine will smell fine (or maybe just doesn’t have much of an aroma), but after the first sip I notice that the fruit is completely muted. Then I’ll get a hint of that musty moldy “corked” wine taste, and know it’s off.

When you know the flavors to look for in a wine, it’s much easier to know what you are and aren’t missing on your first sip. But if you aren’t as familiar with the wine you are ordering, take a look at these common flaws, so you can recognize them the next time you are out and taste a wine that doesn’t seem quite right.

Know the 3 main flaws to look for:

  1. Trichloranisole / TCA or “cork taint” – smells like a wet newspaper, damp musty cellar, wet/moldy leaves, etc.  Wines with TCA taint can vary in degree from very slightly tainted to very obviously corked.  A “corked” wine will usually also have very indistinguishably muted fruit characteristics from the TCA, and can taste unbalanced with hot alcohol or unpleasantly bitter acid. As you train your sense of smell, you can learn to pick up the presence of TCA from simply smelling the cork or wine in the glass, before even tasting it. A slightly tainted wine may go undetected, and may even seem pleasantly oaky to some.  If that’s the case for you, enjoy the wine, it won’t hurt you.  But, if you notice this corky flaw and immediately turn up your nose to say, “Oh, this is Gauche! Take this corked wine away at once!”… please stop reading my blog and read a blog about how to be a nicer to the people who serve you! :-) Seriously though, if you know a wine is corked, nobody should expect you to drink it, so speak up!
  2. Oxidized– If a wine has been open for too long, it will become oxidized. White wines will often retain their fruit flavors for several days, however, they lose their freshness and acidity (the component I love most about white wines) pretty rapidly. This was the case in my Albarino example above.  Red wines may retain their acid, fruit, and overall structure a little longer after being open, and may even improve over a day or 2 sometimes even 3 or 4.  As a red wine oxidizes, the acid/fruit and even textural components begin to fall out of harmony. You end up with a wine that is on its way to becoming bad vinegar or caramelized apple. The color will turn brownish and aromas will be more vinegar/brown apple, a sort of rancidity that will definitely be unpleasant. Depending on the degree of oxidization, you may not even notice until it gets too far out of balance or harmony.  Again, there is a fine line before this fault becomes detectable, but if you notice it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with politely asking how long the wine has been open, or if they wouldn’t mind getting you a fresh glass…unless of course it’s at a dinner at your boss’s house, then just keep quiet and drink the wine you brought!
  3. Maderized– “Cooked” or maderized wine loses color, and gains a nutty characteristic. Wines from the Island of Madeira are intentionally heated and fortified to create a style that is virtually indestructible, caramelized, and nutty. That’s the style they are going for. Unfortunately, when this happens to still/dry white, red, ore even rose wines unintentionally, the result is a less than pleasant mixture of bland fruit, unbalanced acid, and an overall nutty component that overtakes the whole tasting experience.  When you want Madeira, ask for Madeira…and you should, so you know what it’s like(it’s amazingly fun and different). When your wine smells or tastes like Madeira and it’s not Madeira, someone left it in the heat to long, and that’s just bad form!

Below are a few other compounds that can add complexity or freshness to your wine, but if overdone are considered flaws :   

Mercaptan (Sulfur – “rotten egg, burnt rubber”, this will sometimes dissipate as oxygen hits the wine, so let it “open up” for a little and see if it changes. 

Brettanomyces (“farmyard, band-aid”) considered a nuance rather than a flaw in many wineries. Some people like it, and some just don’t.  This one is controversial, so it’s important to understand first if you do or don’t like that “funky-ness”… you may want to just avoid wines that are known to display this characteristic if you don’t like it. Typically wines by the glass rarely have Brett.

Volatile Acidity (vinegar/balsamic sometimes done on purpose w/ certain wines made from fermenting very ripe and sweet grapes)

I hope you enjoyed reading this and learned a little something. I try to bring some edutainment to every event and piece of content I create. My goal is to elevate the wine world so make sure you are doing your part to elevate your own wine experiences… and if you ever need some help, just ask!

To plan a tasting event to learn more about wine flaws, and If you have any questions, please email me at to book a free consultation.  Thank you!

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