Cork Taint – Recognizing the Obvious

It is routinely and conservatively estimated that between 3 and 5% of all of the world’s wines, wines sealed with the classic cork closure, suffer from what is widely described as “cork taint”.  This off-putting, wine destroying aroma, most readily compared to the disturbing nuances of mold, mildew and / or a filthy basement filled with rot and decay, once released into a bottle of wine from a flawed cork, will never be remedied.  To find these aromas in a bottle of wine is to find a wine that has “been corked”, as the description goes, and for those of us in the wine world experienced with the unpleasant surprise of opening such a bottle, the sensation is haunting.

I’ll never forget opening day, August 2, 1999.  I may have lost nearly twenty pounds, made my way through literally 6 months of sleepless nights, my obsessive compulsive disorder on full overdrive, but this wine shop was open.  For any person interested in reading one of the most impressive, thought provoking, nearly 100 page business plans – the kind of business plan that moved an ultra conservative bank into lending this sole proprietorship nearly a half million dollars for his start-up wine shop – I’ve got a novel for you.  My entire life had been laid on the line for this one, to include the last quarter of a million bucks I had stashed for that proverbial rainy day.  The bank required my money as collateral investment alongside theirs; my last dime was now sitting in stacked cases of organic Minervois.  The bank and I were partners in a dream.

More than 6,000 square feet of shiny, brand new hard wood floors were literally covered from corner to corner with the most unique and original collection of hard to find and impossible to replicate stacks of fine wines and terrific discoveries I had yet amassed.  The local papers and specialty writers had picked up on the story and the original warehouse had started to buzz, even before opening day.  Folks from far and wide, from the suburbs and within the loop as well would finally have their boutique, European-styled wine shop.  Christopher’s Wine Warehouse was soon to open, bringing the promise of wines never before experienced by the thirsty palates of Houston’s serious wine community.

Over these past ten years, I’ve chronicled the mostly lows in this roller coaster ride through my life as a retailer.  I’ve tried to accept, as the plethora of cheesy mom-and-pop liquor stores in town tell me to do, the constant ridicule from shoppers when the phrase “But I had a wine just like this and it’s 2 dollars less at Spec’s” flows from the venomous, callous mouths of these brainless lemmings.  Two dollars on a $35 bottle of wine?  Are you serious?  I just spent half an hour tasting the wine with you, teaching you of the wine, telling you of the wine maker’s family’s history and of the importance of my 58 degree storage.  And you actually have the nerve to stand there, without ever buying a single bottle of wine from me, and tell me that you can save less than 6% buying this wine in an 80 degree warehouse next to a display of cat litter? 

Over these years, I’ve come to recognize the aroma of a wine tainted with cork taint.  It is an aroma that can not be ignored, it is an aroma that can not be reversed.  Once affected by this stench, there is but one remedy: you simply pour the wine down the drain.  The bottle can not be saved, even the wine maker doesn’t want the bottle back.

This city, be it the fault of the inhabitants, for they have allowed the monopoly to spread as a cancer in a dying man; or be it the fault of the cancer itself, is “corked”.  I have finally arrived at the realization that no amount of additional patience, coaxing, decanting nor caring is going to reverse the stench that has permanently and forever coated this city with a rancid, undeniable and irreversible vinous bouquet. 

There once was a man named Paul Roberts, one of the most gifted, celebrated and awarded Sommeliers of our time.  He was the wine director for Cafe Annie, remember him?  I drank many a bottle with that man.

There was another, equally gifted, talented and now wealthy soul of wine who honored Houston with his visits, a man named Josh Raynolds, now the coveted co-author of this country’s most prized wine publication.  He, too, has left the building.

As I contemplated posting these thoughts over this week-end past, an interesting scenario played itself out across the pages of a social network site known as Twitter.  One of the few folks who routinely engage with me through that service, also a man I have come to greatly respect for his admiration of uniqueness in wine over the short period we’ve known one another, tasked himself with expressing his thoughts on the wine and food scene in Houston. 

His decision for posting – indeed the topic of the post itself – was in large part due to the shuttering of my doors.  I’ve wrestled many an hour in my attempts to pinpoint the source of my additional remorse after reading the comments and lambasting hurled that man’s direction.  Are my feelings of additional disgust and contempt stemming from reading the cruel demand posted by one of this city’s prominent Chef’s – the words calling for the author of the blog to move out of town?  Or could my additional feelings of betrayal, now segueing to ones of bitter acceptance, stem from the fact that the author’s blog, one that included a story revolving around the wine shop of ten years now passing, yet with coverage of this city’s interesting food scene added for additional commentary and consideration, received more attention than any of the nearly 60 blogs I’ve written about fine wine this year alone?

For the particular Twitter individual who mentioned the demise of my shop being the result of the internet, how comforting it must be to live in such a secluded world.  My shop was locally recognized by the most-read (and yes, now most-scorned by yours truly for their 180 turn from directions once sworn to) newspaper, for the launching of a web-based wine store complete with the best prices on the internet.  Each and every page of my web-store came complete with a link to (ever heard of them?) and every item I sold came with the best price in Texas, often the best price in the country.  For you, Mr. “the internet was the demise of Cepage Noir” to now spout such words of non-research is out of line.  The fact remains that Houston was and is not interested in the best price, per se, it is the label that drives this town.  I proved that the best price does not, necessarily, make a shop successful.  My labels, fun, funky, French, off the beaten track and wines that “the machine” scorned as TOO ESOTERIC: failed – even WITH the best prices.  You talk of Spec’s as the greatest concept for wine lovers since the dawn of retail, including in your definition their pricing.  Again, it’s a free service sir: (you’re welcome).

Finally, a person I once broke bread with decided to show their true colors as well.  I’ll not name names, I’ll simply say that this individual, a person my wife and I considered a friend, a person my wife and I have dined with, more than once, decided, I suppose, that it would be safer to distance themselves rather than say nothing or remain seemingly in my court.  Your betrayal on Twitter speaks volumes as to the words I have endured these past ten years; words that simply spew forth from people’s mouths, pens and keyboards, with no thoughts for the work that has gone into bringing a business into this town.  My first day, my first year, my first three were not as bitter as all of the days and years became.  But when a man has his very passion, his soul and his love consistently, daily and yearly trampled on, with the words: “How do you compare to Spec’s”, “This is $2 less at Spec’s”, “Why don’t you carry what Spec’s does?”, “What’s your problem with Spec’s?”, “Spec’s gives me a discount for cash!”, and on, and on, an on…  Well, dear person, you begin to become jaded, bitter and, well, as you said, “prickly and judgmental”.  My work, however, was in the buying field, and on the keyboard, authoring prose; rarely after the first few years of daily tormenting was I ever on the floor, until the last days, from perhaps November of 2008 until the first day of Spring 2009, our closing day.  My private, Chris Rock antics over a few too many bottles of wine, behind closed doors or in the company of supposed friends, echoed the sentiments shared with like-minded folks.  As I close this final paragraph, I only remind you, dear former dining companion that you, too, condescended to the folks in Houston, and you did so in writing, when you called them ever so unfortunately “New World Loving”, not ever inclined to grasp the things we Francophiles found so endearing.

Houston, you have now lost the third, admittedly least shining, of the trio of stars once so determined to share wine’s most gifted treasures with your city. 

I can not speak for the rest of them, but I will ask, “Will you ever wake up and smell the taint?”

Christopher Massie