In the early twilight of a successful journalism career, George Taber turned his talents to furthering the world's understanding of his primary passion - wine. And he's done so with considerable notoriety - in the short span of three years he's produced two ground-breaking works.
His first was "The Judgment of Paris," about the famous tasting that put California wines on par with the best of Bordeaux. As the only journalist to attend the event, his brief account of the event remained under the radar for days after its publication, achieving its deserved recognition days after its publication, when the full impact of the event sunk in.
In his most recent work, "To Cork or Not to Cork", published just last month, Taber reveals the flaws inherent in the current bevy of options for wine closures - including corks, synthetic corks, composite/agglomerated corks, screwcaps and glass stoppers. I had difficulty putting this book down, to be honest, as I described in my book review two weeks ago.
After that review, Mr. Taber and I made contact via email, and he readily agreed to an online Q&A session. Here's what he had to say:
DC: Your book would not have been written were it not for the fact that, several decades ago, an increasing % of corks began fouling the wines they were charged with preserving. Can you tell us about the most recent wine wine you opened that was ruined by a tainted cork?
GMT: The problem was worse a few years ago, but a few years ago the cork manufacturers admitted it had a problem and started doing something about it. As I wrote in the book, the cork problem dramatically increased in the 1980s for the reasons I explained. Then for about 20 years the cork industry had its head in the sand and didn't admit it even had a problem.
About 1998 the industry finally admitted it had a serious problem and started to address it with heavy investment in new manufacturing equipment and research into the cause of the problem. It takes time for any change -- positive or negative -- to be felt with cork because of the long time it takes to grow cork and then for wines to age in the bottle before opening. But in the last few years there are signs of somewhat less cork taint at places like the big London wine show where they keep good statistics on the number of corked bottles.
That having been said, my most recent example of a bad bottle was only last week. As part of my book promotion, I have been showing audiences the difference between the same wines with corks and those with screwcaps. I've found a couple of examples of exactly the same wine with the two closures. I was at a book store outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina doing a signing and showing one of those wines. It is a 2003 Domaine Laroche Chablis from the St. Martin vineyard. I have done this taste-off at least a half dozen times. But this time the bottle with a cork was clearly oxidized. That had never happened before in the tests, but there was no doubt about it. Everyone could taste the difference between the two wines.
Random oxidation is not the same as a corked wine, but the cause is still a faulty cork. Many people might not have recognized it if the wines hadn't been tried side by side. Some winemakers told me they thought random oxidation is actually a bigger problem than cork taint.
DC: I'm not surprised - I hate oxidized wines. It is apparent that researching your book took you to the far corners of the world to meet some of the wine world’s luminaries. What was the most interesting story you can tell us – one that didn’t make it into the book, perhaps?
GMT: I tried to use all the material in the book, but sometimes an interview just doesn't make the cut. One was an interview with Simon Barlow, the owner of Rustenberg, a top South African producer. His experience was similar to so many others. He had a high number of bottles being returned because of corking, so he went to his cork supplier who blew him off, saying that the problem was caused by his bad winemaking procedures. He couldn't get even a decent hearing from the supplier, which was typical of the reaction until fairly recently.
So Simon decided to test plastic corks on his second label, Brampton. But consumers had serious problems with plastic corks. People were sending him bottles with cork screws stuck in the plastic corks. That's a common problem with plastic. So he sent his winemaker to New Zealand to study screwcaps, and the person came back with the recommendation that they try screwcaps on the second label, and they are fairly happy with the experience.
Barlow, though, is reluctant to put his top Rustenberg wines in screwcaps because he doesn't think consumers are ready for them and he also doesn't think screwcaps are the final word in the debate. So he continues to look for the best closures and experiment. In a lot of ways he represents a vast number of winemakers around the world who are looking for the perfect closure but still haven't found it.
DC: Yes, the eternal quest goes on. And on. After writing this book, you must be one of the world’s more knowledgeable people on wine closures. If you could dictate just one closure to be used for all wines, what would it be? And would your ruling change if it applied only to wines above $25?
GMT: I don't think the perfect closure has yet been found. They all have their advantages and they disadvantages. There might be one in five or ten years, but there's not one today. I think winemakers should be tailoring their closure to the wines they want to produce. And I don't think it's merely a question of a price point like $25. A cheap wine with a bad closure is still a bad wine.
I think in the short run you're going to see more and more light, fruity whites like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc with screwcaps, and it's not surprising because those are the wines that show cork failures most readily. Red wines, especially ones that are meant to be aged, are likely to continue to carry a cork. Many winemakers are reluctant to split their production lines like that because it implies that the wines with screwcaps are low quality. I wish they could get over that and select the closure best suited to the wine.
DC: Have wiser words ever been uttered? Let me ask you about the recent turn in your career. You enjoyed a successful career as reporter and editor for Time magazine and then launched your own publication in the late 80’s before selling it to "retire". Your four-paragraph story on the famed “Paris Tasting” of 1976 has been called “the most significant news story ever written about wine.” But in just the last few years, during what is usually one’s twilight years, you’ve written two very successful (and well researched!) books about the wine industry. How has this period of your career compared to your earlier period?
GMT: I've been very lucky to have ventured into a new career writing books about wine. After selling the publication I founded, I told myself that I wanted to throw all my efforts into the new field with the same focus and intensity that I had devoted to my earlier jobs. Half-way efforts never succeed. Luck can help, and I plead guilty to being lucky, but it also takes hard work to be successful in any endeavor. It's easier to work hard, though, in a field that is as interesting and exciting as wine. The great economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that if someone didn't pay him to teach, he would gladly pay someone to let him teach. I feel the same about wine writing.
DC: I love that answer, having similar feelings myself. I’ve read that you are a wine fan and collector. Was the jacket photo for your first book taken in your personal cellar? Tell us about the wines you like to collect and drink.
GMT: The picture in my first book was taken in the cellar of a friend. I had my own wine cellar at the time, but it was a much more modest affair, although it was a very good place for storing wines. My wife's uncle and I built it. I drink wines from all over the world and with all sorts of closures. I love old Bordeaux as well as versions of those made in California, South Africa and Chile. My wife likes Pinot Noir more than Bordeaux, so I have to comprise, but that's not too hard. I think the fun of wine is that you can always be trying new wines and learning new things.
DC: Amen to that. Now as I bring our Q&A towards a conclusion, I'm curious to know your response to a fantasy question. If you could invite any four people (living or dead) to your house for dinner, who would they be and what wine would you serve?
GMT: It would be an interesting evening. I've spent a long time around economics, so I'd be interested in talking with perhaps the two greatest in that field: Adam Smith, the father of economics who wrote in the 18th century, and John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the 20th century. They're both Englishmen and are both good writers in addition to being giants among economists. I'd also invite Leonard da Vinci just because of the breadth of his scholarship. And finally Winston Churchill. Not sure what it means that I would invite three Englishmen.
One of my favorite wine quotes is from Keynes, who said late in life that he had only one regret -- that he hadn't drunk more Champagne when he was young. Churchill also loved Champagne [Bollinger, as I recall - DC]. So we'd have to start with Dom Perignon Champagne as a gathering wine. I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, so we'd have a Cloudy Bay with the fish course of cod. For the second course of roast lamb (and in honor of Leonardo) we'd have a great Italian wine like a Il Palazzone Brunello di Montalcino. The owner of that winery is Dick Parsons, the about-to-be former CEO of Time Warner, who also lives on Block Island as I do.
Thomas Jefferson died poor because he spent too much money on wines like Chateau d'Yquem. That would go well with a chocolate soufflé dessert. Finally, in honor Churchill, who answered critics who said he drank too much by saying that he got more out of alcohol than alcohol ever got out of him, a great vintage port, perhaps a 1945 Quinta do Noval, to go with espresso coffee.
DC: Damn. I was hoping to be at the table too! Incidentally, one of my favorite Churchill quotes was in response to Lady Astor, his political and personal nemesis, who had accused him of being drunk. His reply went something like "Yes, I am drunk. But you're ugly. And in the morning I'll be sober, but you'll still be ugly."
My fantasy guest list contains many of the same names, though Ben Franklin is an addition. Before we end this, is there anything else you wish I'd asked? For example, cork taint is not the only wine fault. What about the others?
GMT: You're absolutely right. Cork is the best known, and if something is wrong with a wine too many people immediately assume it's because of a bad cork. A company called Le Nez du Vin puts out a kit called "Les Défauts" on wine faults. In it there are samples of 12 different faults. Corkiness is only one of them. I wish consumers -- and winemakers -- knew more about the other 11 and didn't blame everything on the cork.
DC: Thanks for that. And for your time answering all my questions today! I wish you continued luck, and hope to see you on your next West Coast tour.
[Interested in the book? Compare prices on new and used copies here!]
Dave Chambers, Wine Merchant
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