Corks, & Cork Soakers

Yesterday I spent a couple hours chatting with a gentleman from Chalon-sur-Saône and his Irish friend. The subject of natural corks came up, in the context of my commitment to using them over screw caps. The French guy currently works for a respected tonnellerie but before that worked for a high-end cork supplier. He told me a story that was too marvelous to keep to myself:

One day he was visiting one of his customers, a well-regarded Burgundian producer. While he was in the middle of taking an order for corks, the producer gets a phone call from a local restaurant: “Oooh, we have a BIG problem! SIX bottles out of the last case you sent us were CORKED!” Producer: “One moment, please…” and he puts them on hold while he explains the situation to my new friend.

Apparently, this restaurant was calling the producer every week complaining of “corked” bottles and asking for replacements; this AFTER demanding a 10% discount off every invoice against the possibility of returned bottles. With the restaurant on hold, the producer expounded to his supplier that he did not believe the rate of corked bottles was anywhere near 10%, much less 50%.

My new friend asks for the phone: “Hello, I’m a representative of the company that supplies the producer with the corks you are having trouble with. This is very worrying to me! Please, put the bottles with the problem corks aside and I will be right over to pick them up. I want to take them back to our lab and have them tested.”

Restaurant: “Puf…uh…well, two customers who complained ended up accepting the bottles after all…and we used several more in, um, sauces and other cooking…and, well, they are not here.” Supplier: “Then PLEASE, next time you encounter a corked bottle call me immediately and I will come over to pick it up for analysis. We are very concerned!” Restaurant: “OK we will. Thank you.”

After that, the calls from this restaurant to the producer about corked bottles stopped. The producer stopped giving the 10% discount. And the restaurant never complained.

I have heard of restaurants playing this scam, but never anything this egregious. My friend proposed that this game might be more common in France. He explained that businessmen taking their colleagues, clients, and—especially—secretaries out for a meal are inclined to reject a bottle or two in order to show how confident and important they are.

I wonder if this approach actually makes them seem more confident and important to their colleagues, clients, and secretaries (um… no, I don’t).

4 thoughts on “Corks, & Cork Soakers

  1. Samantha Dugan

    Yup. Have had customers do the same, always claiming that they dumped the bottle, (down their gullet I suspect). We had one real asshat that used to buy high-end wines and return them as corked, always with just about a glass missing…..grrrr

  2. John M. Kelly Post author

    Ruth – he already had a client for life as he was providing a great product and great service. On the other hand, I would put money that the restaurateur is playing the same game with other producers.

    Sam and Thomas – the stories I could tell about individuals trying to scam wineries. One winery I worked for tasked me with coming up with a chemical “fingerprint” we could use to prove the wine being returned to them was not the same wine we had put in bottles. This was harder than it sounds, especially with late 80s technologies, but I was successful enough that they were able to compel several serial abusers to stop scamming them.

    The media coverage of the Dr. Conti forgeries has had me thinking of strong authentication measures. I wonder if I could design a short DNA sequence derivatized to be stable in wine over the long term. I could introduce such a tag into the wine at incredibly high dilution – a few hundred molecules per bottle – and then if a question of authenticity came up, a quick PCR would show conclusively if what is in the bottle was authentic. Perhaps I could also introduce nano-gold particles at a particular concentration; that would provide a quantitative baseline to complement the qualitative PCR result.

    “Natural” wine, anyone?


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