Close up and personal

Faulty closures can provide PR opportunities if you treat them right

I've been aware lately of a renewed debate about the failure rate of cork. This debate has two facets:

one is about the absolute failure rate of cork (we'll come back to what this means shortly);

the other the merits (or otherwise) of cork against other closures. Of course, I'm not just going to talk about corks and wine

- that's Tim Atkin's job. I'm also interested in the interface between the closure, the retailer and the customer. It all sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? Let's just crack on.

Cork is a potentially faulty medium. It is subject to infection by TCA, which can impart a woody taste to the wine - the wine is said to be corked.

There is also the issue of white Burgundy from the late ninetiess, which was hit by random premature oxidation. The cause

isn't totally clear, but

the cork (specifically chemicals used in its preparation) is the likely culprit.

So does that mean artificial corks are better? Well, it depends. We have very few bottles returned with cork-related faults, but frequently have bottles with stubborn artificial corks returned. It's obviously easier to spot an artificial cork that won't budge than a minor case of TCA infection, but still, the nub of the issue is what is perceived as a fault. A load of shredded composite plastic stuck in the neck of a bottle, keeping you from a glass of wine, is much easier to correctly identify than the slight depression of flavour and aroma that low-level TCA gives.

So, are screwcaps the panacea

they are said to be? Again, yes and no. There was a period as they were just being generally adopted when they simply seemed to leak, and if they weren't keeping the wine in, then they weren't keeping the oxidising air out either.

Conversely, and indeed perversely, if they fail to let at least a little air in, then the wines can suffer in a different way (I would recommend Jamie Goode's excellent website,, for anyone interested in looking at the detail behind these

broad-brush generalisations).

Replace returns

Given all this, what do you do when you are confronted with someone holding a slightly-sipped bottle

and a slightly pained expression?

Our approach is to always replace whatever they return

and to send people away happy. Having said that, our returns rate is fairly low, so I guess we can afford to take that approach. By low, I mean probably less than a bottle of anything, wine or beer, a week - way out of line with any industry estimates about how many bottles of wine suffer from closure-related issues.

Interestingly, it's never mentioned as an issue for beers, although I've had as many faulty bottles of beer as of wine over the years. I guess that, given the cost, people are happier to pour a beer away and chalk it up to experience. ­Recently though, I had someone return a bottle of weizen-rauch (smoked wheat beer), complaining

it was "minging".

He brought one empty and one full bottle back, and cracking the full bottle, it was obviously free from flaws (although a very unusual beer).

I had to point out that it was fine, but if he was unhappy, I would refund him both bottles. He was spectacularly pleased, to the point where he felt obliged to buy more beer to compensate for the generous gesture.

It wasn't a money spinner, but it was a vote winner - a tactical, word-of-mouth piece of PR.