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Final Word on the Plastic Wrap Remedy

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 26, 2009 12:06pm ET

Sorry for the delay. Weeks ago I promised another look at a purported solution for cork-tainted wines, soaking them with plastic wrap. I have been tasting mostly Australian wines recently, and so many of those smart Aussies have abandoned corks in favor of screw caps that unambiguously cork-tainted bottles have been rare. Wouldn’t you know that we lacked backup bottles of those few that did reek of wet newspaper and tasted of crushed aspirin, clear signs of corkiness, so I couldn’t compare them to good bottles opened about the same time.

You can read a thorough account of the theory and previous attempts to test it in my earlier blog. Quick recap: Scientists and some wine experts suggest that exposing a cork-tainted wine to crumpled-up plastic wrap for 10 minutes attracts the 2,4,6 tricholoranisole (TCA) molecules that cause the stench. In my previous experiment, nothing much happened, but it turns out I had used the wrong plastic wrap. What I should have used was one made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and I had used the other type.

Turns out Stretch-Tite, the brand sold at Costco, is the right stuff. I wadded up a few sheets of it to keep on hand to soak with the next corky bottle to turn up in one of my blind tastings, with a good bottle of the same wine to use as a control.

I found the telltale mildewy character and aspirin texture this week in a Washington Syrah. The backup bottle, also tasted blind, was fine. I rated it 90 points. (What a coincidence, just like last time.) A perfect set-up.

After I finished reviewing the wines, I poured most of the remaining bottle of corked wine over the plastic wrap in one decanter. As a control, I poured most of the good bottle over plastic wrap in another decanter. Then I had Gus, my tasting assistant, pour four glasses for me to taste blind, one each from the good bottle, the bad bottle, the treated good wine and treated bad wine.

Here are my notes:

A: Smells fine, generally good, tight finish
B: Not much aroma, strong flavor of crushed aspirin
C: Ripe fruit, tight focus, tight tannins but with impressive length
D: Modest but clean aromas, tight tannins, hint of earth and aspirin in the finish

Can you guess which was which?

C was the good wine from the bottle and A the good wine soaked with PVC. B was from the corky bottle and D the corked wine from the decanter with plastic. The PVC treatment improved the wine, but not enough to make it as good as the bottle with no TCA.

Bottom line for me? The best you can hope for with this treatment is to make an undrinkable wine more drinkable, but not really good. I take away this message: If you think a wine is tainted by a bad cork, open a new bottle. If you have a second bottle of the same wine, great. If not, open something else. The plastic wrap functions like a band-aid. It covers up the wound, but it still hurts underneath.

Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  June 26, 2009 2:10pm ET
Hi Harvey, I actually find this result rather compelling. I assume you soaked the wines for ten minutes each? I wonder if any chemists or materials scientists out there can offer a perspective on whether the duration of contact would matter, given the chemical properties of TCA and PVC. For example, would an hour, or even overnight, soak make any more difference than a 10 minute one? Also, how long were the sheets of plastic wrap? Is it possible that a higher ratio of plastic wrap to wine would further reduce TCA levels?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 26, 2009 3:57pm ET
Good points, Andrew. I actually let the wines soak with the plastic for 15 minutes. The sheets of plastic were about 16 inches long. And I did try another sample of the plastic-treated corked wine after I did the video. It tasted about the same, which suggests that the plastic did all the good it could do in about 15 minutes.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 26, 2009 4:50pm ET
Harvey, I just opened a bottle of 2001 Paul Jaboulet Aine La Chappelle and it is definitely funky. I'm not a TCA expert, and I don't have another bottle to get all scientific, but I just read your blog and I do have Costco wrap. So... I poured a glass of the nastiness and I'm treating the decanter with wrap. I'll report back my findings at 10 minute intervals over the next half-hour.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 26, 2009 5:16pm ET
NASTY! Harvey, did you rinse the plastic wrap before introducing it to the wine? After 10 minutes the wrap made a huge difference in the nose as the funk was gone and the fruit, though muted, shone through. However, it stole the nice smoke out of the nose as well. Unfortunately, though the funk was now gone in the mouth the wine tasted just like I was chewing on a chunk of the wrap itself!!! The end result was worse. So, did you rinse the wrap first?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 26, 2009 5:25pm ET
This is exactly why I did the four-glass blind test, to see if the plastic affected the good bottle. It did not.

I didn't rinse the wrap, but I did not notice any off flavors from it, either. Your experience mirrors mine in that the plastic seemed to mute characteristics in the wine other than the TCA. I wonder if the TCA had covered some other funkiness in the wine, revealed when the plastic resolved some of the TCA.
Errol R Kovitch
Michigan —  June 29, 2009 10:25am ET
Well, I am now completely confused. I have done the blind tests myself using cork bottles and a replacement good bottle, and using Saran Premium. My experience has been that the Saran Premium improves the corked wine, but I agree that there was still a difference between it and the good bottle. Now I find that I have been using the wrong type of plastic wrap!Anyways, I am not one who is extremely sensitive to TCA, and accordingly I am not repelled by the aroma of slightly corked bottles, as are a few of my wine drinking buddies, however I always find that these bottles have muted fruit. The good news to me is that I have found that the Saran brings back the fruit, to the point where I can actually enjoy the wine.Sure if I had backup bottles, and didn't have to pay for my wine, I would be dumping everything but 1982 Mouton Rothschild down the drain, but since I pay for my own drinking, I will continue to keep a supply of Saran on hand.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 29, 2009 11:02am ET
Erroll, you are correct in that Saran changed from a PVC formulation in 2004. It is now made from LDPE. When I did the test before, I found a slight improvement to the wine from a LDPE-based wrap. PVC is better.

To clarify about the second bottle, I'm saying that I would rather open another bottle of something else than drink a treated bottle of tainted wine, not for health reasons but because the wine is still not what it should be. I would take it back to where I bought it for a replacement or refund.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  June 29, 2009 1:18pm ET
Thank you very much for "Part 2" of this experiment. Hope I was of some help with the wrap research. Based on your report, I think I'll stick with opening another bottle of wine rather than playing mad chemist with a bad one.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 29, 2009 1:37pm ET
Yes you were helpful, Mike, in outlining which brands used which type of plastic. I guess the process is useful to know if you're stuck with a single bottle, but I'm with you. When in doubt, open something else.
Roberto Scarpati
NEW YORK —  May 14, 2017 7:18pm ET
Harvey - believe it or not I did try this system under your suggestion back in the days and still use today - sometimes I do use it! Works, I would say 79% of the time yes, not perfect but becomes drinkable and it's cool to do with peeps that have no Idea of what tca is !

So cheer to you

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