Wine can be complicated. We get that. So… Smell the cork. 


Sometimes it’s more confusing than it needs to be.

Here’s a good example. Some friends of mine were visiting Napa recently and went to a nice dinner. They ordered a rather expensive bottle of wine. The somm opened it, and presented the cork to one of the guys.

…Who then sniffed the cork.

Somm guy cringed and gave a big eye roll. He was having NONE of this rube’s foolish antics and proceeded to serve up a big lecture to the everyone at the table on the folly of cork sniffing.

Turns out cork sniffing is a pretty contentious topic. On one side you have the “Don’t smell the cork” and the even more adamant, “Seriously, don’t sniff the cork” folks. Then you have team “Please DO smell the cork!“. Even among sommeliers there’s no clear answer.

This begs the question, what do you do when a somm ceremoniously presents you a cork?

The case for sniffing

There’s really only one logical reason to sniff a cork – to detect a trace of TCA taint. However, most people don’t know what that smells like (hint: it’s like a funky damp basement or wet cardboard). Even the most trained wine sniffer who smells TCA would want to taste the wine to confirm their suspicions.

Cork taint
If your wine smells like wet cardboard, musty gym socks, or dank basement, chances are it’s corked. Cork taint is caused by a chemical known as TCA (technically known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole). The actual numbers behind cork taint are murky at best, but cork suppliers estimate that 1-2% of corks might be affected.

The case against sniffing

Unlike other wine rituals like decanting, swirling and slurping, sniffing the cork doesn’t bring a ton of practical value. Truthfully, it’s pretty pointless. But also harmless. So casting judgement on people for smelling a cork seems a bit unnecessary. Just let them get their sniff on, be done with it, and pour a glass.

What have we learned? It doesn’t really matter what you do with the darn cork. Sniff it. Or don’t. Pocket it. Give it to your toddler as a chew toy. Toss it in the trash or bring it home. Save it for a craft you saw on Pinterest.

Just remember the main goal is to enjoy the wine. Don’t think too hard about it. There’s really no right or wrong play here.