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           Sydney Time



   Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009





Grange – Keeping the Bastards Honest   (27 Noveber)


Imagine this situation. You are a real wine geek. Your cellar ensures optimal storage conditions and you only buy wine on release, or close to it. Most of your friends are wine tragics like you.  Your love of wine started at an early age and you have even done a stint dabbling as a wine writer for the local rag. As you hit the big five-0, and it’s also your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary soon, you decide to push the boat out, invite a few of your closest wine tragic friends over and open up a few very special bottles to celebrate the occasion.


The highlight of the night is to be a bottle of Penfolds 1986 Grange, potentially one of the greatest wines produced in Australia. You take the wine out of the cellar and let it stand so that the sediment settles to the bottom. About an hour before it’s due to be served, you lovingly open the wine and decant it into a turn decanter to let it breath.


The magic time comes and you taste the wine. What’s this? The taste is flattened and it finishes way shorter than normal. You pass the sample to a couple of your wine tragic mates and ask them what they think of the wine. The result is the same. All agree it’s not up to standard.


Disappointed, you decant the other seven-eighths of the wine back into a bottle and seal it. Muttering under your breath, you head into the cellar and grab your very last bottle. Open it, give it a quick decant and swirl, and pour it. Yep, the second bottle is the real deal; a wonderful wine. Full of flavour and with all the hallmarks of a great Grange. Broad and long on the palate, the difference between the two bottles is marked, more than just bottle variation.


The next morning you contact Penfolds/Fosters Customer Service and tell them about it. Specifically that the “flavour profile and finish matched that of a bottle affected by low level taint. Customer Service asks you to put the bottle in the fridge and state they will sent a reply-paid mailer over the weekend. When the mailer arrived you send the (seven-eighths full) bottle off for evaluation and replacement. You are not concerned as this was the process experienced with previous encounters with the Fosters Group.


That’s exactly what happened to Murray Almond from Geelong Victoria recently. (For our US readers, the Australian law in regard to the replacement of defective wine is very different to yours. Wineries have a legal obligation to replace wine that is defective when the defect has been caused by a manufacturing fault.)


Murray then states, “Three weeks after the bottle was returned, a Representative from Penfolds Customer Service contacted me. He advised me that the bottle had been assessed by a panel of ex-winemakers. They had concluded that the there was no TCA taint and that the bottle had only needed additional decanting time to blow off the sulphide characters before serving. He said that as the bottle had found to be not faulty it would not be replaced and they offered a bottle of Bin 389 as a gesture of good faith.”


Hold the phone. What gives here? A few things don’t quite add up and need further examination.


Firstly, Murray made absolutely no mention of sulphide characters being an issue. So why are the winemakers mentioning it? Secondly, why use “ex-winemakers.” What’s wrong with current winemakers? It should be noted that just because someone is a winemaker, or ex-winemaker, does not mean they can pick TCA easily. I have come across countless winemakers that have a high threshold when it comes to TCA, and have no hope of spotting it at low levels, even in the wines they make. 


To back up this point, it is also worth considering the findings of the WSA musty taint survey. The survey involved a consortium of 18 companies, including retailers, producers, wholesalers and stopper manufacturers. From January 2001 to January 2002, data was collected on over 13,000 wines tasted by assessors in the contributing companies during the course of their work. These industry professionals found that only 0.7% of wines bottled under cork had musty (TCA) characters. I digress, back to the main story.


Lets give the winery the benefit of the doubt and accept that the ex-winemakers who did the analysis can spot cork taint, however checking a wine and getting an accurate, meaningful answer in this situation becomes even more difficult than you may realise.


Firstly, due to Occupational Health and Safety concerns, winery staff is not able to taste any wines that has been returned. The only analysis that they are allowed to do is “sensory analysis” i.e. they are allowed to smell it. 


Secondly, as outlined by Jamie Goode in the above referenced story, Peter Godden from the Australian Wine Research Institute has found that oxidation of wine can and does mask cork taint. Godden then also goes onto state that if the cork is put back into the bottle, in their trials, the corks were actually able to reabsorb the majority of the cork taint.


When you add all this together, the process followed by the winery to determine if a wine is suffering from TCA, using sensory analysis only, has more holes than a Swiss cheese.


From Murray’s perspective he returned seven eights of a bottle of what should have been a great wine, that he was sure matched that of a bottle suffering from low level cork taint. It also needs to be stated that Murray is not just well known on wine forums, he is very well known by a number of staff members at Fosters. He is the original champion of all things Seppelt and has always praised this winery, its products and its staff. Murray also has an unsurpassed reputation of being a 100% straight shooter, and is recognised as being as honest as a summer day at the North Pole is long.


Under these circumstances, Murray is justified in feeling that Penfolds/Fosters offer of a bottle of Bin 389 is unacceptable.


However, in fairness we also need to look at this situation from Fosters perspective.


A lot of Grange changes hands at auction and there is no indication of the wines provenance. It may have been a gift that sat above the fridge for ten years and then sold at auction. There are also a number of people who will either try it on, either intentionally or unintentionally, due to the value of this wine ($500 for the current release in Oz). Naturally Fosters has to protect themselves against false claims. And there in lies the problem. How does the company protect themself and at the same time look after genuine customers?


Penfolds run re-corking clinics all over the world, so they know exactly what the wines should look like, but we have no idea if the ex-winemakers who looked at this wine have any Grange experience, but that is beside the point. As Godden has found, oxidation hides TCA, so if a wine has started out as slightly tainted, and then been subject to oxidation for a couple of weeks, then diagnosing that wine as corked, especially by sniff alone, will be next to impossible.


This situation is not unique to Grange, as the thread on Winestar Forum shows.  Another poster tells about a bottle of 99 St Henri that was sent back because it was scalped. The company responded that the wine was found to be oxidised and there was no sign of TCA. Hello! The lights are on but there is no one home!  If it took them two weeks to do a sensory analysis that conclusion is inevitable, however it does not mean that the returned wine was not suffering from TCA.


If Fosters think their sensory analysis testing of wine that has been opened for many weeks is sound, they are deluded.


This reminds me of the inmates of an asylum interviewing each other to test the inmates’ sanity, and then pronouncing that the majority of them are perfectly sane.  Predictable but not accurate in many cases!


The only definitive way to test for TCA is by using a mass spectrometer, which is bloody expensive. Even then, depending how the wine was treated after it was opened, the test may not show the wine was affected by TCA, as it can be reabsorbed back into the cork.


Proving ones position, no matter which side of the fence one is on in this situation, is almost impossible. With lower priced wines, Fosters probably take people at face value in most cases. That’s good. Fosters have been known to replace badly tainted Grange, however once it gets to bottles that cost between $60 and $600 they are hard-nosed about the situation. In marginal cases they don’t look like they give the customer the benefit of the doubt. Given the vagaries of the process, it is almost impossible for a consumer to prove a bottle of wine was corked unless they could get it to a trained Fosters staff member within a short period of time. And that is impossible for most people.


This is not a good situation. It appears there is no flexibility at Fosters in this situation. Unless the wine is rank with cork taint, it will not be replaced. Fosters may save a heap of money weeding out false claims, but in a process with no flexibility, especially one that is completely flawed, the genuine customers get shafted in the process.


That thread on Winestar has had over 7,000 hits and it has not just been read by a small number wine geeks. As the thread has been at the top of the forum charts, it has been featured on the Winestar Home Page, and this has resulted in a far wider audience. My article will be widely read too. Had Fosters had the good sense to look after a customer that they know is genuine, all this negative publicity would have been avoided. Does it bother them? I doubt it, but think of how much better it would have been if the thread had read "Great Customer Service from Penfolds" instead.


Fosters may save money in the short term, but in the long term, it will cost them customers. But let’s face it, when it comes to wine, Fosters probably does not care about the long term. This quarters results are all that is important, and they may not even be in the wine business this time next year.


Feel free to submit your comments!

From Anon (name provided): Friday 28 November

Just a passing comment on Penfolds/Fosters. I've been a member of their Magill Estate Wine Club for many years now and I have to state that since Fosters took over, the way they treat their loyal members is atrocious. Members pay a $150 a year annual fee to be part of the club. As a loyal Penfolds member and customer, discounts and specials are supposed to be on offer as well as a number of functions.

The rot set in not long after Fosters took over and revamped the place. Barb Lengs (Wife of Karel Lengs - Lengs and Cooter Wines) was the matriarch of the club and ran it as if all the members were family. Personal service with a smile and a hug. Huge knowledge of wines and of Penfolds wines, their history, vintages, you know the drill. Well the day she left, the place fell down around their ears and customer service went out the window.

Many members have now left. Why. No customer service. Discounts of $20% now cut to 15% and the 20% was a standing discount to members, now its only available on the day of the event/tasting or if they give you a special offer. These offers used to come thick and fast, now, they are rare.

Members received membership cards each year, Penfolds wrote to us and engage with us as loyal customers. Now your lucky to get an email, no members cards anymore and the number of organised functions has dropped away to a few. Members who changed email addresses were not notified of club changes and were not written too, to see if they wanted to continue their membership which resulted in many frustrated members now left or leaving the club.

Big promises recently received and the club is now called the Kalimna Club  but little has eventuated. Lots of rhetoric and little else. Elevated wine prices way beyond what the average Australian can pay, so what's the point in remaining as a member. Nil.

Members are voting with their feet and their wallets which is sad as its such an icon winery, now reserved for those on 6 figure salaries who can still afford to purchase the wines. My money will be spent purchasing from the well priced, the boutique and 'little guys' who still remember how to give value for money and good customer service.


From Chris H: Wednesday 3 December

Pretty moronic treatment really, especially as Murray would have been known to anyone at Penfolds (Fosters) who had half an interest in fine wine and kept track of consumer comments.

Makes the rest of us who have older Granges wonder about what sort of treatment we will get if one of ours is corked - certainly doesn't inspire me to buy more fine wine from them with that sort of attitude.


Copyright © Ric Einstein 2008