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Research at Conrad N. Hilton College Aims to Reduce Tainted Wine

HOUSTON—You don’t have to be a wine expert to know when you’ve uncorked a bad bottle. But what you might not know is, that notorious “wet dog” smell has nothing to do with the wine itself—it’s likely the result of chemicals transmitted to the wine by a tainted cork.

Research indicates as many as four out of 10 bottles of wine are ruined by tainted corks, resulting in global losses of more than $10 billion annually.

It’s a significant issue that can have a major impact on restaurants and wine retailers here and abroad—and one that can only increase as consumption of wine continues to climb. That’s why researchers at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management have devised a way to eliminate those tainted corks.

Experiments conducted by Hilton College Lecturer Aaron Corsi and Associate Professor Jay Neal indicate that tainted wines can be eliminated in a cost-effective and relatively simple fashion: Cork producers can sterilize their products using electron-beam irradiation.

“The most common chemical responsible for taint is 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is transmitted to wine via contaminated cork, wood barrels or other winery surfaces,” Corsi said. “Once a wine is tainted, there’s no way to fix it. So we focused on reducing or eliminating the most common molds known to cause TCA on corks.”

Corsi and Neal inoculated the four most popular kinds of cork used by manufacturers with six different molds known to produce TCA, and then treated those corks with electron-beam irradiation. After an incubation period, they found no sign of the molds, and the corks maintained their structural integrity.

E-beam irradiation, which uses high-energy electrons to destroy pathogenic microorganisms, mold and spoilage bacteria, has already been approved by the FDA for use on food products like ground beef, poultry and spices.

“While any wine-drinker can identify the off-putting aroma and taste of tainted wine, most are likely unaware of TCA and the role it plays in that phenomenon. Instead, their experience with tainted wine can lead them to make negative judgments about the quality of individual wineries’ products, and even the restaurants that serve them,” Corsi said. “By eliminating the molds that cause TCA through e-beam irradiation, we can reduce that negative experience for consumers and the negative impact it has on the industry.”

Taylor Wiley