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Cooperage dogs

A Labrador retriever from TN Coopers hunts for the source of cork taint-causing compounds. 

North Coast wineries and coopers may soon have a new line of defense against dreaded cork taint: former drug sniffing dogs from Chile.

The musty bane of the industry, cork taint spoils wines from the highest prices to the lowest by way of chemical compounds that leave a “corked” wine with aromas of damp newspaper, wet dog, moldy basement, and so on. Generally speaking, the culprit compounds 2,4,6- trichloroanisol and 2,4,6-tribromoanisal, or TCA and TBA, are the unpleasant fallout when chlorine mingles with fungi or mold.

While corks are often the vehicle for passing TCA or TBA into otherwise healthy wines, the compounds can make their way into many other steps of the winemaking process. They’re also indiscriminate, a threat to wines from any producer at any price.

One recent case saw TCA claim nearly 600 gallons of pricey Cabernet Sauvignon from Opus One, which blamed 10 contaminated barrels from a cooperage dealing in French oak. In turn, the winery is now seeking upwards of $470,000 from its barrel supplier.

Prevention in wineries and cooperages typically involves atmospheric traps that can detect any airborne TCA menacing a space. The harder problem then becomes finding the source.

So one cooperage is going to the dogs.

“The basic chemical way that the wine laboratories do it right now is sort of somewhat limited,” claimed Michael Peters, sales manager at the Sonoma outpost of TN Coopers. When using atmospheric traps, Peters said, “It’s kind of like hanging a fly trap or something. You’ll hang that up and then you’ll test it just to see if there’s TCA around somewhere. So it’s very inconclusive.”

Based in Santiago, Chile, TN Coopers has used Labrador retrievers for the better part of a decade to hunt down the elusive spots where TCA and TCB begin, from drains to wood and conspicuous spaces in between.

Starting with Ambrosia and Odysé, two retrievers with backgrounds in drug-sniffing, Peters said, the company has since grown its four-legged staff to five (with Moro, Zamba and Mamba) and its reach to wineries throughout Chile and Argentina.

“It’s incredible … they’re trained methodically to work in kind of a certain way, although they have different personalities,” Peters said. “They’re able to detect down to very small levels … and sniff out the issue.”

The dogs begin each day with training for an hour to an hour and a half, Peters said. With their work divided into sections, the Labs can scour through any size facility.

“It doesn’t matter the size or the scope as long as they’re with a handler and their trainer who works with them every day,” Peters said. “They work in their own particular way through the area they have to search and they’ll find it either way, whether they’re super methodical from our eyes or they just have their own method. They cover all the ground and will find it eventually.”

Now, the company is looking to grow its reach again, this time bringing its Labs north. Hoping to gain clients in the North Coast wine country, the cooperage plans to demonstrate their canines’ craft for interested clients in early summer. Details of dates and dogs have yet to be decided, Peters said.

“After the Opus One thing,” he said, “we’re really trying to prevent it at our own facility and if we can help wineries prevent it at their facilities, then it’s a win-win for everybody.”

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Wine Reporter / Copy Editor

Henry Lutz covers the local wine industry. He has been a reporter and copy editor for the Register since 2016.