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Many a wine lovers has been there. You’re hankering for that glass of merlot, but the minute you take a sip…you just know something’s wrong.

Whether you're at home or out at a restaurant, deciphering exactly what is off can be difficult.

Should you risk incurring the wrath of the sommelier or wine merchant by sending the wine back? Or do you just have to grin and suffer through a bad bottle? 

Here are three ways to tell if your wine has actually gone bad and what to do about it.

  • 1. The wine looks “off”

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    You can tell a lot about a wine by its color. Light-bodied white wines like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio should be clear with a very pale, light yellow color which indicates the wine is fresh, vibrant and ready to drink. Chardonnay, or other white wines that have been treated with oak, may be slightly darker in color than other varietals. 

    But if you notice your white wine has a deep golden color, or any browning, it may be a sign the wine is either old or oxidized. While some white wines can age (i.e. white burgundy), this may tip you off to a flaw in your wine.

    Red wines vary in color from translucent ruby red to deep opaque purple, so if you notice any brownish or rust colors this could mean the wine has either aged, not always a bad thing, or it has oxidized. If you ordered a fairly recent vintage (within the last five to 10 years) you shouldn’t notice any drastic changes in color.

    Also, if you see small bits of cork floating in your wine – don’t panic! This doesn’t mean the wine is bad or “corked.” As wines age, their corks can dry out and crumble when opened. While it’s possible the wine may be oxidized, always smell and take a small sip it before drawing any final conclusions. You don’t want to miss out on a fabulous bottle because of a few errant and easily strainable cork particles.

  • 2. The wine smells “funky”

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    When smelling a glass of wine, look to inhale enticing aromas of fruit, herbs and spices. In old world wines, you may even detect musky notes of earth or mushroom-- but what if our nostrils are met with aromas of barnyard or wet dog?

    When you detect funky aromas in wine, always swirl the glass to infuse some oxygen into the liquid before tasting it. Sometimes these peculiar smells will dissipate when exposed to air and the wine will taste just fine.  down a bad bottle. Different smells can mean different things.

    Aromas of moldy cardboard or wet dog can indicate a wine is “corked” due to a pesky compound found in the cork itself. When airborne fungi come into contact with cork and create a substance known as TCA, the result is a wine will taste as horrible as it smells and should be discarded and replaced by the restaurant or wine store (free of charge!) with a new bottle of the same or different wine. Aromas of barnyard or sweaty saddle can indicate the presence of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that, at low concentrations, is considered a desirable, stylistic trait in certain wines.

    Due to the various causes of funky aromas, never write off a wine on smell alone. Sometimes a funky smelling wine can taste great and really surprise you.

  • 3. The wine tastes…bad

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    Sometimes those “off” colors and funky aromas do, in fact, mean your wine is flawed. And by flawed I mean there is something chemically wrong with the bottle, not that you just don’t like the taste. So if your wine tastes bad or “off,” don’t hesitate to consult your sommelier or wine merchant.

    A simple statement such as, “This wine tastes “off” to me, what do you think?” can go a long way to ensuring an optimal vinous experience. Nine times out of ten, a bad bottle will be replaced immediately. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with a very old, expensive bottle. In this case, guidance from a professional can go a long way to accurately managing your expectations.

    The bottom line is neither your sommelier nor wine merchant wants you to suffer through a bottle of spoiled wine-- they want you to enjoy every last drop, and come back for more bottles. They also won’t want to risk a negative review on Yelp, TripAdvisor or any other social media platform so, when in doubt, speak up and embrace the opportunity to learn and, most importantly, empower your palate.

Stephanie Miskew is a certified sommelier, wine educator and proprietor of The Wine Atelier, an online wine boutique.  She also runs the The Glamorous Gourmet, a website dedicated to wine and entertaining.