Dogs detect ‘cork taint’ and other wine-related odors

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

sniffer dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Labrador retrievers are examples of dogs schooled in sniffing out chemicals like TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) and TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole) in wood barrels, which can harm the aroma of wine
  • The international barrel-making company TN Coopers in Chile’s Casablanca Valley relies on trained scent- and pest-detecting dogs as part of its dog-training and chemical- and pest-detecting endeavor known as the Natinga Project
  • Corks are one area of contamination, but contaminated wood used for barrel staves, plastic hoses, pumps and silicon bungs can even infect an entire wine cellar
  • A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than a human’s
  • Humans have inferior abilities when it comes to developing the “nose” for detecting undesirable elements in wine, although most people can pick up the scent of undesirable elements in concentrations of about 5 parts per trillion

You’ve heard of retrievers and pointers with superior instincts in field activities, and those trained to point to tell authorities where drugs or bombs are, as well as others that sense how to comfort people suffering from trauma.

Now there’s another skill dogs have been trained in, which could be as much about protecting the livelihoods of numerous businesses and jobs related to the wine-making industry as it is an impressive feat of canine noses. Two Labrador retrievers, Zamba and Mamba, are good examples of dogs schooled in how to sniff out chemicals like TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) and TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole), harmful compounds sometimes present in wood barrels.

International barrel-making company TN Coopers, located in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, relies on dogs as part of its dog-training, chemical- and pest-detecting endeavor known as the Natinga Project.

TCA, TBA and related compounds could contaminate both flavors and aromas of the wine destined to be stored in the barrels, which could spell a disaster for the company. The dogs are trained to distinguish the “musty, moldy, wet cardboard smell and taste” known as “cork taint,” and luckily, a little TCA goes a long way.

Michael Peters, resident winemaker and sales manager at the company’s Sonoma office, says it’s a good thing, because the problem could be widespread and potentially catastrophic. “It can also contaminate wood used for barrel staves, plastic hoses, pumps, silicon bungs [the stoppers in wine barrels], fining agents, and even infect an entire cellar.”1

Like bomb-sniffing dogs taught to make eye contact or sit the moment they detect substances authorities are trying to identify and eradicate, these dogs are exposed to the odors multiple times a day, and the training is ongoing. In fact, “A trainer works with them daily, and the dogs know it’s time for serious inspection when he slips on their black harnesses.”2

What qualifies dogs to detect harmful chemical compounds?

Humans have abilities when it comes to developing the “nose” for detecting undesirable elements in wine, from vineyard to table. However, comparatively, a dog’s perceptions are much more keen. According to Bloomberg, “A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human’s, thanks to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to our paltry 6 million.”3

In fact, dogs have a smelling sense that’s even more accurate than modern technology, Peters says. Among the many things dogs have been trained to do, some have been able to detect cancer in humans sooner than doctors.

The smell of prostate cancer, for instance, can be detected by dogs due to the “volatile, discernible signature in a man’s pee.” Prostate cancer has a long history of being difficult to detect, but a properly trained dog can detect it with more than 90% accuracy, according to Wired, which adds:

“Since about the early 2000s, an avalanche of findings has dramatically expanded our sense of what dogs can do with their noses. It started when researchers realized that canines can smell the early onset of melanoma.

Then it turned out they can do the same for breast cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and ovarian cancer. They can smell the time of day in the movement of air around a room; sense diabetic episodes hours in advance; and detect human emotional states in the absence of visual cues.”4

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Scent dogs, ‘artificial noses’ and mealy bugs

Physicists, scientists and others have been trying to figure out how they might devise robots with smell receptors, otherwise known as “artificial noses” similar to one created with comparable smell skills to those of dogs, but so far, the accuracy scent-detecting dogs possess can’t be touched.

For all the things scientists and law enforcement personnel have found trained dogs to be helpful with, including search dogs, therapy dogs and the floppy-eared dogs used by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents in airports, technology is not yet up to speed, although technology used in a controlled environment has come close.

“Essentially, machines don’t sniff very well. Dogs inhale and exhale about five times every second, through nostrils that route the intake and outward flow of breath through different channels.

All that snorting creates a pressure differential — a kind of smell vortex — that helps them pull a rich, new sample into their nose with each sniff. And while the Nano-Nose might be able to narrow its focus on a target scent, a dog’s ability to do so over great distances is stunning.”5

Pests and diseases that can destroy single vines and entire vineyards are another reason why dogs are trained to help at wineries, and to do so as quickly as possible because a problem can impact the financial prospects of growers, wine producers and everyone in between.

One example: A Napa winery sued a barrel supplier in France for more than $470,000 over 10 barrels of detectable TCA. That’s a lot of money until you figure that it equates to 590 gallons of cabernet selling for $325 per bottle — ruined. TN Coopers had a similar situation 10 years ago. The problem was traceable, but that’s when the company sought out the canine smellers.

How smell can help dogs detect multiple threats

Now, puppies are being trained to detect cork taint and other problems in wine cellars, barrels and related equipment. But on the vines themselves, mealy bugs can create havoc, as well. If not caught in time, the miniscule insects can ravage individual plants and move on to destroy more plants if growers aren’t vigilant.

German shepherds, Labs, golden retrievers and crosses of the above are being trained to detect the scent of female mealy bug pheromone, the scent they emit to signal mating availability. But they may be multitasking scent dogs that can learn to identify as many as 12 odors.

There’s hope for future successes with problems with yellow jackets that suck sugar from grapes, except that trainers need to figure out how to keep dogs from getting their noses stung.

Vineyard owners are also contending with the worst pest for grape vines, phylloxera, which annihilated vineyards in Europe in the 19th century and is currently an issue in Australia. It’s just one more area of interest for vineyard owners and trained scent dogs. Michael Honig, a winery owner in Napa, says using dogs to detect problems in wineries is an “organic” solution, noting, “If you get the bugs early, you can easily treat it without blanketing the vineyard with pesticides.”6

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