WineLine No. 19
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
May 19, 2002

"The Screwcaps are Coming! The Screwcaps are Coming!"

Sound the alert, oenogeeks! Our wine shelves are being attacked by an insidious invader that threatens to lay waste to one of the most cherished rituals of wine snobbery, something potentially as powerful as the BATF or the neo-Prohibs in driving us to drink in secrecy.

No, I am not speaking of Osama bin Laden, though this invader may indeed change the way we live. I speak of STELVIN!

Yes, dear friends, SCREWCAPS, once the hallmark of Skid Row and the cheap jug wines we chugged in college when we wanted to "step up" from even cheaper beer, are poised to appear on U.S. retail shelves in big numbers.

This is, of course, the latest attempt by the wine industry to avoid the dangers of cork taint, or 2,4,6-tricloroanisole, the chemical affliction that spoils as many as 5 percent of wines, according to some estimates. Plastic corks were an earlier attempt, but there is some backlash in the industry against them as difficult to pull from the bottle and unreliable as a long-term preserver of wine. Composite corks, a combination of plastic and real cork, apparently aren't the answer either. As one winemaker said to me, if you grind up an infected cork into the composite material, you're just going to spread the taint among a lot of bottles instead of ruining one.

The screwcap of choice in the industry is Stelvin, a French product that is making its way to our shores via Australia and New Zealand. (See how stealthy Stevin is coming at us through the antipodean back door!) Winemakers down under have gone for screwcaps in a big way, and earlier this year began using them on wines exported to Britain.

In the United States, the old-new closure got a burst of publicity three years ago when PlumpJack Winery used it on their reserve Cabernet Sauvignon a dramatic leap from Thunderbird to a $135 cult wine. But so far screwcaps haven't caught on here.

Until now. Bonny Doon Vineyard home of the great iconoclast Randall Grahm announced in early May that it will use the Stelvin on 80,000 cases of its 2001 Big House Red and Big House White wines when it bottles them in June. Do the math: That's 960,000 bottles of wine priced at about $10 to go into wide circulation. No novelty item here, like the PlumpJack reserve.

As Grahm defiantly crowed in his press release (the only one I've ever seen that used the word "crap," by the way ), "Let all of the faint-hearted, Lillet-livered enogoths take notice. En garde! Avant-garde! Arriere-garde! [derriere-garde?] Garde-manger!"

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that Grahm would be the first U.S. winemaker to delve into Stelvin in a big way. After all, it was he who redefined globalization by moving the Mosel to the Pacific Rim, and then put the front label on the back of the (see-through) bottle.

Now, if you're a long-time reader of Dave McIntyre's WineLine, you know that I agree with Grahm in his disdain for anything resembling wine snobbery. But I have to admit, I enjoy the ritual of pulling a cork from the bottle the feel of the corkscrew (unless it's one of those infernal angel-wing contraptions), the squeak of the worm entering the cork and the thirst-inducing "pop" when the cork is liberated from the bottle. It signals dinnertime, the family hour, an end to the day's work, the good life.

I also have my doubts that screwcaps will catch on in restaurants, which logically would be a prime market given the drawbacks of tainted wine. Wine when we eat out may be a given for most of us enthusiasts, but for the majority of diners it is part of a special occasion. The screwcap may be dumbing it down just a tad.

Those reservations aside, screwcaps have logic on their side. The key is winemaking, not wine packaging. And while we don't yet know how wines will age with screwcaps (a moot point with the Bonny Doon, since the Big House wines are meant for early consumption), there's every advantage to be had in doing away with cork taint. I've always been a skeptic of the 5 percent figure, but I do have a couple of recorked spoiled bottles in my basement that I never bothered returning to the store. That's an opportunity lost, for me and for the wineries.

I have only tried one wine bottled with the Stelvin screwcap: the Kim Crawford 2001 Unoaked Chardonnay from Marlborough, New Zealand, which is being marketed here in the United States with the new closure. The wine was obviously not in the bottle very long, but I can certainly testify that the screwcap did nothing to harm it. This wine should be a poster child for the anti-oak movement; perfectly ripe fruit yielding pear, peach and citrus flavors underlaid with a full, creamy texture from 100 percent malolactic fermentation. A super value at about $18 retail and an ideal complement to seafood, roast chicken or Asian dishes. Unfortunately, I was unable to test how the Stelvin worked on keeping leftovers, because I only thought that when I raised the bottle to drain the last drops and felt the threads for the cap on my lips.

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