Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
September 2004 A New Twist on Wine
So have you broken down and bought a bottle of wine with a screw cap on it? Come on, admit it - that's a little too retro-college-throwback for you. After all, you're a sophisticated wine lover, with all the culinary savoir faire and disposable income that implies. The traditional rituals of dinner are an important part of the civilized lifestyle you have fashioned for yourself. The sounds "eek eek eek!" don't conjure up Hitchcockian showers so much as the image of your pearl-handled Laguiole corkscrew prying open a blood-red Gevrey-Chambertin.
Yet if you've spent much time in wine stores lately you've probably noticed the screw caps on more and more bottles - the 750 ml ones, too, not just the jugs you never look at anyway. I first wrote about screw caps in WineLine two years ago, when they began popping up on trendy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Bonny Doon, California's most iconoclastic winery, began using them on its Big House Ca' del Solo wines. A year later, Doon's Randall Grahm moved his entire line to the new closure and proclaimed the death of the cork. This spring, Pepi winery, owned by Kendall-Jackson, and RH Phillips, owned by the Canadian megawine giant Vincor, announced they were switching to screw caps. Hogue Cellars, a Washington-state winery also owned by Vincor, followed suit in June with 70 percent of its line. BeringerBlass uses them on some of its Wolf Blass and Annie's Lane wines from Australia and has dabbled in screw caps for some of its California product. Villa Maria, one of New Zealand's largest wineries and a cork holdout, capitulated (so to speak) in July, announcing that it would begin bottling its wines with the twist-off closure. Australia's Penfolds followed suit with its popular, value-priced Koonunga Hills wines.
Some other domestic names sporting the new caps: Argyle, Fetzer, the Three Thieves mini-jugs, and Murphy-Goode for its Tin Roof label. Don Sebastiani, of the famous winemaking clan, is marketing a new line of wines called Screw Kappa Napa. U.S. bottling companies - including one owned by Gallo - are marketing screw cap closures to compete with the French-made Stelvin brand.
Face it folks. This is more than the gentrification of Skid Row. Screw cap closures are here to stay, and more and more wineries are using them as they discover that consumers aren't the knee-jerk reactionary cork dorks they thought we were. (Well, enough of us aren't, anyway.)
You can tell this isn't a passing fad by the expensive advertisements cork producers are running in wine magazines. It's no coincidence either that cork is the new trend in flooring, as the industry looks for other markets. Wine Enthusiast catalog is even selling cork furniture for goodness sake.
So what's behind all this? Cork taint. Trichloranisole, to be exact. TCA is a chemical compound that infects a small percentage of cork bark during the cleaning process. All but undetectable, when present in a cork it can render a wine dull or outright obnoxious (think wet basement, or moldy cardboard). Winemakers estimate that as many as 5-10 percent of all bottles are affected by cork taint. Robert Parker, in the October issue of Food and Wine magazine, puts the number of contaminated bottles at 15 percent; that seems ridiculously high to me, but then he tastes ridiculously more wines than I do. Reputable wine stores and restaurants will replace a corked bottle, but that's a hassle for all involved (especially the consumer). And wineries know that many consumers will not recognize the problem, concluding instead that they simply do not like that wine. That means lost business.
Reaction to cork taint fueled a boom in synthetic corks during the 1990s, but plastic corks proved untrustworthy (allowing wines to oxidize quickly), and composite closures could still harbor the taint. That's why more and more wineries are deciding to buck the Skid Row image and go with the screw cap.
Don't throw away your corkscrews just yet, though. Two factors will keep this trend in check somewhat. First, we don't know exactly what effect the screw caps will have on the aging potential of wine. The Hogue Cellars recently released the results of an experiment in which they tasted two wines at six-month intervals that had been kept under natural cork, two brands of synthetic corks and two types of screw caps.
They concluded that screw caps kept the wines fresher over the 30 months of the experiment, while the synthetics allowed the wines to oxidize. The wines bottled with natural cork showed "low to medium levels of cork taint." Suggestive, to be sure, but unlikely to convince top Bordeaux producers to abandon cork. So far, the screw cap closures are being used predominantly on wines for early consumption anyway.
The second restraining factor is the cost to the wineries. Bottling lines are a significant investment - if you've ever toured small wineries in Europe, you've probably noticed the pride with which winemaker after winemaker wants to show you his bottling line. (They are about as interesting as the cement vats, if more animated.) A Finger Lakes winemaker recently told me it would cost him more than $70,000 to switch to screw caps. That's an investment few small wineries can afford to make. Vincor and Kendall-Jackson are giant corporations, after all, and Bonny Doon is not exactly small.
As screw caps catch on, costs may come down, and wineries will eventually have to replace worn-out bottling lines. Some day, our favorite corkscrews will migrate from our kitchen drawers to our curio shelves, alongside the LPs and videocassettes, artifacts of a lifestyle our grandchildren will struggle to comprehend.
Better make your trivets now.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.