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Resisting change: What's new?

Resisting change: What's new?

Recent heated discussion of the possible benefits of synthetic wine-bottle closures or even metal screw caps instead of the natural cork suggests a look at the pages of history: Have wine consumers ever been in a situation like this before?

Well, yes.

For most of the millennia following the Bronze Age discovery that fermented grape juice made a tasty beverage, wine had to be kept in barrels or vats - sometimes protected from the air by a pool of olive oil floating on its surface - and consumed promptly. Once a ration was drawn from the vat into a leather bag or clay pot, it had to be drunk up within days or even hours, before it turned to vinegar. Handmade pottery jugs, then glass bottles eventually came along, usually closed with a wad of cloth covered with sealing wax.

About 400 years ago, someone came up with a brilliant idea: A way to close a glass bottle so tightly that the wine inside would keep longer than anyone had thought possible.

The cork? No. Although corks were being used as stoppers in Shakespeare's time, the high-tech 17th century wine closure was an apothecary-style glass stopper - called a "stoppel" in English - ground by hand using emery powder and oil. Stoppels were so precisely formed that they had to be made individually, and came attached to the bottle with a bit of thread to ensure that each bottle and its stoppel would stay together.

According to Hugh Johnson's "Vintage, the Story of Wine," consumers of that era apparently viewed the natural cork with the same disdain that many people today hold for synthetic corks or screw caps.

"Stoppers of ground glass made to fit the bottle neck snugly held their own for a remarkably long time," Johnson wrote. "It is clear from Worlidge's 'Treatise of Cider', published in 1676, that great care was needed in choosing good corks, 'much liquor being absolutely spoiled through the only defect of the cork. Therefore are glass stoppels to be preferred ... ' "

As late as 1825, he reports, when some of the wines of Chateau Lafite were still closed with glass stoppels, this alternative was still considered "the ultimate luxury bottle stopper."

Many experts of the era believed that cork was an inadequate closure because it allowed air to reach the wine and spoil it; in fact, Johnson said, the issue of "corkiness" was not yet understood, and what early wine enthusiasts took to be spoilage by air was more likely "cork taint."

The cork eventually supplanted the stoppel after years of resistance, partly because of cost but mostly, apparently, because a well-made stopper was so tight that it was often impossible to remove it without breaking the bottle.

A newfangled technology is proposed, but tradition holds so strongly that most consumers are loath to embrace it. Sound familiar?

Johnson's "Vintage" is out of print, sadly. But if you like reading about wine history, you might enjoy a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's "Origins and Ancient History of Wine,"


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Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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