ON THE VINE: CORKS VS. SCREW CAPS

What’s your closure?

corksVscrewCaps
The author, Toby Rowland-Jones, contemplates the debate.

By Toby Rowland-Jones
Photography by Michelle Magdalena

You know that magical moment: You’re having dinner with valued friends—perhaps even celebrating a holiday or another special occasion. A delicious bottle of something utterly lovely, old and definitely rare has been pulled from the cellar. It has been well-cared for and kept at a perfect temperature. The foil is removed delicately without overly shaking the bottle or the sediment at the bottom. The long screw disappears into the bottle and then, slowly and reverently, the slightly agestained bark of Quercus suber is pulled out with a very soft pop. The cork is removed gracefully from the screw, and you examine it. Nothing terribly wrong—it’s not broken or crumbly as happens with older corks, and the stain only goes halfway up.

The glass is lifted; your dinner companions await your approval. The inhale, and, there it is! That rank, foul wet cardboard aroma you despise so much. “Bugger,” you mutter, “it’s corked.” The dreaded microbial fungi TCA (2,4,6 Trichloroanisole) has struck again, finding its way into the bottle and destroying the wine. “Oh, well, there are other wines. Let’s try something I know will not fail.”

Moments later, after a quick trip to the cellar, cradled in your hand is not a vintage Bordeaux, but a gorgeous Talbott Diamond T Pinot Noir from Carmel Valley, with, gasp!, a screw cap! Your friends look at you sideways, but it’s fine, you assure them; this is the new wave, and we’re not getting screwed.

Nowadays, many vintners are using screw cap closures to protect their investment, sparking intense debates about the pros and cons of abandoning corks. Is this just a fad? Something that will come and go like pet rocks?

In researching this story, I spoke to a number of winemakers, sommeliers and consumers. Despite being told bluntly by some that corks have no future in the wine industry, others argued that the inverse is true, and that the cork—in some form—is here to stay.

In the past, corks have been, and will most likely continue to be, prone to flaws, allowing TCA into the bottle. TCA is a virulent little bastard and can potentially infect an entire winery, meaning that in rare cases, everything has to be taken out and deep-cleaned. There are ways to remove TCA, such as pouring wine into a bowl with some polyethylene plastic wrap lining it—the TCA aroma disappears as it adheres to the plastic. But needing to “clean” your wine with plastic wrap arguably defeats the romance and tradition of pulling a cork. Enter the screw cap, which was developed and tested in the late 1960s in both Switzerland and Australia.

In Switzerland, winemakers used screw caps to protect a notoriously TCA-prone wine—Chasselas. In Australia, the public first turned away from screw caps, causing them to largely be shelved, until later embracing them fully in the 1990s. They now enjoy a more than 75% consumer acceptance rate.

Using a number of interior finishes—plastic, rubber, cork and even paper—there is an ease and simplicity to screw caps that some say undermines the “sophistication” of opening a cork-finished bottle, yet even the most accomplished sommelier has difficulties with hard-topull corks or those that crumble due to age.

Dan Karlsen, the deeply respected winemaker at Talbott Vineyards and his own Chock Rock Vineyard, converted all of his wines to a screw cap finish after a substantial amount of research into the issue.

“Due to the fact that every cork seeps air at significantly different rates, which bottle are they referring to when they make age-ability predictions? It’s a joke, not to mention full-blown fraud to our consumers,” Karlsen says. “The Australian wine commission has repeated studies which show cork defect to be consistently 20% randomly oxidized within 24 months and 5% TCA (corked).”

As one local winemaker put it: Imagine spending years and stupid amounts of money on putting in vineyards, getting the right clones, managing the crops, pruning, tending, picking, fermenting, bottling and then shoving an old piece of tree bark into the bottle? It didn’t make sense to him, and it certainly doesn’t to the many wineries now eschewing corks.

The revered and brilliant Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard started using Stelvin caps back in 1999. And with his highly theatrical “Death of the Cork” campaign, he quickly found acceptance from consumers.

“In the dark years of the last century, the quality of corks was exceptionally dreadful, and people were reporting as much as a 10–12% incidence of cork taint, which was thoroughly unacceptable. For a few years, we had adopted a product called SupremeCorq, a synthetic closure, for which I had great hopes but ultimately found that many of the wines that we had bottled were showing premature signs of age.” Today, all Bonny Doon wines are closed with screw caps.

“Cork’s a natural product and aesthetically more pleasing. [It] possibly has a lesser carbon footprint. I personally love the aesthetic of corks, but I do like old things (cars, etc.), and of course I want to do the right thing for the planet,” Grahm says. “But I realized that my primary allegiance has to be to the integrity of the wine, and I felt that the screw cap closure is the best technical closure available at this time.”

Noted wine critic Robert Parker agrees that screw caps are a necessity. “Stelvin, the screw cap of choice, will become the standard for the majority of the world’s wines. The one exception will be great wines meant to age for 20–30 years that will still be primarily cork finished— although even the makers of these wines may experience consumer backlash if the cork industry does not solve the problem of defective corks.”

Of course, the cork versus screw cap debate could go away entirely if the problem of defective corks were indeed solved, and many cork makers are trying.

A plethora of variations on the cork is now available—synthetic, rubber and reused/recycled cork. Glass stoppers are expensive and effective but require manual insertion, and at nearly 70 cents per unit, are not that financially feasible.

A newcomer getting a lot of attention is the expensive but highly effective Coravin, which allows tasting of very rare wines without pulling the cork. A thin needle is inserted into the bottle by which the wine flows out, and the remaining space is replaced by argon, an inert gas. This will let you keep an older rare wine alive for a long time, but personally speaking, I like to drink what I open!

Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton in the Santa Rita Hills area near Santa Barbara, uses a specially made Diam cork guaranteed to be 100% taint free with a money back assurance against leakage and failure. Clifton feels it’s about quality of presentation—it’s his personal and professional choice. Diam Corks, which are used by some local wineries including Parsonage, are natural cork blown apart into smaller components then cleaned with carbon dioxide held in a highly pressurized state that extracts more than 150 possible contaminants. The particles are then reassembled with perfect density throughout and with varying degrees of desired permeability.

“We have not had a tainted bottle in over seven years of use and hundreds of thousands of cases,” Clifton says.

Returning to our original dilemma—the formality and tradition of opening a cork-finished wine—Nathaniel Muñoz, formerly the sommelier at Aubergine in Carmel, now wine director at Rose Café- Restaurant in Venice, makes the point that what really matters ultimately is what’s good for the wine in the bottle.

“Simply judging a wine by its enclosure makes little sense. If a wine is in balance and is expressive of place and typicality, what does the enclosure matter? Well, it might matter to the guests at the table, especially if they are paying top dollar and are under the impression that screw caps denote less expensive wine. Yet, it only takes that 2 inches of wood to cripple all that effort.”

So, when your sommelier suggests something relatively expensive, and returns with a bottle featuring a screw cap, don’t worry. She’s ensuring that you’re going to enjoy a wine with no stinky issues. Yes, there won’t be the cork pulled as before and laid on the table for you to nervously play with all evening, but you’ll be subtly reminded that technology has overtaken a centuries-old practice, quite possibly for the better.

Toby Rowland-Jones is the founder of the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival as well as wine director/sommelier at Grasing’s in Carmel. He travels widely in search of great wines, with or without screw caps!

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