Sunday, November 18, 2012

If You're Cheap, I say Get Screwed

To Cork or to Screw?  A matter of romance.

Romance? Stigma? Centuries old tradition?  Or simply the sound of the "pop"?  What is holding back the wine industry from embracing the screwcap, oh...I'm sorry "Stelvin Closure" the standard method to close wine bottles?  Or at a minimum, inexpensive wine! 

Yes, we've all been there. You buy that Brunello  Riserva, that Grand Cru Burgundy, or that First Growth Bordeaux. You tuck it in your cellar until your 50th birthday, or your 25th anniversary, or your daughters 21st - you take it to a nice restaurant and "pop"....out comes the cork and all you smell is mold, wet newspapers, dirty gym socks and must.  What should have been one of the best wines of your life is an undrinkable mess.  I fully agree to a fault, as an experienced wine drinker, this is a chance I'm willing to take.  Why? Because I like tradition, but that's not all. Read on.

Bacterially tainted cork ruins wines without discrimination. Some acute tasters claim the rate of fault is as high as 20%. Wine producers can't see it, smell it, or detect it without fail. It's a natural thing and it's not their fault. But it can, at least to some limited degree, be limited or avoided. 

So if that's the case, then why take the chance?  First of all, I admit - sappy as though it may be, I love, not like, but love the ritual of uncorking a bottle. I like to peel the capsule, drive the corkscrew and hear that distinctive pop. But furthermore, cork has been the accepted closure for fine wine for years. Not a few years, but millenia.  All that experience can't be for naught, can it?  In order for ageable wine to mature properly, a certain degree of oxygen must be allowed to slowly pass from the bottle's cocoon like environment to the world beyond.  How much of this occurs?  Beats me.  But modern enological wisdom agrees that it happens.  That special Bordeaux has no chance of becoming what you'd hoped for and cellared for 30 years if it's bottled under an air-tight screw cap.  I want wines like that because I've been fortunate enough to taste many. They are special and they transcend beverage as bottled history.  I'm willing to take the chance. And yes, I've been burned before.  

But that brings me to the instant argument.  You find a nice wine - something under $10 whose sole purpose is to provide foil to that piping hot pizza or comforting pasta.  (think Casamatta) Why bottle wines like this with corks? Why take the chance that a wine might be ruined by cork taint.  You like these wines. They're staples.  They're case purchasable and they become "house reds" & "house whites". They're the hamburgers to the filet mignons.  I don't want to worry about returning a corked $8 bottle of wine to retailer, because more often than not, it'll just go down the drain and I'll eat the cost.  The gas alone isn't worth the round trip.  

The identical premise applies to white wines.  95% of white wines, maybe even more, are made to be consumed within 1-3 years of being released. In other words, their entire charm relies on their youth. They aren't yearning for that osmosis like development that occurs with cork closed cellaring. So why bottle them with corks?  They are meant to be fresh, vibrant and provide foil to that fresh seafood catch or light Pesto.  More and more wineries are seemingly acquiescing to this notion. Dry Creek Vineyard has now moved to close their Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with screw caps.  I say Bravo!  And, in the rare event that an open bottle isn't finished, (it happens!)  it makes it much easier to store the leftovers in the fridge. 

So why won't all wineries bottle their inexpensive wines with screwcaps?  Well, cost and production issues aside, (I'm a wine writer, I can pretend they don't matter for a second) the simple answer can be divulged in the following anecdote and with one word:  "Lambruso".  What am I talking about?  Read on...

I was speaking to one of my friends in the wine industry last week.  I'll call him Q.  I gave him a call because I was at a local shop and I noticed a wine he sells that I'll call X.  The shop had two vintages of X displayed side by side on the shelf, the 2009 and the 2010.   This was a young red, and I took pleasure in noting that the 2009 was screw capped but I got confused when the 2010 was closed with a cork.  I called Q up and I said, what gives? I would have suspected the opposite.   

He told me about the following analysis from their PR & Marketing firms.  More than 90% of "fine wine" is sold along both coasts of the United States.  In the middle of the country, the largest selling wine is Riunite Lambrusco.  A quick Google search reveals magnums selling for $6.  The bigger the bottle, the more it sells. It sells gallons, millions upon millions of gallons. The bottle of wine I saw at the local shop that generated my inquiry sells for the astronomical price of $9 per bottle.  So what's the problem I said?   The answer:  To most of the middle of the country, $9 per bottle is an extravagance.  It's an expensive, special occasion type of wine. It's not the hamburger, it IS the filet mignon and if they're going to spend $9 on a bottle of guessed it, they want to hear the "pop".   

Relativity being what it is,  I can't say I blame them.  There's romance there and I surely get it.  Fortunately for me, and apparently those of us living on one of the US coasts, we're equally lucky to occasionally get screwed.... 



  1. John, "To most of the middle of the country, $9 per bottle is an extravagance. It's an expensive, special occasion type of wine. It's not the hamburger, it IS the filet mignon and if they're going to spend $9 on a bottle of guessed it, they want to hear the "pop". " (not sure if my comment is appropriate to your post) but it is no surprise, and I see it almost every day in the super market. Two days ago one store manager told me that the bin-bulk wines were flying out of the store (so maybe not such a special occasion wine as you presume), but the cork thing is a surprise; I'm glad that a sense of tradition can still be demonstrated around the dinner table or the park bench with a bottle of Riunite Lambrusco. I'll have to get a bottle and see what all the fuss is about!
    Oh John, best essay on cork closures I've yet read!

  2. Dennis - thanks for the thoughts. The one thing I didn't mention is that some people are more sensitive to cork taint than others. But I know people who can smell it in a wine from feet away without even tasting it. It's got to be pretty bad for me to notice, but it has happened to me on many occasions.

    Screwcaps are convenient in lots of ways. This summer, it was easy to take wine out on the boat and not worry about corking or uncorking or leaking in the cooler....

    But as I say, we're lucky to see the best of both worlds and while I think screwcaps will increase, I don't think they'll ever replace corks as the closure of choice on premium wines.

  3. I'll never forget being at a tasting that my old retailer hosted featuring Brian Loring. One of the guests spoke up and said he didn't care for screw caps because they lacked the romanticism of removing a natural cork. To this, Brian said (I'm paraphrasing here): "With all due respect sir, if pulling the cork out is what you most remember about the bottle of wine, then you need to be drinking other wines."

    I wouldn't mind it if all corks went away. I don't want them in my cheap daily drinkers or the expensive stuff that I'm laying down.

  4. Bill, interesting comments by Brian. I admit, I'd love to have zero chance of cork taint, and would give up the "romance" factor if that were true. But I wonder if we'd get the same product, that same aged wine, without the slow oxidative quality that cork seems to allow? If that weren't partially true, at least, no winemakers would use wood barrels. They'd just use metal and wash them each vintage. Wood allows aging wine to breathe and I think the same is true, to a much lesser degree, of cork.