Lay your fears to rest and discover new life with screwcaps
For centuries, cork has been the preferred closure for virtually all of the world's great wines, and most of the not-so-great. It's natural, pliable and attractive. Once pulled, a cork can easily be pushed back into a bottle to prevent spillage, ward off fruit flies or save the good stuff for later. Corks may be stamped with interesting information, sniffed for tell-tale signs of an "off" wine (more on this in a moment) and saved as souvenirs.
So what's wrong with corks?
In a word (a very long word): 2,4,6 trichloroanisole; or TCA as it is commonly known. Though the billion-dollar cork industry insists it "taint" so, the problem of TCA, which gives wines a disagreeable musty odor, is thought to affect roughly 5 percent of all wines.
The problem of corked wines goes well beyond the inconvenience (and expense) of finding the occasional bottle whose bark worsens its bite. Even in low concentrations, TCA can dampen a wine's natural fruit and flavor. How many lightly corked bottles are mistaken for inferior wine when, in fact, the cork was the problem?
This is why wineries and others have been investing huge sums to develop alternative closures. Several manufacturers produce plastic corks or corks composed of cellulose. A few have tried crown caps (like beer bottles) and some California producers are promoting a twist-off "Metacork."
But in the opinion of many producers, most wine writers and an increasing number of wine retailers, the hands-down winner is the screwcap, often referred to as the Stelvin closure. The screwcap must win on pragmatic grounds, for it surely loses to the cork where tradition and aesthetics count the most. In fact, the surest way to identify a wine snob these days is to ask for an opinion on screwcapped wines. Count the wrinkled noses in the crowd and you'll know where the snobs are.
Nonetheless, the screwcap appears to work quite well at protecting the wine. Accusations that wines won't age under a screwcap are now being contested, with studies and experts pointing to the fact that they will age, if given the chance.
Screwcaps are easy to open. They require no extra tools; they don't balk at resealing the bottle, as plastic corks often do; they don't leak. Best of all, they no longer signify that a wine is inferior.
These days you'll find screwcaps on a variety of wines from around the world.
The revolution has been led by the Australians, who bottle many of their rieslings this way. Not far behind are the New Zealanders, putting some of their finest sauvignon blancs under screwcaps.
In California, Plumpjack made headlines by announcing it would offer its best reds in screwcaps, having tried plastic corks with no success. "I saw servers breaking the necks off of the bottles trying to extract the synthetics," general manager John Conover told me recently. "So I looked at screwcaps." The changeover wasn't easy, requiring special bottles, different bottling equipment and ongoing consumer education.
More recently, Sonoma-Cutrer and Bonny Doon have begun offering their best wines in screwcaps. Bonny Doon's intense, delicious Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style red wine, Le Cigare Volant, is now bottled "en screwcap," and last year the winery staged a series of events celebrating the death of the cork with all-black food and eulogies (see the Web site at www.deathofthecork.com).
In Oregon, WillaKenzie Estate and Argyle are promoting a corkless future. WillaKenzie is bottling 15 percent of its wines with screwcaps, testing the waters for consumer acceptance, while explaining that "we believe this is the only alternative which gives the customer 12 bottles in every case that taste the same."
There is little doubt that screwcaps will gain acceptance as more and more quality wines use them. At the same time, there is not even a remote chance that corks will disappear, nor would I want them to. But as someone who pulls about 5,000 corks a year, I believe that screwcaps are the best alternative and may ultimately prove to be the better closure overall.
In fact, I'll go way out on a limb and tell you that, should you encounter a screwcapped offering from Australia, New Zealand or any respected American winery, the odds are that the wine inside will be as good as or better than any of its cork-topped peers.
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.
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