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Pacific Northwest | November 28, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 28, home Home delivery

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AMONG THE LITTLE-KNOWN occupational hazards of wine writing is Cork Puller's Wrist (CPW). As yet, there is no support group for sufferers of this pernicious, career-threatening affliction, but there is hope. As one savvy winemaker recently told me, "Fifty years from now there won't be any corks. We'll have wine stoppers that haven't even been invented yet."

Unfortunately, in 50 years I won't be pulling corks. I'll be pushing daisies.

Meanwhile, the problem is a real one. Apart from their other issues, corks are difficult to remove. In a young wine, recently bottled, they can be jammed in so tightly that it requires the strength of Schwarzenegger to rip them untimely from the bottle's womb. In an older wine, they can break or crumble, leaving you with a real mess in your glass. Plastic corks are even worse: difficult to remove, equally difficult to push back in the bottle.

 It's been noted that if wine didn't require a special tool to open, it might have much broader, beer-like appeal. In fact, the growing popularity of screwcaps on wine is certainly a plus, unless you are a sommelier, whose business it is to infuse the table service with a little pomp and ceremony.

The angst inspired by screwcaps among the long-suffering sommelier community is almost heart-breaking. There is now a corkscrew being marketed that grips the screwcap like a vise, so the sommelier can pretend to be doing something beyond, well, unscrewing it.

Cork Puller's Wrist — my particular demon — is no different from any repetitive-stress injury. The twisting/yanking motion required to extract a cork, when repeated hundreds of times a month, year after year, wears you down. The solution, apart from screwcaps, is to own the right tool.

The modern age has brought some excellent improvements to tried-and-true cork-pullers. Even if you are opening just a couple of bottles a week, you will thank yourself endlessly for investing in a corkscrew that does its job well.

First, take a good, hard look at whatever wretched piece of gear you are currently using. Be honest about it. Was it passed down from your grandmother? Is it made entirely of cheap plastic? Is it one of those wing jobs with a metal screw thick enough to drill a hole in the Empire State Building? Whatever you've got, look for the telltale sign of tool failure: shredded cork bits in your wine. Think of it as a drill bit that has simply worn out.

Now, let's find something better. Although there are endless variations on corkscrews, just a few can be termed essential; the rest are curios. If you are looking for something all-purpose, go with the waiter's corkscrew (the type that looks a bit like a folded pocketknife). Virtually all wine shops and tasting rooms sell them, often imprinted with a logo. You can find a perfectly good one for less than $10.

Look for one that has a Teflon-coated "worm" (the screw part) and a double hinge, which gives added leverage when pulling extra-long corks. Test it out in your hand to make sure it has a good ergonomic feel. Some are too thin and some too thick for comfort; you'll know a good one because it will just feel right, like a good pocketknife.

 At Seattle Cellars on Second Avenue, owner Dave Woods carries a variety of corkscrews.

If you want something really fancy, made with exotic wood or horn handles, you can easily spend $150 or more (Château Laguiole and Forge de Laguiole are two good brands). More affordable and yet particularly good is the Archimedes waiter's corkscrew that sells for around $20. Though it is not double-hinged, it is solidly built and has an exceptionally powerful foil-cutter that looks as if it could saw through a small tree. It's very stylish, too.

I do not like cheap metal cork-pullers with wings that flip up. They generally rip, tear and shred rather than pull corks. Tabletop cork-pullers, on the other hand, can be excellent. They cost just slightly more than waiter's models, and offer more stability and ease of use. In general they work by slipping a plastic sheath over the bottle top, which then anchors the handle and guides the screw. Twist the handle and the screw slides into the cork; continue twisting and the cork pulls gently out.

Variations on this basic motif are easily found and priced from $5 on up. Look again for a thin, Teflon worm and a plastic sheath that has some "give" to it so it won't snap. The newest wrinkle is Screwpull's double-helix model, with a red ball built into the screw so that you can easily push the cork off the spiral with a reverse turn of the handle. It sells for around $25.

A big step up in convenience are the lever-style corkscrews. These have proliferated in recent years, as the original patent-holder lost exclusive manufacturing rights. Engineered to insert the worm, pull the cork and release the cork in two quick pulls of the handle, they offer the easiest and fastest in-home methods for opening wine bottles.

However, having tried at least half a dozen of the cheaper imitations (some sell for as little as $15 or $20), I have yet to find any that work as well as the $100 original, again from Screwpull. The cheaper brands I have used, though they look and feel solid enough, are poorly balanced, mechanically rough and quickly become quite difficult to work. The widely advertised Rabbit model has not done well for me, either, despite repeated trials. The ones I have owned have suffered from loose connections, failed worms and handles that break after just a few hundred uses. Enough to make those screwcaps look downright irresistible.

Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column in The Seattle Times and teaches wine-tasting seminars. He can be contacted at Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.


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