|illustration by Bwana Spoons|
There's a movement afoot to eradicate the cork and replace it with a screw top. You read that right: a screw top. The same cap that holds shut a fifth of Jim Beam and a pint of Ripple is now being considered as the next big thing by vintners around the globe.
How can this be? Like all waves of invention, this one crests at the intersection of quality and commerce. As long as there's been wine, there's been the need to store it. Since the first person stuffed a piece of cork bark in a container to protect wine, cork has been the method of choice. Sure, you can get plonk in a bag or a box, but wine of any merit has always had a cork in the end of the bottle.
But just because cork has history doesn't mean it's the ideal solution. Cork comes with the possibility of cork taint. This happens when TCA (scientific name 2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a chemical used in the processing of cork bark into wine corks, gets left on the cork and the residue contaminates the wine. At its mildest, TCA can mute a wine's aromatics and flavor; at its worst, it imparts a powerful musty scent that smells like damp cardboard. Unfortunately, many neophyte wine drinkers don't realize that their wine is affected and simply decide they don't like it--another potential customer lost because of a bad cork. Any decent wine shop will refund or replace a tainted-cork bottle, and at the end of the day, the winery foots the bill. Depending on whose numbers you go by, wineries lose roughly 7 percent of their wines each year to cork taint. In any other industry, a write-off this big would be unacceptable, yet winemakers seemed to have no other option.
There is another alternative to traditional cork: plastic. Already in widespread use, plastic corks once held promise of solving the problem of taint. Unfortunately, the plastic option also leeches chemical traces left over from processing. This problem is less common and usually less severe with plastic, but it's still an issue. For some, plastic corks seem difficult to open and reuse, something the screw cap readily overcomes.
Oregon's Laurent Montalieu of WillaKenzie Estate (one of the state's top producers of pinot noir and pinot gris) says the losses from taint grew to be more than he could tolerate. "A perfect cork is just that: a perfect closure. But when you have 3 to 10 percent that aren't perfect, it's too big a price to pay," he says.
Enter the screw cap. For years found only on the cheapest of wines in the grocery stores, the screw cap closure is not just for Night Train anymore. An increasingly large and very vocal group, led by wineries from Australia and New Zealand and followed by some Oregon and California producers, has begun to hail the merits of the screw-top closure. Discussion about switching over is becoming one of the hottest issues in the wine world today--almost every issue of Wine Spectator magazine has a running debate in the letters page on this topic.
In Oregon, WillaKenzie was the first winery to introduce the screw cap to its line of wines; 15 percent of WillaKenzie's 2001 pinot gris was bottled with the closure. The stuff sold, so the winery intends to use screw caps on up to half of its 2002 wines. And Montalieu is not the only Oregon winemaker to jump caps. If he had it his way, Rollin Soles, winemaker at Argyle (one of the Northwest's leading producers), would bottle all of his wines with screw caps. Currently, Argyle has only a small percentage of wine available with this closure, but the winery plans for much more in the coming vintages. "I'm happy to embrace a 30-year-old technology that has proven itself," Soles says. "I recently tasted some New Zealand Rieslings from 1971 and '72, from both screw-cap and cork-sealed bottles, and where the screw-cap wines were delicious, the others were undrinkable--oxidized and dead." So why hasn't Argyle done it sooner? Soles says, "95 percent of the reason we haven't moved toward screw caps more aggressively has been logistical--we needed good bottles, the right machine--and about 5 percent is the desire for other people to go along with us."
As can be imagined, the biggest challenge wineries face when it comes to screw caps is how déclassé they appear, and the industry is doing outreach. WillaKenzie's Montalieu hosted a seminar for 400 last September to talk about cork taint and demonstrate its effects on wine. Another is planned for this fall.
Portland's fondness for other drink quirks (publican mayors, brew-pub movie theaters) may prove to be the right incubator for this progressive change in wine consumption. "One of the cool things about Portland is that there's a tremendous amount of curiosity about what's going on in the wine world. I don't think that screw caps will meet with a lot of resistance here," says Bob Scherb of Liner & Elsen Wines.
Apart from the Ripple effect, it's hard to disagree that screw tops are an appealing option. But don't underestimate tradition. The aesthetic and romantic appeal of removing the cork from a special bottle of wine is a powerful factor that many wineries are betting people won't let go of easily. But at the heart of the matter is a simple notion: Why spend countless hours of labor and large sums of money to produce a wine of distinction, then package it in a way that can't guarantee it will be enjoyed the way it was intended? Chalk this one up with the other great design debates of the last decade: vinyl vs. CD, VHS vs. DVD, and old Beetle vs. new Beetle.
WillaKenzie Pinot Gris in a screw- cap bottle is available at better bottle shops and specialty markets throughout Portland.
Argyle Cabernet Franc with a screw cap is currently for sale only at the winery's tasting room in Dundee.
"A perfect cork is just that: a perfect closure. But when you have 3 to 10 percent that aren't perfect, it's too big a price to pay." --Laurent Montalieu