Sunday, February 9, 2003

Winemakers falling out of love with corks

Many of us have romantic memories of opening a bottle of wine with the one we love: Tearing off the foil, easing in the corkscrew and pulling out the cork with a satisfying plop.

There were also those frustrating, even comical, occasions when the cork broke, sunk down into the neck of the bottle or just wouldn't come out. Then we proudly remember how inventive we were in getting past the cork to drink the wine. Another romantic memory.

But there's a growing movement in the wine industry to remove that romance - to replace wine corks with metal screw tops. Now if you only associate screw tops with soft drinks and cheap wine, this may sound far-fetched. But it is happening.

Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, Calif., began using metal screw-tops (trademark name Stelvin Closure) last August on two of its popular wines, 2001 Ca' del Solo Big House Red and Big House White. Napa's PlumpJack Winery began screwing the metal tops on its premium ($150 or more a bottle) cabernet sauvignon last spring. Many Australian and New Zealand winemakers already have turned to screw-tops.

These wineries claim they're not making this radical stopper switch in order to save money or even to make it easier to get the bottle open. And, according to the cork industry, this is not an environmental issue. Proper cork harvesting from the bark of the Quercus subus trees in Portugal and Spain causes no harm to the trees.

No, screw-top proponents say they want to lose the corks to simply make wine taste better.

Wine experts estimate that as many as 6 percent of all wines taste musty and moldy, like wet cardboard. While consumers might call those wines nasty, the experts call them "corked" or "corky." It's a condition caused by a chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6-Tricloroanisole) that develops during cork processing.

For more than four centuries, since man has been putting corks in bottles, winemakers and wine drinkers have accepted the inevitable corkiness of a small number of wines. But now, as metal cap technology improves, they're becoming impatient.

"It can be an emotional problem when you go to a wine-tasting and open a couple of bottles of your wine and they smell like your grandmother's basement,'' says Rick Sayre, winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County, Calif.

It has happened to him more than once, he says.

Rollin Soles of Argyle Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley has had the same humbling experience, even though his winery is "draconian" when it comes to selecting quality corks. The worst part about tainted corks, he says, is the affected wines may not taste that corky, but their distinctive fruit and other flavors may be subdued.

"If the cork is bad, people may not know how good my wine could've been," he says.

Soles is such a proponent of screw tops, he will begin using them on Argyle's bottling of pinot noir in June.

For more than a decade, some wineries have been experimenting with synthetic corks. But those artificial corks also taint the wines, some say, and many consumers don't like them.

Even though he recognizes the shortcomings of natural cork, Sayre is not ready to switch to the synthetic plugs or metal screw tops. When it's not tainted, natural cork is still the best stopper for wine, he says, because its elastic structure allows just enough oxidation to help the wine mature and develop.

Most importantly, Sayre and other winemakers are worried that wine - especially red wine - may not age properly in bottles stoppered with metal screw-tops. No one knows, it seems, because there's no long-term research.

The bigger, short-term question is whether consumers will buy wine, in stores or in restaurants, crowned with metal screw tops.

"I don't think so," says Toni Sander, owner of the Wine List in West Chester. "If they see a bottle with a screw top, people say they might as well go to the grocery and buy wine in a box. They think they're buying Thunderbird or something."

Paul Sturkey, owner of Sturkey's restaurant in Wyoming, began serving the Bonny Doon screw-top wines last year. The reaction from customers has been positive, he says, and his servers "love" the screw tops because they aren't slowed by having to yank corks out of bottles.

Most customers don't blink when he twists the metal tops off bottles of the expensive PlumpJack cabernet, says Jason Price, a server at the Heritage Club in Mason.

"But it's still a little awkward at the table," he says.

There is no protocol for opening a screw-top bottle of wine in a restaurant (Sturkey instructs his servers to twist the bottle while holding the cap, like a bottle of champagne), but the waiter probably should not present the shiny cap to the customer for inspection.

Obviously, the wine world is torn on this issue. Everyone agrees tainted corks damage a certain number of wines and turn off more than a few consumers. But not all are willing to risk putting twist tops on their wines.

Some, like Sayre of Rodney Strong, hope screw-top competition will force the cork industry to change its storage and processing methods, which might prevent TCA.

Like most of us, he loves romancing the cork from the bottle.


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