Seeking Closure

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A Bottle Top Overcomes Its Screwed Up Rep

by Robert P. Farmer

By now anyone who has been paying attention has heard the details in the discussion about screw caps. Once vilified in fine wine circles as the bellwether of bad taste, winemakers and wine lovers alike now embrace the ordinary screw cap. The reasons for this are myriad. But the practice, supported by evidence and sound science, still have yet to gain widespread acceptance in the wine industry.

In my humble opinion, the reason screw caps have yet to get a firm grip in the wine industry is based largely in ceremony. Who wants to twist off a cap when they can pry open a cork - enjoying all the "pop" and circumstance that pulling a cork involves? I understand. Opening a bottle of wine is an age-old ceremony that feels great whether you do it yourself or you sit in anticipation as your sommelier works the magic.

But before I move on to telling you about my favorite new invention, let's recap (sorry, couldn't help myself on that one). The cork, as integral to the wine industry as it is symbolic, is the centuries-old reigning champ of wine closures. But the supremacy has recently been challenged with the advent of vastly improved and increasingly reliable screw-top closures. Screw tops have made a run at the cork kingdom by proving reliable at sealing wine effectively without the impending threats brought about naturally by corks. By most counts, as much as five percent of all bottle closed with natural cork are affected to some degree by spoilage (taint). When considering the full bulk of production by most wineries of even a moderate size, that can mean significant loss of inventory - or worse, reputation, should those bottles make it to market as they so frequently do.

Tainted by a chemical that occurs naturally in cork, the risk of cork's ruining wine is inherent in its use. Of course, winemakers have long known this, and have managed to be successful in spite of the threat. Still, the move to synthetic cork as an alternative has gained momentum in recent years. Synthetics--from NuKorks to Nomacorcs--have proved a reliable closure for many winemakers who seek to avoid spoilage and also to circumvent the rising cost and diminishing supply of the natural variety. But of course, synthetics are not without their own set of issues--namely, they lack the suppleness of natural cork and can prove infuriatingly difficult to remove with most of the commonly used wine-opening hardware. And plastic corks live forever - staying in landfills for thousands of years if not properly disposed of or recycled.

This brings us to the screw cap, which as we all know requires no additional hardware at all to open; just a firm grip and a twist of the wrist. What the screw cap does require, however, is a willingness to set aside preconceptions. Image is the biggest obstacle in the widespread acceptance and use of the screw closure. It didn't help that for years in America the only bottles of wine available with a screw top were generally consumed while wrapped in brown paper bags by less discriminating types whose preferred locale for that consumption was beneath the local overpass.

But those days are stretching into the distance, pushed back by such forward-thinking wineries as PlumpJack (620 Oakville Cross Rd, Oakville; 707-945-1220; www.plumpjack.com), who threw marketing caution to the wind and began closing their high-end reserve cabernet sauvignon and reserve chardonnay with screw caps. The wines sold as briskly as anything they'd stuck a cork in before. And the lead has been followed by many notable wineries, including the always-adventurous Bonny Doon (10 Pine Flat Rd., 831-425-4518; www.bonnydoonvineyard.com), which closes its signature Le Cigare Volant with the humble screw top. This is all to say nothing of the winemaking folks in Australia and New Zealand, who have made it a mission to go all-screw-all-the-time.

So what does this movement mean for those ceremonious types? How will the wine snob in the fancy restaurant demonstrate to his date his prowess when there is no cork to sniff? Fear not, for one winery has shown the way.

The inventive people at Tamas Estates (5489 Tesla Rd, Livermore; 925-456-2380; www.tamasestates.com), whose wonderful, Italian-influenced wines are closed with screw caps, have created a device that mixes twist-off efficiency with pull-cork formality. The screw cap opener (available through the winery's online store) manages to resemble a traditional wine opener, complete with foil cutter, fits snugly around the bottle top. The user then pushes a small lever forward to tighten the opening around the top and then twists to unscrew the cap. It's a beautiful thing - as unnecessary as it is fun.

Which is exactly what opening a bottle of wine should be.

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