Categorized | Rants

Corks Versus Screw Caps

I don’t know if you have had the experience of having to return some wine to your local supermarket lately but it seems to fall into two categories. (1) They have the “Wine? You’re trying to return an opened bottle of wine?” I usually reply “Yes, it was corked; so I would like a replacement bottle”. They usually retort with “Of course it was corked; I can see the cork has been pulled out, anyway it’s against the law to give refunds on alcoholic beverages”.

If you are lucky you might get the other response (2) “I don’t really know anything about wine; I’m going to have to get a manager”. When the manager arrives they most often take scenario #1 as their position. Now you are back to square one, let’s try this again folks. If the store is lucky enough to have a wine steward they usually have to be dragged up front to the customer service area. Meanwhile a line of other customers has now started to grow behind you and you have spent time better used elsewhere, especially considering the cost of fuel to drive to the market for an unnecessary trip.

This could all be alleviated if the wine buying public (that would be you and I) would insist on screw caps as the favored method to seal a bottle of wine. I have, for a long time, celebrated the wineries that have taken the bold step into the 21st century and left behind the antiquated technology of corks.

To my knowledge no winery has ever gone out of business because their sales came to a grinding halt after switching to screw caps. On the producers side I have listened to the argument about the re-tooling of the bottling assembly line. Yes, I know there are significant costs. Not to mention the wonderful relationship the winery has developed with the cork salesman and the corkscrew salesmen that now must come to an end.

Let’s look at the other side of the costs when you release a vintage with tainted or non-sealing corks. Industry estimates vary on the percentage of wines with problem corks but everyone agrees it is more than 10% and other estimates say as high as 20% (probably a story planted by the screw-cap lobbyist’s) none the less the reality is this. After opening a bottle of wine that is corked and going through the emotional let down that follows from not being able to drink something you had your mind set for and your meal planned for it is a bit depressing if not devastating. Or even worse you bought a case of the stuff and you open another bottle only to find that one is corked too. Now you are in the unenviable position of having to remember where the receipt is traipse back to the point of sale and deal with customer service (or the lack of customer service).

I now have a different game plan, especially if I am having a celebration or a dinner party. If I am going to open a Big Gun I always have a wine of similar style in a screw-cap, waiting in the wings, ready to upstage the star. So let’s get back to what it costs a winery to have 10-20% of their wines on the market in a condition that will alienate the consumer. With more and more wines coming from the New World producers, the choices for the consumer are growing. The chances of me buying more of a wine that was corked the last time I purchased it are slim to none. We here at Enobytes have sworn off producers that we really liked for a couple of vintages over just a single bottle of corked wine. As the proliferation of wine education sites propagate the Internet wine producers can expect the public (as they become more educated) to adopt the same strategy. So, what are the real costs? I would say probably more than the wineries realize. Is any marketing manager running the numbers of slacking sales against returned bottle figures? Let’s hope so.

Now let’s turn to the major obstacle of getting wineries to switch. That would be the restaurant industry. For the many years I spent in the restaurant business I continually heard from managers servers and wine stewards that selling screw cap wines in a restaurant setting would be a hard sell. The contingency is the romanticism of wine at dinner will be lost if the producers adopt screw-caps. Many servers will tell you they believe the process of removing the cork and all the pomp and circumstance that goes with it is what makes having wine with dinner a romantic event. They will also tell you screw-caps would cut down on their sales. I do not know why they say that. No one has done any research on the subject. In fact I would say from a sales point, I would have a new opportunity when the restaurant put a screw-cap wine on the list. Let’s say a customer points out the wine on the list that has a screw cap and asks the server what they know about the wine. The server responds, “Well one thing I do know about that wine is you will not get a corked bottle of wine because that one comes with a screw-cap”. Now that’s a sales opportunity.

Uneducated consumers often times will drink a corked bottle of wine and just think Chateau X produces really bad wine. If they are new to drinking wine it will push them further away from trying new wines and maybe wine altogether. It happens more often than you know. How many new customers are driven away and what does that cost the winery?

Just last weekend during a tour of Willamette Valley the same thing happened at two wineries. We are standing next to a couple that has just received the first pour out of a bottle of pinot and they both exclaim how great it is when they taste it. They pour our glasses next and Pam and I look at each other sniffing our glasses without tasting them then walking to another area of the tasting room and calling our host over, to bring to their attention that the bottle is corked. We would not want to embarrass the wineries guests or the winery and this happened twice in one day at two different wineries.

I have nothing against the cork industry, and certainly nothing against the corkscrew industry. However, while I still will buy a pair of trousers with buttons if I like them enough, I prefer zippers. Throughout history as technology progresses some industries get taken over by more advanced technology, and I hope this industry will see the light. Of course there will always be stubborn producers that refuse to change and to them I say, “I don’t buy that” (MDME).

This post was written by:

- who has written 385 posts on Enobytes Wine Online.

Marc has over twenty years experience in the food & wine industry and is committed to celebrating hospitality with pride. He is a wine blogger contributor to OregonLive.com (Wine Bytes) and has also appeared on Portland's "Vine Time" on News Radio 750 KXL and on California's Central Coast "From the Growing of the Grape to the Glass" on KUHL-AM 1410. He is also the author of A History of Pacific Northwest Cuisine: Mastodons to Molecular Gastronomy. Follow Marc on twitter @macdaddy_m

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6 Responses to “Corks Versus Screw Caps”

  1. Suzanne says:

    I also think the %20 claim on corked bottles is a little high. But I’m behind the screwcap movement all the way. There’s nothing more horrible than that assault of skunkiness upon opening a long-awaited bottle of something you thought was going to be sublime.

  2. Kevin says:

    I completely agree with the frustration of returning a corked bottle of wine to the store. I actually look for screwcaps now so I don’t have to go through the misery of returning a bad bottle of wine! Good article.

  3. Irene says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I still think of “Ripple,” “Maneschewitz,” or other cheap wines when I see screwcaps. Not sexy at all. And it’s not that I have any great love for cork, either. But between the possibility of a corked wine (personal exp. much less than 5%), or having my wine stored with a cap that is metal and plastic, I think that the best alternative is glass. It is truly inert, unlike all of the above. Unfortunately, like screwcaps, there is no oxidation for age-worthy wines, but most of my wines are “drink now” so that’s immaterial.

  4. Emily says:

    I enjoyed reading your article on screwcaps in my weekly email from The Juice or LocalWineEvents.com. But I do have some questions. What kind of research has been done on the use of screwcaps and the cellaring of wine. I feel confident producers of top Bordeaux’s or Barolo’s have not made the switch but it’s these wines in particular that intrigue me. I feel like I’ve been told that the relationship with cork and aging fine wine is significant. Cork being a relatively organic matter changes over time meaning small amounts of oxygen will come in contact with the wine and this occurrence in the cellar is a positive one. On the other hand if these sorts of wines were kept in cellar with screwcaps in a completely anaerobic environment how would they mature? Would a Stelvin closure produce the same aging effects in wines that we desire? Have you come across any long term research in the use of screwcaps? I thank you for your time and eagerly await your response.
    Cheers, Emily

  5. Pamela says:

    In regards to your comments, you emerge many good questions – debatable ones at that. However, I know of many wineries and groups that have researched this conundrum and I will attempt to address your concerns.

    In 1997, Plumpjack, a 10,000 case Napa winery that produces ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon bottled half of its 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with screw caps. 10 years later, the wine fairs well; it exhibits a dense plum/purple color as well as mineral, black currant, floral, earth, and spicy new oak aromas and flavors.

    In regards to white wine, the New Zealand Wine Seal Initiative group states, “wines in screwcap[s] do age and develop. They also retain primary fruit characteristics for longer, they retain freshness but they can have the developed character of a well aged wine”. This statement is backed by 30+ years of Riesling and Semillon screwcap packaging.

    I have also heard that the university de Dijon bottled a 1966 Mercurey. My assumption is that it was a Pinot Noir from the Côte Chalonnaise region; unfortunately, I have not come across the findings of how the wine faired throughout the years, but my assumption is that the results are favorable; I don’t think they would talk about it had it failed the screwcap test :)

    As for Bordeaux wines, 12,000 bottles of Les Tourelles de Longueville, the second wine of Paulliac chateau Pichon-Longueville, will be bottled with the closure. The announcement of this news happened January 2007.

    Additionally, scientists from the Australian Wine Research Institute published a good study on closures in 2001.

    As for bottle maturation, I will rely on a few reliable sources:

    “… the quantities of oxygen that normally penetrate into the bottles are negligible if not zero. Oxygen is not the agent of normal bottle maturation.” J Ribéreau-Gayon et al (1976), “Traité d’Oneologie – Sciences et Techniques du Vin” Vol. 3.

    “When a wine ages in the bottle, the oxidation – reduction potential decreases regularly until it reaches a minimum value, depending on how well the bottle is sealed. Reactions that take place in bottled wine do not require oxygen. “P Ribéreau-Gayon et al (2000), “Handbook of Enology – Vol.2 The Chemistry of Wine Stabilization and Treatments.

    Additionally, According to Singleton, a UC Davis Professor, the chemical reactions responsible for bottle aging are not dependent on oxygen, implying that both a screw cap (and a synthetic cork) will not interfere with bottle aging. “My opinion is that bottle aging doesn’t occur unless there is a considerable protection from oxygen. So rather than saying slow contact is desirable, I believe that slow contact may not be desirable.”

    As a side note, keep in mind that the Stelvin closure is not a new invention. La Bouchage Mecanique, a registered trademark of French manufacturer Pea-Pechiney, developed it in the late 1950’s. I think many have issues with the closer because they believe the gadget that has not gone through rigorous testing. My two cents is that screwcaps are ideally suited for bottle maturation over a long timeframe, not just for current consumption. However, it will require many more years of research to prove its legitimacy before consumers and wineries make the jump.

    Regards,

    Pamela Heiligenthal
    Enobytes

  6. Emily says:

    Thank you for responding so sprightly and thoroughly to my inquiries. It’s obvious to me that screwcaps have more of a past than I gave them credit for in the wine world. Thanks again for all the information. I look for to seeing the screwcap develop in terms of marketing itself to the masses. Maybe it should play itself in a starring role next to a loveable, down trodden, lead male in a heart felt comedy….look what it did for pinot noir!

    Cheers, Emily

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