Tue 26 Dec 2006
In the 20 years that I wrote a weekly newspaper column about wine, the single piece that elicited the most response was one I produced five years ago in which I advocated putting all wines under $15 in screw-caps. You would have thought that I had recommended serving pot roast, borsht and haggis at Thanksgiving dinner.
Certainly many correspondents agreed that it was time to end the tyranny of the cork, especially for inexpensive wines, but I was amazed at how many people left telephone messages or sent emails saying that screw-caps would destroy the “mystique” and the “romance” of wine. Well, how much mystique and romance does wine possess when you’re on a picnic and discover that someone — you, of course — left the corkscrew at home, or you’re carefully extracting the cork and it breaks, sending a flurry of little cork crumbs into the wine, or you open a fine bottle to accompany dinner and realize, when the bouquet smells like old socks and damp cardboard, that the cork was tainted by trichloroanisole (TCA) and the wine was spoiled, “corked” as we say? Huh? How romantic is that?
What also amazes me is that for all the discussion there was a few years ago about how corks really did have to be replaced, at least for inexpensive wines, how few bottles under $15 today actually are closed with screw-caps. I taste plenty of wines in this price category, and I would say, roughly, that 90 percent of them are closed with corks. I would say that the producers of those wines are missing an opportunity to endear themselves with the wine-drinking public. Current pioneers in, uh, screw-capping, in California include Bonny Doon, Shannon Ridge and Two Angels wineries, all of which now put all of their wines in screw-caps.
Expensive wines intended for aging finished with screw-caps is another story. Despite the fact that Plumpjack bottles half of its production of top-line cabernet sauvignon in screw-caps, and has no trouble selling them in two-bottle pairs (one of each) for $325 a set, no one really knows how wines intended for aging are affected by screw-caps. Decades of patient study would be required to make comparisons and come to viable conclusions, if there are any. It would be interesting if some of the high-profile producers in Bordeaux and California would belly up to the bar and agree to bottle part of their production with screw-caps and then leave designated cases of screw-cap and cork-finished wines for comparison in the future.
In the meantime, I — and probably every other wine consumer in the country — will be happy to be able to open more bottles of wine without searching for the corkscrew or ending up with a contaminated bottle. How often does that happen, exactly? I don’t know. Three percent of the time? Five percent? Some writers say as much as eight to 10 percent, though those figures seem extreme to me.
Whatever the case, once is too much.
The image of the pair of Plumpjack wines by Steven Rothfield for Glodow Mead Communications.