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Screwtops come of age

35 comments

I’ve written about and praised Boisset’s PET bottle and so has my magazine, Wine Enthusiast, which earlier this year awarded Jean-Charles Boisset the “Innovator of the Year” prize at our annual Wine Star Awards.

Now Boisset has won yet another prize, the coveted AmeriStar Award for Beverage Packaging.

“The Boisset Family Estates’ Beaujolais Nouveau PET bottles are shatterproof and include a convenient screw cap for anytime, anywhere consumption,” the presenters said, also praising the package’s green, recyclable qualities.

Screwtops have come a long way in a short period of time. I also read today in Decanter that screwtops now make up 15% of all the wine sold in the world.

When California wineries widely started bottling in screwtops, about 5-6 years ago, I used to note that fact in my reviews. Generally, I conceptualized these into two categories:

1. If the wine was inexpensive and good, I’d say something like “Good value in a screwtop.”

2. If the wine was expensive and good, I’d say, “Don’t be put off by the screwtop; this is really a good wine.” I  felt the need to reassure readers, because I knew that consumers were freaked out by screwtops. They thought they reflected a cheap, nasty wine.

It was a couple years ago when I finally stopped referring at all to screwtops in my reviews, because so many people were using them, on so many different kinds of wines, that it no longer mattered.  Screwtops had entered into the realm of normality; it didn’t seem relevant anymore to even point it out.

screwtop

How far will the screwtop revolution go? This seems to be the situation: Any unoaked white wine is as likely to be in a screwtop as not, whether it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or whatever. Pinot Noir is quite likely to be in a screwtop these days, and not just cheap ones. When it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m hard pressed to think of any that are in screwtops, beyond Plump Jack. Randall Grahm is one of the few who’ve moved to put all their reds in screwtops, and his Bonny Doon wines really set a pace for style. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if everything was in screwtops, because at least you’d be guaranteed never to have a corked bottle.

I’ve asked a lot of owners of cult wineries if they would ever consider using screwtops, and usually they look at me as if I’d suggested they take off all their clothes and run naked through downtown San Francisco. Like, “Are you crazy?” Those who are in touch with their customer base must get feedback suggesting consumers don’t want a $100 Cab in a bottle that resembles Boone’s Farm. I’ve also been told by distributors that they hear from restaurateurs and merchants that screwtops are a no-no for expensive wine. This just shows it’s the job of us wine writers to educate the public.

I don’t know why people are so resistant to change. When you think of it, the wine industry is a very conservative place. People talk about change all the time, but there’s really very little change at all. Somebody will use a new clone, or a new technique, but the same old varieties dominate the market, bottled with the same old corks, which, as a technology, are 18th century anachronisms.

Do Millennials care about corks vs. screwtops? Probably not, and they’re the future. It’s not hard to imagine corks going the way of linotype machines within the next decade. Screwtops are greener than corks, imposing less of a carbon footprint on the world. One of these days, people will wonder what took the wine industry so long to get with the program.

  1. Corey Miller says:

    Hi Steve,

    Interesting post. I definitely think that George Taber deserves a mention for his 2007 book, “To Cork or Not to Cork”. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It gets into the science behind the two different closures and what we actually know about them. I took away a couple main points:

    (1) The cork industry has been way behind in terms of quality control, but has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. TCA will always be an issue, but an ‘acceptably’ minor one in future years.

    (2) Screw tops are great if you have a wine at no risk of developing reductive character in the bottle and if you desire no additional micro-oxidation around the closure (i.e. no bottle aging).

    It left me with three strong opinions regarding closures on my own wines:

    (1) Fresh white wines should be bottled under screw tops to preserve aromatics

    (2) Reds intended to be consumed young can be bottled under either closure, but buyer beware (of reduction with screw tops and taint with corks)

    (3) Most reds (or age worthy whites) should be bottled under high quality cork to allow bottle aging and bouquet development

    Just my two cents (or, rather, Taber’s if I’ve interpreted his arguments correctly).

  2. Corey Miller says:

    A follow-up thought.

    One way to avoid the reductive character associated with air-tight closures like screw tops is to aggressively fine the wine with copper sulfate before bottling. This is common practice in Australia, where screw tops are widely used.

    Really, it’s a matter of deciding between the worst of two evils, the occasional corked bottle (becoming more and more occasional as Portugal undergoes a cork production renaissance) or fine red wines suffering through copper sulfate fining.

  3. 8BitVintner says:

    Great post Steve,

    Here in Walla Walla, I know a few wineries that are moving their entire lineup to screwtops, Dusted Valley being the first that comes to mind. Their wines run the gamut from Pinot Gris to Cab Sauv. Speaking as a millennial, I think your right to say that as whole we dont really care, but I still think there is a hesitation to accept a sommelier twisting the top off of my 300% marked up vino. Its a mental thing, but its there. Ironically, as I come closer to bottling my first wine, Im leaning towards screwtops simply because I want my target market to find my wine easily accessible and ready to drink. The more new people get exposed to wine, the less these old stereotypes are going to matter. The important thing is to create quality wine w/ great marketing and the closure will mean less and less.
    Cheers

  4. Amen!!!! To your article!

    After being in Sales, Marketing and Management Consulting and handling untold number and types of clients throughout the world (ranging from an Oklahoma independent oil and natural gas producer; to a large New York City IBM installation; to a number of European vintners and other wine folk) for more years than I will admit my take on “wine people” is that there are definitely two (2) types.

    There are the “traditionalists” more commonly known as “elitists” or “insecure-stick-in-the-mud” types that are totally afraid of “any change” as they are afraid such change will destroy their pompous world of wine and their “quiet” belief they are “better than us commoners. They believe if they accept screw caps and other forward thinking innovations that will bring blue collar workers; country western folk; rodeo types; agricultural farmers and the rest of “us commoners” into their wine world. AND, they are afraid that we will erase (which is probably true and needed) all of the veneer that they like to call “tradition” or “class” or “good breeding” or any of the other B.S. types of outdated beliefs they cling to. It’s a wonder to me that their daily attire doesn’t include “knights armor’ and other “out dated” trappings.

    Then you have the “rest of us” that just enjoy good wine and good fellowship. The “rest of us” DO NOT NEED NOR WILL WE TOLERATE” THE ALWAYS PRESENT local wine expert on their soapbox stating that they “detect a hint of leather”; or notes that he/she detects a “bit of mineral” in the wine or waxes on and on about some other insignificant piece of wine B.S. instead of just enjoying the wine and the people that tolerates them.

  5. Ed, Heaven forbid that rodeo riders should enjoy a glass of wine! I take your point. We need to broaden wine’s appeal to everyone.

  6. 8Bit, I wouldn’t have any problem with a somm unscrewing an expensive bottle of wine. But, I would want to know something of the wine’s history and background — and I would want it to taste really good with the food.

  7. Corey, I taste a huge amount of wine and can tell you that I routinely experience corked bottles in even the most famous and expensive ones. So “an ‘acceptably’ minor” incidence of TCA is still too much, IMHO.

  8. 8BitVintner says:

    “8Bit, I wouldn’t have any problem with a somm unscrewing an expensive bottle of wine. But, I would want to know something of the wine’s history and background — and I would want it to taste really good with the food.”

    I think that goes without saying. It is of course a “good” somm’s job to do all of what you mentioned. My point, with which I think we both agree is perception. Wines have been presented table side in a particular way for so long that I think the “educated” idiot cant possibly imagine anything different. I welcome it at my table and give major props to any Somm w/ the cajones to do it.

  9. Great post . . . and one near and dear to my heart. My choice to bottle all of my tercero wines under screwcap stems from a lot of the things mentioned, and a few not mentioned . . .

    In addition to TCA-infected wines, corks are not identical, having different ‘air pockets’, and therefore ‘bottle variation’ is inevitable in wines under cork – and this may be a good or bad thing . . . but not one I want to deal with.

    TCA issues are still prevalent in the cork industry, regardless of the press coming out saying they are not. I’ve been involved with cork trials in the past year where 5% taint was the BEST result and well over 20% was the worst . . . and these figures did not include wines that were ‘neutral’ or stripped of their aromas entirely . . .

    Though my wines are not available in ‘leading restaurants around the country’, they are in a couple of top notch ones in Santa Barbara – Bouchon and Elements – and both places have praised screw caps.

    With regards to ‘reductive’ issues, I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that they have experienced systemic issues with screwcap wines. I’ve asked this in numous blogs and on numerous wine bulletin board sites, and I have yet to find someone who has experienced this – yet the ‘threat’ of it happening has scared sooo many people off screwcaps.

    When the AWRI released the results of their landmark study on closures, they noted a higher than avg, amount of reductive issues with the wines under screwcaps – and I believe this is where the issues were first addressed. What was not addressed at that time, but later become public knowledge, was that the wine used for the study was bottled with a known level of sulfides/mercaptans – and that these were ‘hidden away’ with copper prior to bottling but eventually became apparent over time. Therefore, bad winemaking led to the issue, and will continue to lead to these issues – REGARDLESS OF CLOSURE.

    The other question I really like to ask is if someone finds a ‘reductive’ screw cap wine, are they able to compare it with the same wine bottled under a different closure to make sure it is the closure causing the issue and not just the wine . . .

    Enough ranting for now . . . maybe more later!

    Cheers!

  10. Larry, I’m glad you wrote “I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that they have experienced systemic issues with screwcap wines.” Me too. I’ve encountered little to none, which makes me wonder about all this chatter re: reductive issues.

  11. Right. It’s up to sommeliers — and wine writers — and wine store owners — to educate consumers. That’s why they call us “gatekeepers.”

  12. Hey Steve,

    You can add us to your list of those totally cmmitted to the idea there is a viable alternative to cork. We have been bottling our entire production – petite syrah and cal – at Quixote Winery under cap since 2001…and we couldn’t be more determined that this is correct way to go…and though this is far from scientific, the feedback I’ve received from the 8,000 visitors we have hosted the past two years has been overwhelmingly positive…glad to see more of the world catching on…

  13. I am a “millennial,” and the way my wine is enclosed/sealed matters very much to me. Also, I wouldn’t so quick to disregard “my gerneration’s” feelings towards tradition and change. Change is overrated, and in itself carrys not value judgement of its effect. Modernization has done much for the wine industry to be proud of, but only a teenager would dismiss the concerns that many have with change and modernization, whether it be in wine or in society itself. Often, these effects don’t make good on the promises they make, and they subsequently lose their grounding. Slowly but surely the EU will do away with the honorable traditions that make France, Italy, and Germany hallmarks of wine production. I am not one to say that homogenization has taken over the wine world, or that Parker’s palate rules all, but surely tradition in wine-making and growing mean something very substantial and intangible. Without the traditions that we’ve had, we wouldn’t have the world of wine that we have today. It’s all a product of old yearnings and inscrutable traditions that gave us all the hauntingly romantic flavors and textures that have become the standard as to which all wine is measured. Without this tradition and mystery, wine becomes an emphemeral fancy of the stomach, a petty and temporal passion relegated to the plebes. Just the truth, nothing more.

  14. Corey Miller says:

    Steve,

    You’re right that you taste a lot of wines. I’m wondering if you’ve tasted many 10-20 year old well-structured reds bottled under screwtop (I’m not being facetious; I’d really like to know if you have)? How are they coming along?

    Corks are not permeable, but they force a small amount of O2 out of their cells when the cork is inserted and there’s evidence that they do swell and relax with time allowing micro-oxidation to occur around their periphery. The reason that screwtops have been so successful with aromatic whites is that they form a tight seal with the bottle top where the glass meets the plastic liner (i.e. no oxidation or release of delicate aromatics). Is such a closure really a good choice for age worthy red wine?

    I also think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that screwtops are more environmentally friendly. If we’re honest, it ends up being a bit of a wash. After all, where does all the metal and plastic to make those screwtops come from? Even if the top is recyclable, the furnaces to melt if for the next round of use don’t run on sunshine. That said, cork isn’t perfect either. But it is a renewable resource and promotes the maintenance of large tracts of relatively undeveloped forest (which, by their very nature, suck CO2 out of the atmosphere).

    What I see in many of the responses posted above is an EMOTIONAL plea for change. But shouldn’t the decision to change something as important as your wine closure be based more on what is best for the wine than how you FEEL about the two options?

    If you’re bottling Two Buck Chuck or your latest release of Viognier, then fine. The wine will be gone in 12 months and screw tops are certainly cheaper. But otherwise, talk to me about science. I want to see real evidence that screw tops will not negatively effect the long-term maturation of an ENTIRE LOT of wine. For me, that possibility puts 5% taint into perspective.

    BTW, I’m sponsored by the cork industry (now I AM being facetious).

    P.S. I’m a millennial and I would select a wine based on closure if I intended to cellar it. After all, I’ll actually live long enough to pop the CORK in 25 years:)

  15. Corey, I haven’t tasted many older screwtopped wines. A few, at a tasting some years ago. One of the downsides of my job (and that of critics like me) is that we spend so much time tasting new releases that there’s not enough time to do extensive verticals. Sad, but true.

  16. “they look at me as if I’d suggested they take off all their clothes and run naked through downtown San Francisco.”

    Since when is that considered odd? ;-)

    I was speaking with the owner of four turn and burn pasta houses and he was decidedly against screwtops, just on the basis he wants his servers put on the show of opening up a bottle.

    Regarding 10 to 20 year old red wines under screwcaps, I believe the Aussies have been tasting them for at least that long.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but the industry stated 5% failure rate seems to me to be a bit on the low side….what other industry would allow this kind of failure rate? Oh, well there is Microsoft….

  17. Morton Leslie says:

    You said, “When California wineries widely started bottling in screwtops, about 5-6 years ago.”

    Funny when I started in the business, nearly 40 years ago, most of all the wine made in California went into bottles with screwcaps. What I remember happening was that we discovered wine sold a lot better at a higher price point when closed with a cork rather than a cap. We didn’t switch to a cork because we suddenly became old fashioned.

    To call the wine industry conservative does it an injustice. It is a forward thinking industry. The customer is the one who is conservative. As an industry we are forward thinking, but highly sensitive to what makes our wine sell better at higher price points. Almost all of us make our choices purely on a basis of economics and we will go to a screw cap when:
    1) the customer wants us to
    2) we are satisfied it is the best closure for our particular wine

    Also, I don’t see any evidence that anything has changed with a new generation of wine drinkers. I hear a lot of talk. But so far, it’s just talk.

    I think it is because that in the real world “corked” wine is not as big a problem as we pretend it to be. I hear 5% quoted all the time. I think someone just pulled that out of the air or somewhere else.

    Go to a big wine judging where they open maybe 3000 bottles and see how many the samples the judges reject as corked and ask the server for a new bottle. Go to any winery tasting room where they proof their wines and see how many are rejected. My personal experience in both is that it is less than 1%.

    How many customers will you lose when you put your $100 Napa Cabernet in a polyethylene screw capped bottle that they didn’t ask for.

  18. Well, Morton Leslie things 5% failure rate is high and Frank thinks it’s low. I think it’s probably about right, depending on your sensitivity to TCA. My nightmare scenario is this: Imagine that “Paul” tells his cousin “Loretta” that Pinot Noir is a great wine, she ought to try it. Loretta goes out and buys a nice $25 Pinot, takes it home, opens it for her hubbie, and it smells like…well, you know. And so, Loretta and her husband decide that Pinot Noir is an awful wine which they will never buy again, and anytime the subject arises, they will tell their friends. So, that one corked bottle has caused an inordinate amount of damage!

  19. Morton Leslie says:

    It doesn’t matter what you think or I think, it’s what the customer thinks. So when you guys taste blind at the Enthusiast you are rejecting 5 out of every hundred wines you taste for being corked? (I’m not talking “off” or “suspicious”, I’m talking “corked.” Seems like you could have pretty good statistics to share.

    I would say that if a winemaker really thought that 5% of his or her wines were truely corked year in and year out….and they still put corks in their bottles… then they don’t have high standards of winemaking. My sense is that this is not the case. I do know certain tasters and critics who have a high level of imagination as to what is a corked wine. This contributes to the problem.

    Another issue on screwcaps is lifespan. The screwcap seal relies on tension creating a seal over a tiny amount of surface area. Should that material lose its resilience over time and should there be fluctuations in temperature you will have a failure of the seal. (Hod Berg talked about this and research on screw cap shelf life in the 60’s in our UCD lectures.)

    A cork seals over a hundreds of times the surface area and stays resilient because of moisture or humidity in the bottle. It is a wonderful and dependable seal.

    Personally, I think we should stay with our customer’s preferences. We should just find a way to remove the taint while keeping the sealing quality of the closure. There are several treatments being used and the incidence is definitely down the last decade.

    Years ago, I inadvertently came up with a crude solution. We had a new corker that chewed up corks. We were getting cork dust in the bottle. It was a mess. The solution was dumping the new $35k corker (we’re talking 1970 dollars) and buying a new one, or coating the corks with paraffin to help the corks slide into the bottle. Not just a little paraffin, but a super heavy coating. Of course, the paraffin built up in the corker and every now and then a big slug would go into a bottle followed by a cork. (I did say “crude.”) So we had to have inspectors.

    Out of hundreds and hundreds of bottles of those wines I have not had a single corked wine, nor have many of those wines penetrated that heavy paraffin coating. Seems to me that some bright person can come up with a similar, but more subtle solution. Maybe a combo of removal and coating.

  20. Susan Feist says:

    I love them.

  21. Morton, for 20 years I’ve heard the cork industry say “We’re fixing it, be patient.” Well, when I get a $100 Napa Cabernet that’s corked, I lose patience. And what about the bottom end, of wineries that can’t afford a dollar a cork? The incidence goes way up, telling me the cork industry is “solving their problem” on the backs of inexpensive wines. In other words, a two-tier cork system. Just like American healthcare!

  22. “Screwtops are greener than corks, imposing less of a carbon footprint on the world.”

    Well, either is a tiny contributor to a bottle of wine’s carbon footprint compared to, say, the transportation costs. So if carbon footprint means anything at all to a consumer, she’ll choose the wine made locally. That said, I’ve seen no science that supports your assertion. Maybe that science is out there and I’ve missed it; if so, could you point me to it? What I’ve seen is that even research sponsored by Oeneo Bouchage — which stopped producing corks to focus on alternative closures, including screwcaps — and conducted by the Cairn Environnement in France, says a screwcap has FOUR TIMES the carbon footprint of cork.

  23. All consumers are the future, not just one generation.

    Morton Leslie’s multiple references to consumers highlights what counts.

  24. Morton,

    One of the biggest issues I continue to come across with wines under cork is bottle variation. Because corks are natural and not man made, no two are identical . . . and therefore the trans ox on each one will be different . . . leading to different levels of oxidation of the wines . . .

    Another point is that the general consumer has no clue what a ‘corked wine’ is – they just know it’s bad and that they will never try that wine/brand/variety again . . . not realizing it’s the little closure that caused that entire bottle of wine, that a winemaker and his team spent a few years nurturing to get it into the bottle in the first place.

    One last point – it still is part of our responsibility as an industry to educate the consumers as to why more screw tops are being used – NOT to cheapen the product but to better insure the quality of the products they will consume . . .

    Cheers!

  25. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve – Stop typing about your disappointment that you didn’t like a $100 Cab someone sent you and think for a minute. The bottom end of the industry is using 40 cent corks instead of 10 cent screwcaps on $2 bottles of wine. Now why do you suppose? Franzia loves to just give most of his profit to cork companies? You say it is because the wine industry is backward and hasn’t figured it out? Lucky we have bright, forward thinking people like you to set us straight. I’d say we aren’t the ones that haven’t figured it out.

  26. Not liking the potential reduction issues with screwcaps (and really not liking the idea of re-engineering our bottling line), we have been using synthetic corks (reluctantly) to avoid TCA issues. However, we have now switched all bottling to the new “Diam” cork, which is a new type of technology in a composite cork, made from cork and guaranteed no TCA. More environmentally friendly than either screwcaps or synthetics, too. Many advantages from a winemakers perspective with this new closure!

  27. Karen,

    Thanks for piping in (-: But have you actually experienced the reductive issues you mention? I have had well over a hundred screw capped wines from others – and quite a few of my own – without nary a one bottle that was reductive . . .

    Just wondering . . .

    Cheers!

  28. I have said for several years that most wine that retails for $15.00 or less should have a screw cap. That consumer who buys in that range is someone who will consume it within 24 to 48 hours, red or white. That same consumer may want to spend more because of a special dinner and in that case purchasing wine in the $25.00 range or more and those wines should be corked.
    The bottom line there is room in the wine industry for both types of corkage.
    A final note. I remember when liquor came out in plastic bottles. At first the market rejected it. Now it’s common place, but mainly on lower priced goods.
    As example, Smirnoff in glass, it’s lower priced sibling Popov in plastic.

  29. Wines at Elena Brothers/Regina and Roma were all screw cap closed. They were also pasteurized/ion exchanged and copper treated. YUM.
    I must say that I have experienced more disappointment due to wholesaler/retailer transportation, storage and handling than to the minuscule number of incidences of TCA.

  30. JD in Napa says:

    I love it when Morton mentions “consumers”, as that invites me to chime in. First, I think screwcaps are great, and I get really pissed when I open a cork-closed bottle that has the taint. At our rate of consumption, with a tainted bottle about every other week, we’re looking at about 5%. That’s enough science for this morning.

    Now the fun part. Morton mentions the gazillions of bottles opened at a judging with nary a corked bottle in sight. Given the recent press about the inconsistencies of wine judges, am I even supposed to assume that the majority of them can detect the taint? Pull pin, toss, run. :o)

  31. Sean Thorniley says:

    Steve et all,
    I love this topic, it truly gets tons of folks thinking and many riled up! This is a good thing in my opinion. I have been selling/serving wine for many years to a vast array of folks and have come to find that unfortunately most folks truly don’t understand “corked” and we do need to keep working very very hard to better educate folks.
    That being said, we also still need to do lost of serious research about corks and caps with large groups of folks “testing” the results (tasting the wines and recording their “perceptions”). I agree we need scientific evidence about the amount of the various chemicals in wine and how they respond to the environment different closures create, but the bottom line is still that wine “enjoyment” comes down to a matter of perception and a wine perfectly preserved in three different ways and still have people “perceiving” three different wines over all. Science is a good thing and accurate results are helpful, but it still boils down to the consumer’s perception. I have hosted many a wine consuming event and had folks love a wine that I have served them before they either didn’t like much, or were just Ho Hum about to later enjoy very much with a group of folks doing the same and vica versa.

  32. JD in Napa says:

    I’m back. My friend has worked (not judged) the wine tasting at the California State Fair for many years. I asked him about corked wines, and he said over the past three years, about 4% of the wines were corked. Interestingly, this past year saw two corked wines with synthetic closures, and one screwcapped.

  33. JD: Hah! You’re right.

  34. Steve – I’m a Millennial and want to comment on our take.

    Short story time: When I ordered a nice bottle of wine (pinot noir) at dinner with my boyfriend in Central Coast wine country, the server brought out a screwtop. Honestly my first reaction was embarrassment – I must not have chosen a very good bottle. In reality the wine was absolutely fine in quality, but I was borderline mortified: I wanted to do something special to celebrate our trip and instead I apparently ordered the Zima of wines.

    Fast forward and I now work in the wine industry as a broker specifically focusing on Millennials as the ultimate consumer. My comment on this NOW is that consumers’ reactions on screwtops (especially my generation’s) will always be in context. If that server had told me that the winery that bottled the wine I ordered was in the process of going carbon neutral and had explained how screwtops are more green, I would have felt entirely different. Maybe a little proud.

    My point here is that my generation DOES care, but only because we are not fully informed.

    So as you mentioned in your post, until we are educated on the benefits like everyone else, expect these stereotypes to continue.

  35. Leah, thanks for your comment. Anything new is apt to be misunderstood without context. And yet, it’s not fair to expect everyone to appreciate the context because we’re all overwhelmed with our own lives and don’t have the time to study everything. I think the blame (if there was any) was with your servor. He or she should have provided a back explanation. Of course, this gets into matters far beyond the scope of my blog. I mean, it’s easy for me to say “Every restaurant owner should educate their servors in every aspect of wine service” but that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

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