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The screwtop gets some attention–and respect

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Packaging is the subject of today’s post. Lowly, decidedly non-glamorous packaging.

Reports surfaced yesterday that UC Davis researchers are “studying the performance – specifically the variability – within different types of closures.” They’re trying to determine if people can tell the difference between wines bottled in natural cork, screw caps or synthetic cork.

Notice that this study, whose conclusions are at least a year away, is not trying to answer that old question of whether wines age better, worse or just about the same in screw tops, natural or synthetic cork. To the best of my knowledge, that question remains an open one. But the UC Davis study will analyze the amount of oxidation that hits Sauvignon Blanc bottled in each type of closure. That should shed a little light on the impact of closures on longterm aging.

The news immediately went national. This morning’s HuffPo reported it, elevating it to the level of drama. “The debate as to whether traditional corks or screw craps produces a better bottle of wine — a controversial one that has divided the wine community — is about to take a scientific turn,” HuffPo said, doing exactly what a newspaper should: taking a dry-as-dust routine announcement of a new study and dubbing it “controversial” and “divisive.”

That’s good writing, my friend.

UC Davis is working on the study along with PlumpJack Winery, which has been using screwtops on some its its high-end red wines for years. This was a forward-looking move on co-owner Gavin Newsom’s part, but then, he’s always been a wonky kind of guy. Personally, as a critic who tastes more wine than the average Joe or Jill, I couldn’t care less what a wine is packaged in. If you had to smell TCA on as many corked wines as I do, you’d feel the same way. (Actually, I’m happy to admit the number of corky wines has fallen over the years. Based on my experience, I’d estimate it as 1 in every 100 bottles. But different people have different levels of sensitivity to TCA.)

The Brits, apparently, don’t much care either about how their wines are packaged, as long as it’s good. The Guardian headlined yesterday: “British wine snobs learning to love screw tops and boxes–Four in 10 wine drinkers now agree the quality of wine in a box or a pouch is as good as the bottled option.” Why the reporter called them “snobs” is beyond me.

Another British newspaper, The Mail, reported on the numbers. “Just 26 per cent of those questioned believed boxed wine was inferior to its bottled counterpart,” and “Screw-top bottles are also gaining in respectability, with just 17 per cent turning up their noses.”

These are good developments. People are learning to judge wines by the content of their character, not the type of packaging. I know, I know, the traditional cork is romantic. That Pop! as the screw extracts it from the bottle is part of wine’s charm. I doubt if the cork will ever go away, not in my lifetime. Or yours, probably, if you’re old enough to read this. But my thumbs–those marvel of evolution–are getting sore after opening more than 100,000 bottles (conservative estimate) over the course of my career. I could use a break. (But please, not synthetic corks. Hate them with a passion.)

  1. My man, not all synthetics are created equal! I agree with you on the plastic plugs (terrible), but the Nomacorc (just toured their facility in NC earlier this month) corks are really solid (still need time to see how they treat wine in 10-20 year timeframe, though, so I’m not 100% convinced, but certainly they’re solid for wines meant for early consumption) and they are *way* easy to extract. Having said that, they don’t have the same charm as cork (even if the newer models are trying to adopt the look of natural cork.

    The plastic plugs are the vinous equivalent of Styrofoam to me. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve almost injured myself trying to get those damn things off of the corkscrew thread!

  2. @1WineDude, plus the plastic ones are impossible to stick back into the bottle!

  3. Years ago when screwcaps begin emerging for certain wine categories, both price and variety, I appreciated the ease to getting at what was in the bottle. Currently, I find plenty of excellent wines with Stelvin closures and I think the stigma is declining among consumers and critics. I tasted an extremely gorgeous Albarino this week from a Paso Robles producer using Stelvin and I likely appreciated it more because of that. I’m not sure how I would test it clinically, but I seem to have been blessed (cursed?) with a sensitive sniffer for TCA, not to the point where others can’t detect it, but in some instances need to dig deeper to find what may leap out of the glass for me. I agree with Steve, there are thankfully fewer corked wines on the market. I am not a fan of synthetic corks either. Getting them off of a corkscrew or back in the bottle is a pain. I had an episode after replacing a synthetic cork removed with a screwpull. Even though I weas able to fully seat it again using an Ah-so, it dribbled all over my fridge after laying it down because the screw left an open pathway that did not re-seal. I would like to see more of the glass stoppers. When Whitehall Lane began using them around 2005, they seemed radical but downright sensible.

  4. The only real alternative is the ZORK wine closure. Originally invented in Australia, ZORK is now produced in USA (California.
    No corkscrew needed, easily re-inserts, protects wine better than synthetics or agglos. Innovative brands such as Leese-Fitch, Pepperwood Grove and Plungerhead as well as olive oil bottlers all over North America are increasing their sales by using ZORK. Consumerts love it. ZORK makes wine more fun!

  5. Like you, Steve, I open a *lot* of bottles every year, since I’m a wholesale sales rep and make presentations to accounts of at least a dozen wines a week. Add in winery “ridealongs,” consumer pourings and tasting events — well, lots of corks pass by me. I agree with most industry stats that say between three and seven percent of all bottles under cork are defective in some manner.

    Some are quite obvious (very distinctive odors of wet dog, musty cardboard, etc.) but many times, it’s more subtle — the robbing of the fruit, muted flavors, just generally “off” wine from a producer that’s known to me to generally produce a good bottle.

    So if Mercedes knew that between 3 & 7% of all the cars coming out of their production facilities were, in some way, defective, don’t you think they would take the necessary measures to correct it? They know that they can’t afford to let the public perception of less-than-the-best quality ruin their carefully cultivated image in the minds of their customers.

    With all the alternatives that present no issue of taint or contamination (glass closures, DIAM corks, Stelvin, etc.), it seems the only reason wineries continue to use chunks of tree bark is that they don’t want to pony up for the extra cost.

    Granted, I have some accounts that *will not* consider anything other than cork for their fine wines, as they are restaurants that want the table side show of popping the cork for the customer. But they charge enough to make up for the occasional spoiled bottle that it’s simply a cost of business — or they return the bad bottles.

    Unfortunately, many consumers don’t recognize when they have a tainted bottle and don’t return the bottle to the place of purchase for an adjustment. They just know they didn’t like the wine and they probably won’t buy any more of it in the future. That’s why a winery is putting a lot on the line when it relies on that ancient bit of technology to safeguard its product, its reputation and future sales.

  6. Sherman your numbers are way off. The rate of cork taint is far under 1%. And you need to educate yourself more fully as to where the “off” aromas of a wine come from.

    I can tell you from long professional experience that much of “the robbing of the fruit, muted flavors, just generally ‘off’ wine” attributed to cork actually originates with dirty bottles. If everybody incorporated a bottle washer into their bottling lines this rate would go down. Another problem leading to “loss of fruit” is residue of the release compound used int eh glass molding process.

    You imply that the cost of cork is lower than that of plastic stoppers or ROPP closures – it’s the other way around. Stoppers and ROPP closures are the cheaper alternative.

    The glass stoppers are expensive. (Also, misunderstood – the actual closure is a little ring of plastic.)

    You suggest that the only reason to continue to use cork is for the table show at a restaurant. That is an awfully shallow reason, and not at all why I continue to use bark closures. Consider for a moment that the flavor of that piece of wood could be part of the expected sensory profile of fine wine.

    Finally, how about we retire the analogies between the rates of “QC failure” due to cork taint (however low) and actual QC failure in other manufacturing (“…if Mercedes knew that between 3 & 7% of all the cars coming out of their production facilities were, in some way, defective…”). So far as I know, nobody has ever died from a “corked” wine.

  7. ‘“British wine snobs learning to love screw tops and boxes…” Why the reporter called them “snobs” is beyond me.’

    Ah, well…

    In the minds of British non-wine journalists, anyone who really cares about their wine is a snob. But so is someone who really cares about, say, their whisky (“whisky snob”) or even their reading (“book snob”). In our country, caring too much about almost anything renders you a snob; the done thing is to appear dismissively nonchalant.

    (However, we do draw the line at screwcaps, which simply cannot be opened in a stylish manner. These were our attempts to equal the grace of pulling a cork: http://sedimentblog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/how-to-remove-screwcap.html )

  8. John,

    The problem with any set of statistics is in understanding where the numbers are derived from. If the Cork Council of America is touting that the incidence of ‘corked wines’ is now lower than it was before, perhaps it is – but don’t you have to somewhat weary of the source?

    While working for a larger winery last year, we conducted cork trials before deciding not only on the cork company we would go with, but the specific lot of corks we would use. We contacted numerous companies, each members of the CCA, and asked for samples from specific lots to analyze. Note that these companies knew what we were going to do, so if there was any way to tell if a cork was ‘faulty’ before sending it to us, you would think they would.

    We got 250 cork sample bags, and randomly took out 100 and placed them in glass jars with inert lids. We filled each jar up with a stainless steel fermented and aged chardonnay and left the corks immersed in this liquid for about 36 hours in a cool, dark place. We then poured the contents of each jar sans the cork into glasses and had the three winemakers and another production person walk around the room, marking each glass with any ‘issues’ – these included TCA, muted aromas, chemical aromas, ‘woody’ aromas, etc. After we went around individually, we compared notes and made sure that we all agreed on TCA issues especially (our thresholds were all different).

    The results? Out of about 15 lots, the best case scenario was 2% TCA and about 5% ‘off’ issues altogether; the worst case lot had TCA issues over 20% and ‘off’ issues pushing 30%.

    Are these results representative of anything? We simply used them to choose which corks we would use, but many wineries do not go through the process that we did, and therefore they may end up with corks that have higher incidents of TCA that the ‘standard norm’ these days.

    Just thought I’d add a counter voice to the conversation . . .

    Cheers!

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  1. Huffington Post’s Article on Screw Caps is False Hustle « Découvertes de Vin - [...] Steve Heimoff’s Blog today made mention of a rather silly article from the Huffington Post on a UC Davis …
  2. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Moroccan Wine - [...] Heimoff is excited about the plan by UC Davis researchers to study “the performance – specifically the variability [...]

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