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Oregon Wine Screwcaps? Maybe.


You know, I used to be like you. “Screw caps!” I said, “I’ll never give up my trusty cork.” But no more. I have seen the light—or more accurately, I have tasted the wine. And now I’ve traded in that crusty old cork for the fresh-fangled reliability of twist cap enclosures.

Oh, I’ll admit it was tough . . . like giving up the buggy whip, the slide rule, the typewriter, and leaded gas . . . but once I got over the fanciful notion that there was something inherently romantic about always wondering if that newly opened cork-closed bottle would be fresh, TCA-free, devoid of taint, without excessive ullage, or if it had shrinking cork syndrome, I learned to love new the new technology.

Yes, it is true, we have in fact evolved beyond the 3,000 year-old tradition of cork enclosures. We have invented a more reliable solution: welcome to the 21st century, the screw cap enclosure is here.

Not that the screw cap is all that new. It was first applied to wines in the 1970s, but in the late 1990s and especially within the last few years it has gained a rolling momentum as an alternative to cork-enclosed wine bottles.

Why is an alternative desirable? Because of the invariable variability of an organic enclosure such as cork. It has been widely estimated that between 3% and 10% of all newly released wine will experience a problem with faults due to cork contamination of one sort or another.

In recent years, cork faults have been perceived as increasing. The rising demand for cork from the wine industry, it is claimed by some, have led to a shortage of high quality cork, resulting in a larger percentage of low-cost corks and concomitant rates of contamination.

In no other industry would an average 7% product failure be considered tolerable. Yet in wine, we have raised this fault to the status of romance.

Indeed, the very ceremony of opening a bottle at a fine restaurant exists solely to test whether a bottle is good or not—and this is called wine service, and you are expected to pay for it!* Considered objectively, it is absurd. You don’t expect to have a store clerk open a carton of milk and pour you a taste to ensure it is fresh before purchasing—why do we do it with wine?

Cork variability is a headache that consumers don’t need!

And, by the way, neither do winemakers.

I recall visiting Beaux Frères winery one day (a highly respected upscale Oregon pinot noir producer), and was surprised to see over a hundred clean wax cups filled with cheap white wine, each with a single cork floating on the wine. Winemaker Michael Etzel (at right) and his assistants were assiduously sniffing each cup and making notes on a clipboard form.

Michael explained to me that they were testing corks of different types, including such variables as quality, cost, source, vendor, and processing method. They were using a bulk white wine as their aroma “control” since it had straightforward and clean (not oaked) aromas. The corks had been sitting in the wine overnight in order to get some exposure time between the liquid and the solid.

I was surprised—no, I really have to say I was shocked—to note how distinctly different the aromas rising out of each cup were. With only the cork as the variable, I could easily smell the differences between many of the corks, and could just as easily deduce their potential effects on wine left in a cellar for even a few years.

My eyes were beginning to open.

Recently, they were opened even wider.  I received as samples two bottles each of Pinot gris and Pinot blanc, each wine in screw cap and cork-enclosed formats from WillaKenzie Estates. What a great opportunity, I thought to test the efficacy of each enclosure (at least for these fruit forward white wines).

I tasted each blindly, and had no trouble picking out the screw capped wine—t was just that little bit fresher. There was nothing at all wrong with the cork-closed wines, they just seemed a skosh more closed.

Cork has been used to store wine since the days of clay amphora. One of it’s most important supposed benefits is that is allows a controlled passage of oxygen into the wine, contributing to its evolution in the bottle. Yet there are studies that call into question the reality of this phenomenon. The great French oenologist Emile Peynaud has said that the perfect cork would create a perfect airtight seal—something that cork essentially does not do.

Yet screw caps can do either. While the idea is to create a true airtight seal, there is also technology that allows for controlled “gas permeability” in screw tops in order to help with ageing. Even so, the entire process of air exchange is controversial, and most, if not all, of the processes believed to involve wine’s maturation in the bottle are anerobic.

It is fair to say that the true ageability of wine in screw tops is not yet known. Indeed, a recent study by Hogue Cellars, the first rigorous study by a winery to be publicly revealed, showed that the benefits of fruit retention in the screw caps were more clear in the Chardonnay then the Merlot. With white wines generally being consumed earlier then reds, the case for freshness and purity of fruit shown by the screw caps seems a closed case for early drinking whites.

So yes, the case for long maturing reds would still seem to be open. But knowing the winemakers of the Pacific Northwest as I do, if any one of them offered for sale their highest end product in a screw cap, I would unhesitatingly buy the wine and plan on storing it in my cellar.

I mean, what’s the ultimate risk? Too well, I remember the sad case of my New Year’s Eve, 1999.

With care I removed the foil capsule and revealed an appropriately aged-looking cork: some dirt, some mold, some red staining . . . nothing out of the ordinary for such an old wine. Gently, I prodded the tip of a corkscrew into the soft cork . . . and with a sickening ease the cork itself started sliding down into the bottle before I could even get a single twist into it.

Long ago, my cork had shrunk (despite the bottle being always stored on its side). Who knows how long I had been supporting big expectations with nothing more than vinegar.

Luckily, I had a back up. Repeating the procedure, I was relieved to see what seemed a solid seal in the cork, as my corkscrew gripped nicely and the cork removed with appropriate resistance.

But I was to be disappointed again. This time the wine smelled and tasted like . . . moldy cork. It was the essence of what we call corked wine.

Wine should not be such a risky proposition, and screw caps help take the risk out of wine.

But there are many of us who resist. We just can’t get over the sense that a screw cap means cheap wine or that we will lose something if we don’t hear the pop of a cork.

Well, I suppose there are also folks who still feel Port and cigars are the exclusive province of men. Innovation is trying; progress is tough. But as my wife likes to tell me in other contexts: “Get over it!”

And I have. For my intermediate drinking (now out to 5 years) I have no qualms at all about screw-capped bottles. For my long-term ageing, it is a toss up. When my favorite wineries start selling their wines in screw tops—even their $65 Pinot noirs—I’ll grab those bottles first. I don’t want any more dodgy corks ruining my next New Years’s Eve celebration!

*Yes, I realize wine service includes the expertise of the sommelier, the good glasses, and storing the wine, and monitoring the table to keep glasses full, and so forth. I have no problem compensating a restaurant for that . . . but I do balk at paying merely for what is essentially a quality control test.

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