Believe it or not, screw caps might replace corks on bottles
One might think that an industry would be doomed when it knowingly sells a product that 5 percent to 8 percent of the time is defective and unusable at the time it leaves the factory.
Brazen conduct such as this would no doubt cause massive consumer backlash, and the public would quickly lose confidence in the product as the news spread.
Ordinarily, yes -- except when it comes to the wine industry.
Producers worldwide traditionally have used corks to seal bottles. Made from the bark of cork oaks, corks are bleached in chlorine as part of the manufacturing process. This sometimes can result in chemical contamination from 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (246-TCA), a compound that eclectic wine wag Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard satirically refers to in his humor tabloid, The National Vinquirer, as "2,4,6 tricootieanisole" or "cork cooties."
Whatever the chemical name, contaminated corks impart an unmistakably foul, stale, moldy odor and taste to the bottled wine. The only thing to do with a "corked" wine is pour it down the drain.
Discovering a wine is corked is particularly galling, because the producer and wine retailer who long ago pocketed their margins when the bottle cost $20, $50 or even $100 normally can't be located to make restitution.
Recognizing the problem, but being loath to tamper with the hallowed tradition of "pulling the cork" to open a bottle of wine, producers have experimented with alternate closures. Synthetic corks came into vogue for a while, but consumers have been reluctant to accept the hard plastic cylinders that often are more difficult to wrench out of a bottle with a corkscrew than a real cork.
Another possibility is the Stelvin screw cap closure, popularly known as the screw top, much maligned in wine circles. Screw-cap seals have commonly been associated with cheap wines intended for immediate and quick consumption. The common wisdom of wine snobbery is that no decent, well-made, ageworthy wine comes in a bottle with a screw cap.
But the times they are a changin'.
The trend of using screw-cap closures for fine wines began primarily in New Zealand and Australia and has spread to the United States. An inert food-grade polymer seal ring at the base of each metal screw cap preserves wine, eliminating the risk of taint.
Obviously, screw caps are a snap to open. An easy twist breaks the seal. No more crumbling or stuck corks, and resealing is just as easy as opening.
Even so, the move to screw caps is fairly risky, because numerous skeptics -- not to mention the cork producers -- are ready to pounce if these wines do not catch on. However, evidence already is mounting to show that screw caps might be the wave of the future.
According to the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, screw-cap seals permit wines to evolve and age in the bottle while being cellared. Screw-cap seals still permit a small amount of oxygen in the head of the bottle to allow gradual aging; researchers also note that much of the development of wine takes place anaerobically (without oxygen) inside the bottle.
Tests on "library wines" over the past 30 years, according to the initiative, have demonstrated the effectiveness of screw caps in preserving cellar-worthy wines while allowing them to develop complexity. Bob Campbell, a New Zealand master of wine, recently asked, "I have one question for the winemakers who ... continue to use corks. If you know that screw caps will produce better and more consistent wine than corks, how can you continue to shortchange your customers?"
I have not tasted a screw-capped wine that's been cellared, but I have tried a variety on the market with screw-cap closures. All have been fresh and without taint.
Best Buy Recommendation (with a cork):
Recommended: Indicates a well-made table wine ready for immediate enjoyment with everyday meals and offering good value.
Highly Recommended: Indicates a well-made table wine ready for immediate enjoyment and offering very good value on a particularly well-made example of its type.
Cellar Selection: Indicates a well-made table wine that requires additional bottle aging in a temperature-controlled cellar to reach peak enjoyment.
Note: Code numbers and prices refer to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system unless otherwise indicated.