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Let's Do the Twist

Some top winemakers are abandoning corks in favor of screw caps. Wine editor Lettie Teague investigates why.

A good friend of mine is constantly asking me for "a bottle of wine to take to my cousin's house." Because this friend has cousins the way Wilt Chamberlain had girlfriends, I probably give her half a dozen bottles a month. Not long ago, I handed over a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that was closed with a screw cap instead of a cork. My ungrateful friend gave it a skeptical look. "It's a good wine—your cousin will like it," I said reassuringly.

The next day, she called in a huff. Her cousin had cut his hand trying to open the bottle. He hadn't realized it was closed with a screw cap until it was too late—after he'd plunged the corkscrew through the metal, gashing his finger in the process. "I thought for a minute it might be a screw cap," the bleeding cousin had reportedly said to my friend, "but I didn't think you'd ever bring that kind of wine to our house."

According to Chris Adams of Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits in Manhattan, quite a few of his customers have done much the same thing. Some, he admitted, were "miffed" (that's the way Madison Avenue wine merchants talk) when they found that their wine had a cap, but most, he claimed, were nonchalant. Except one woman, who returned an entire case of screw caps because her guests "would not understand."

I know how she felt. When my friend The Collector came over for dinner a few weeks ago, I unscrewed a bottle of 2002 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc for him. "What's that?" The Collector snapped. "It's a screw cap wine from a great New Zealand winemaker," I replied. "Well, I don't like it," he replied—referring to the cap, not the wine, which he admitted was delicious. "Some very good winemakers, particularly from New Zealand, are closing their bottles with screw caps because they've had problems with corks," I explained. "What about Domaine de la Romanée-Conti?" The Collector countered, referring to the great Burgundy domaine. "Are they using screw caps?" I told him I didn't think so. "Well," The Collector replied, "when DRC bottles its wines under screw caps, that's when I'll buy a screw cap wine."

My friend The Collector is a pretty traditional guy. And, frankly, a bit of a snob. He likes the ceremony and ritual that come with uncorking a bottle. So do a lot of people, including Prince Charles, who felt strongly enough about corks to inveigh against their synthetic alternatives in a speech he delivered last summer: "Quite why anyone should want to encounter a nasty plastic plug in the neck of a wine bottle is beyond me!" (Never mind that the Brits probably drink more supermarket plonk than anyone else on the planet; apparently they like it to come with a cork.)

But winemakers who've had bottles ruined by bad corks have little tolerance for this sort of talk. Wine drinkers, they think, shouldn't be thinking in terms of tradition but TCA (trichloroanisole, a contaminant that can come from cork and make a wine taste musty and dank; wines infected with TCA are referred to as corked). TCA has haunted winemakers for years—upsetting them even more, perhaps, than the Chardonnay glut.

Some producers, like Australian star Jeffrey Grosset, have spent years studying the subject. Grosset has been analyzing the effects of TCA and considering alternatives to corks for 25 years. As of this year, almost all (92 percent) of Grosset's wines will be bottled under screw caps—even his priciest: a $43 Pinot Noir. He has also traveled around, talking to other winemakers about what he's learned. In New Zealand, several producers were convinced to follow suit, bottling all of their wines with screw caps too.

In fact, in the manner of most recent converts, New Zealand winemakers are pretty outspoken advocates of screw caps. (Some Australian and German producers can be almost as convincing.) I discovered just how intense New Zealanders' feelings were when I visited the country last fall. Virtually every winemaker I met there wanted to know my screw cap "position." One particularly pugilistic producer put his face close to mine and demanded I give him "one reason" why screw caps weren't good. I politely demurred—feeling like a Democrat at a Dallas cocktail party.

Meanwhile, in California, the few winemakers who use screw caps are more likely to be on the defensive. When high-profile producer PlumpJack introduced a screw cap version of its Reserve Napa Cabernet three years ago, the $135 bottle sold out immediately. But the screw cap engendered some angry e-mails—including one whose author hoped the winery principals would "burn in hell" for the transgression.

Yet even at the risk of eternal damnation, I can appreciate the arguments of both sides. I've had plenty of cork-tainted bottles, and I understand the winemakers' wanting to eliminate the problem any way they can. (Estimates of how much of the world's wine is affected by cork taint range from 0.5 percent to 8 percent.) On the other hand, I'm not ready to give up on corks; after all, they've done a good job for a very long time.

Most of the sommeliers I talked to seemed to agree. Even Lisa Minucci of the Martini House in Napa Valley, who devotes a whole page of her wine list to screw cap wines, acknowledges that most of her clientele still want "wine with corks." Eric Lilavois at the restaurant City Hall in Manhattan has a few screw caps on his list; he says caps are just fine for young white wine, but like The Collector, he draws the line at great wines, specifically, DRC La Tâche, because, he says, "I'd like to leave some room for romance."

As far as I'm concerned, the whole situation seems to require a more measured response. That is to say, more experimentation and study (though I don't think Jeffrey Grosset should necessarily devote the rest of his life to the topic). The owners of PlumpJack, in fact, are still assessing the screw cap; they've commissioned a five-year study on the subject by the oenologists at the University of California, Davis. Even the Gallos, the people who've put more screw caps into the world than anyone else (starting in 1940), are adopting a wait-and-see attitude for their high-end Sonoma wines. "We're evaluating it," says Gallo of Sonoma's communications director Carmen Castorina, "but we don't have any plans to switch to screw tops. We're heavily involved with improving our corks." Still, Castorina can't help adding, "Julio Gallo must be chuckling in wine heaven" at all the fuss.

The fact is, as Larry Stone, wine director at San Francisco's Rubicon restaurant (and a supporter of screw caps), points out, TCA can come about without a cork. And of course, screw caps have their own set of problems, such as leakage: A screw cap leaks more readily than a cork. A metal cap can get banged up (sometimes, as I've discovered, so badly that it can't even be unscrewed). In addition, a screw cap can be sabotaged, as the owners of PlumpJack discovered when someone—presumably bent on salvation—stabbed a knife through one. Finally, and most important, it's too soon to know whether a screw cap wine will age well. We know what a Lafite or DRC tastes like aged for 10 or 20 years in a bottle closed with a cork. But nobody really knows what a few decades under a piece of metal will do.

A few weeks following my dinner with The Collector, I decided to get in touch with Aubert de Villaine, the revered director of DRC. Did he have any plans to put the domaine's wines—Montrachet, Échezeaux, Vosne-Romanée or La Tâche—under screw caps? De Villaine sent a careful reply. He knew nothing of screw caps. He had no opinion about them either.

It occurred to me that if De Villaine ever looked into the matter and decided to bottle his wines differently, at least DRC would have a distinctive marketing campaign. I envisioned the slogan: "DRC: The one grand cru that's easy to unscrew."

Published August 2003
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