Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cork's Evil Twin

According to the San Francisco Chronicle this week, screw caps are one of the hottest trends in wine. I think they're a little late with the news, but the story does show that the use and acceptance of screw caps continues to accelerate as more and more quality wines are turning up under twist-offs. New Zealand wineries, for example, have taken the plunge big-time. It seems like almost everything from New Zealand these days has a screw cap on it.

What this story also says to me is that it's time someone declared synthetic corks a failed experiment that is now over. These plastic corks are not corks at all but an evil twin; something that resembles a cork but is inherently vile, like some kind of cyber-droppings. They sit tightly in the neck of the bottle daring you to pull them. You can almost hear them taunt you as you pierce them with a regular old Screwpull and then watch helplessly as they turn and turn, coming out of the bottle no more than a half-inch. If you're really unlucky, your plastic corkscrew will break. In the end, they give way only to brute force.

To top it off, evidence is beginning to gather that wines with synthetic corks don't age well. They age faster than wines with natural cork, and in some cases the wines over time may take on a funny synthetic taste. And, the research is just beginning.

It's time they were abolished. Screw caps make so much more sense. They are incredibly easy to open, and they make it convenient to seal the bottle back up if you haven't finished the wine. And, hidden benefit here, they may even shame some restaurants into reducing or eliminating exorbitant corkage fees. Charge a fee to unscrew the cap on your wine? Preposterous. If it doesn't reduce corkage fees it will at the very least expose corkage fees as the price gouging practice that they are -- another blog post for another day.

Of course, we all know the synthetics have come along for a good reason -- an estimated 5 to 10 percent of wines these days are afflicted with cork taint. It's caused by natural corks tainted by TCA, a chemical compound that makes wine taste like wet cardboard. It's hard to avoid. So, some kind of solution is in order. My idea: all wines under $20 should be bottled with screw caps. Screw caps and synthetic corks both avoid the problem of TCA, but screw caps are friendlier and more practical.

For expensive, ageworthy wine, I don't think we have any choice but to take our chances with natural cork. The other stuff does not look good for aging. Besides, my own experience with cork taint does not come close to 10 percent. So far, almost no one is using synthetics for ageworthy wine, so no dilemmas there. Let's keep it that way.


Anonymous Tony said...

While screwcaps may provide some measure to insurance against cork taint I have a few problems with them:
1) They do not provide the ceremonial "Pop" of the cork. My neighbors know when our summer happy hours begin by the sound of that pop over the silenced yard machines. And imagine Champagne without a cork. Sacrilege!
2) They are too easy to open. The act of extricating a cork after a few too many sips is natures way of protecting that cherished bottle for the special ocassion for which it is intended. And don't forget the formerly beloved, inquisitive child who just wanted to see what was in all of your bottles. Are those tears in your eyes, as you reprimand the child, for the child or for the lost wine.

Besides, screw caps and synthetic corks are so... industrial. They have no romance.

Regarding corkage fees: I believe that restaurants with liquor licenses tolerate BYO wine only because of the exorbitant corkage fees. I suggest you seek out and support restaurants without liquor licenses that charge a minimal cost for glassware. Or if you object to the quality of their glassware buy a 6 pack of bordeaux style glasses from Ikea for 9.99 and leave 2 of them at the reastaurant for less expense that the glassware fee. (Warning: untested idea. It just came to me.)

9:23 AM  
Blogger JD said...

Tony, I appreciate all you say. The "pop" of the cork does add an ambient enhancement to the overall experience. That's part of the reason why I still prefer real cork for ageworthy wines -- it's better for the wines lying down for years at a time and you get the tried and true ceremonial aspect that is really important for special wines. But I would submit that if you're doing the "pop" of the cork every night, it becomes routine anyway and enjoyment is diminished.

Also, screwcaps don't just provide "some" measure of protection, they provide almost complete protection. In exchange, I can do without the ceremony for those often-rushed midweek meals when I tend to be opening bargain wines.

One thing we agree on completely is that synthetic corks are indeed "industrial." They have no business touching my wine.

And, I agree totally on seeking out restaurants with no liquor license -- my favorite kind of restaurant. I can't abide paying often 100 to 200 percent mark-ups on wine that those other places charge.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you want to come in to my restaurant and use my glassware, sit at my table, and receive the same service as someone who bought a bottle of wine at our mark up, and you don't want to pay a small corkage for this?
Most restaurants charge 5-20 dollars for all of this! Maybe if you like the restaurant enough to come in, you should even consider buying what they are selling!

11:07 PM  

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