Turn of the Screw

That POP! of the wine cork may soon be a sound of the past

When it comes to choosing a bottle of wine, decision-making is endless. Red or white? Still or sparkling? New World (California) or Old World (France)? Cork stopper or screwcap?Come again?

Naturally no serious Miami wine drinker wants a bottle of vino that's as easy to open as a two-liter jug of Coke. It's taken the alcoholic public a while, but most of us who live in this wine-oriented city have graduated beyond white Zinfandel and Blue Nun varieties. Some of us even wield a corkscrew as handily as a mother changes a diaper. A few go so far as to carry cork openers in our purses or pockets, forget to remove them before we fly, and consequently have them confiscated at airport checkpoints.

But being strip-searched when the metal detectors go off at, say, jury duty is certainly worth being able to open a good, aged bottle of wine any time the occasion arises. For American aficionados, bottles topped with screwcaps are worthy only of nostalgia: Dude, remember the time we got drunk on that cheap [insert brand here] Chablis we bought in Winn-Dixie? Wolfe's Wine Shoppe owner Jeffrey Wolfe agrees: "It's hard to change people's perception that [only] 'jug' wines in the grocery stores use screwcaps."

Jeremy Eaton

If Bonny Doon Vineyard has its way, though, we won't need to practically buy stock in Screw-Pulls just to ensure a constant supply of living and breathing wine bottles. All we'll need is a flick of the wrist, a motion any fourteen-year-old male could teach to those incapable of figuring it out.

That's because Bonny Doon, like many other wine producers, distributors, retailers, writers, critics, and just plain old winos, are advocating the switch from natural cork closures to metal screwcaps. The former, as many in the industry already know, can ruin an otherwise fine wine by contaminating it with a compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA). The chemical is formed during the cork extraction process, when the bark harvested from a certain genus of oak trees is washed; organic phenols and molds, naturally occurring in the bark, react with the chlorine in the water. A TCA-tainted cork leaches the compound into the wine, resulting in odors more foul than fair and hues that range from cat urine to old blood. Thus the etymology of the term "corked," used to describe an undesirable bottle of wine.

Experts, especially those leaning toward screwcap closures, estimate that the current percentage of tainted corks ranges anywhere from five to fifteen; like date rape, noxious bottles of wine sometimes go unreported or even undetected. Those that do get caught are frequently returned to retailer and distributor, who either absorb the cost of replacement or refund or send the goods back to the winemaker.

The screwcap, however, sterile to the point that you could use its sharper edges for on-the-spot surgical procedures, vacuum-seals the wine in its pristine state for as long as you care to keep it. There is a caveat: Eric Hemer, educational director for Southern Wine and Spirits in Florida, notes that the screwcaps don't allow the wine to breathe. "There is no controlled oxidation," he says. "After six months you can see noticeable differences in the wines. Long-term maturing wines will still require a cork. And you will probably never replace the true elegance of a well-made chateau cork."

Still Bonny Doon founder and winemaker Randall Grahm is such a proponent, he released 80,000 cases of 2001 Big House White and Red wines this past spring, all closed with Stelvin screwcaps, which are produced by the French corporation Pechiney. As such, he is going to be, years from now if not already, considered an American pioneer in the local wine industry -- the distributors here in South Florida tell me that we will be the first market to receive the screwcapped releases.

Not to mention a character worth the ink. The first week of this October, Grahm hosted a dinner celebrating the so-called death of the cork. A "corpse" of corks, nicknamed Monsieur Bouchon (Mister Cork), was sculpted by commissioned California artist Wes Modes and eulogized in New York City's Grand Central Station by noted British wine authority Jancis Robinson. "How we shall miss thy cylindrical barky majesty," she began. In keeping with the motif, Grahm placed obits in selected wine mags across the country -- "Media Alert: Death of the Cork (M. Thierry Bouchon, 1585-2002)" -- and served a ten-course, all-black dinner, including dishes such as blackened almonds, venison roasted with mole, miso-glazed black cod, and foie gras "donuts." He's also posted "The Top Ten Reasons for Using Screwcaps" at the Bonny Doon Website (www.bonnydoonvineyard.com), not the least of which is that wine closed with screwcaps is the "perfect beverage for clothing-optional events." South Beach promoters, don't get any ideas.

Grahm may be doing it with an extravagant sense of humor, and having a ball to boot. At the wake for Thierry Bouchon, he announced to fellow mourners: "On behalf of the very extended family of M. Bouchon, I would like to thank you for attending this very heartfelt wake for the old stinker. While he will definitely be fondly remembered, every time we unscrew a bottle of say, Big House Red or White or 2001 Le Cigare Volant (available next year), a fragrant memory will also come to mind of how -- how shall we put this delicately? -- how 'ripe' he had become, especially in his later years."

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