Turn of the Screw

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

But he is not going the screwcap route alone. The Swiss, Australian, New Zealand, and South African bottlers are already reliant on Stelvin screwcaps. So much so, in fact, that in the summer of 2001, a collective of 27 New Zealand wine producers announced their move to the screwcaps; in Southern Australia, Jeffrey Grosset from Clare Valley has gone over 100 percent for his Rieslings, which retail at about $30. (Note: Many wineries, both here and abroad, have experimented with artificial cork stoppers, but nobody seems to like them. While the synthetic cork industry, actually led by American companies, produces 750 million artificial corks annually, wine connoisseurs claim they can flavor a wine unfavorably. They're also difficult to remove from the bottles and have ruined more than one of my corkscrews. Britain's Prince Charles has been the most vocal public figure so far -- he's on record calling them "nasty plastic plugs.")

Southern hemispheric wine writers and critics have wholeheartedly embraced the screwy notion. After a visit to the cork forests in Portugal, Christian Eedes, editor of South Africa's WINE magazine's Website, wrote extensively and intelligently about his trip, which I, too, attended. (Read the whole piece at www.winemag.co.za for greater insight.) He fairly assesses the cork industry, the problems it faces today, and its redoubtable future. But his knee-jerk reaction upon returning home, which he related in Gulp!, the magazine's e-newsletter, tells the real tale: Give him a "first-world country" and an upscale bottle of South African wine topped with a screwcap, and he's one happy, if not biased, man.

Other epicurean e-newsletters, including ones like guamdiner.com, envision an abandonment of cork altogether. "I'm increasingly convinced that a tipping point is near; and once a critical mass of high-end and respected wineries make the switch, I suspect that we'll see natural cork quietly disappear from the market," writes www.guamdiner.com wine columnist Michelle T. Christy. "After all, it's a 17th-century technology being used on a 21st-century product -- and I can't imagine any other product in which consumers would willingly accept a five-percent failure rate."

Jeremy Eaton

Even the American public, which has remained somewhat removed from the controversy, seems initially amenable. Others appear to harbor strong opinions, though. A member of the South Florida chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, Hue Harriman, is "totally in favor of eliminating cork in any form.... Screwcaps or some other similar closure will reduce some of the fear factor that novices (and some waitstaff) have regarding serving wine."

And not just beginners. Miami Shores resident Tabitha Charles, an avid wine consumer, was at first shocked when she discovered a screwcap on the bottle of wine she was about to enjoy with husband Jerome in their hotel room during a vacation in Switzerland. She had even brought corkscrews and wine glasses all the way from Miami. "Whoa!" she recalls thinking. "What's this? Did we buy a really cheap bottle of white wine? Are we going to get a headache from this?"

Charles not only found the wine to be delicious, she became accustomed to screwcaps. "When we were in restaurants, it was fun to watch the waiters as they brought out the wine and unscrewed it for customers." Still, she adds, "You can't help but miss the sound of the 'pop' of the cork or the anticipation of it coming out of the bottle."

In the end that classic, romantic sound-byte is what keeps many local wine-drinkers from being convinced that screwcaps are a viable option. But then, that sense of sentimentality -- how something looks or feels, the image it presents and emotions it awakens -- is also what keeps a lot of us, especially down here in the seductive subtropics, smoking cigarettes. "It's like anything else ... educating the consumer is the key," notes Wolfe. The question is, do we really want to be schooled?

Next week: Can romantic notions help Portugal save the industry? The history of cork, how it's harvested, and the value of tradition. Local sommeliers weigh in.

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