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."

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."

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."

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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