Screw it: Cork, Screw Caps and other Closures

6 03 2010
Screwcap grouping 1

Screw caps © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

I am just going to come out and say it. I HATE corks. I know this is sacrilegious in some circles, but I can’t stop myself. Please read on for the next few minutes while I explain with some facts and opinions around my passion for this topic.

There is a certain appeal (and ritual) to using a corkscrew to remove a cork, I get that, believe me I do. It’s as natural as breathing.  I also think there is a bit of “sexiness” to it.

I have dozens of corkscrews from the simple waiter style (my favorite) to complex gas injected numbers, and I love them. But there is nothing sexy about buying a wine that you intend to have that night or had previously purchased to keep for mid to long-term – only to uncork it (you sexy beast) to find that it is either “corked”, the wine has spoiled from oxidation, or has another fault called “Brett” short for Brettanomyces. There is nothing sexy about any of these. Today we will focus on the issue of the corked wine.

Corks are a natural material made from cork trees – that live and breathe. When atop a bottle, they retain the moisture from the wine (and humidity) and hold it inside its pores which helps keep it from drying out. This allows the cork to expand in the bottle and creates a seal around it to help ensure that the wine will not oxidize (but you have to lay the bottle on its side for this to work). Ok, clear on that.

What is a corked wine and how will you know?

You may have had a wine that smelled like wet newspapers, damp cardboard, wet dog, moldy basement, or even a swimming pool. Imagine that old sock that fell behind the washing machine in the damp basement and never made it to the dryer. This problem can range from mildly problematic to completely undrinkable. Not only does it give these moldy wet cardboard aromas, but “flattens” out the wine and reduces the fruit aromas and flavors. It is not a health hazard, so you will not get sick if you swallow. This issue affects the lowest price wines all the way up the ladder.

How it affects us is based, in part, on how sensitive we are to it. Some can not taste it in mild cases, but many detect it at mid range levels and few can detect it even at the most minute levels. Unfortunately I am in that latter grouping and find myself frustrated and angry as I stand cursing at the sink as the wine goes down the drain. It angers me due to the time, money and hell – expectations that are immediately down the drain! Think ruined dinner parties, embarrassment at a gift given, even disappointed moments at a BYO on special occasions. I have had this happen at a dinner out with friends last week (always taste before pouring for a group).

The Corked Lineup

The Corked Lineup © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

The science behind it

I am going to get a bit scientific, so bear with me here. The major culprit of a corked wine  is something called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). This can come from the cork or through it. Let me explain. There are naturally occurring fungi that are airborne. When these fungi meet chlorophenol, the are then converted to chloroanisole. The cork trees absorb these pesticides and pollutants and are the culprit for these chlorophenols that then react and start the TCA taint. Another instance is actually within the wineries. The producers that are still using chlorine bleach to clean and sterilize run the risk of creating this same problem. In some cases, the problem is systemic and entire production facilities have had to replace barrels, hoses, and other equipment to resolve the issues. Stags Leap had run into this some years ago which hurt not only their wines, but their reputation as a high-end producer. Since then, they have resolved this problem.

A test was performed by Wine Spectator in 2005 and they found 7% of their test samples were tainted. Many producers are being more careful, and this issue is a huge problem that the tree growers are naturally concerned about as well. Cork producers are spending more on research to cut the problems and work on solutions that trap and or filter out the problems. All this is helping, but I am still finding problems when I pop a bottle and it affects my mood, my wallet and my overall faith in cork.


Synthetic is Stuck

Synthetic is Stuck © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Sure there are synthetic or hybrid corks. I dislike those because they just feel all wrong. Seems more “cheap” to me than screw caps. Also, these wreak havoc on corkscrew “worms” and get stuck or are difficult to remove altogether. I say why bother, let’s keep it simple. Sure, the cork industry does not want to disappear so there are huge arguments being made around non-cork closures. Off-putting smells from something called sulphidisation (less oxygen escaping mean sulfur smells gets more concentrated in a truly airtight bottle) may be present (have not seen/smelled that yet). Another option is the Alcoa Vino-Seal which was introduced around 2004 and offers a more elegant glass stopper with an o ring, but I have yet to come across one in any bottle that I have purchased.

Evil Cabernet Screwcap

Evil Cabernet Screw cap © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

In praise of the Stelvin®

Honestly, I have yet to open a screw cap and had to pour the wine down the drain. I am hoping for more research and better results around corked wine, but also pray that at least more screw caps are put to use in the meantime, please? With products like breathable wine glasses that are porous enough to let it breath through the glass…perhaps someone can look into this for the wine bottle itself so that it is porous enough to release the bad stuff but not enough to kill the freshness of the wine? Just a thought.

This is why I am so adamant about the use of a Stelvin® closure (a higher grade screw cap). You will not, I repeat, will NOT get a corked wine from them. Many have reported that corks help release and absorb the gasses that are off-putting. Some wine makers have also complained that screw caps will affect the taste, but I think that we should all be moving in that direction. As most wines are consumed within days of purchase, at least let’s demand those short-term or drink now bottles be screw caps. Let’s stop with the pretense that it cheapens the experience (pouring out wine is a worse experience). Many mid to higher end producers are moving in this direction.

Kudos to Australian producer Mollydooker for “screwing” all but their sparkling Shiraz (as that could be dangerous). Their price points are from $25 to over $200 USD! Argyle from Oregon has moved to the screw cap years back throughout their product line. Caymus went screw cap many years ago with their hugely popular Conundrum (a favorite of mine as well). Bonterra, an organic California winery that I love, is using and New Zealand has made it a no-brainer with screw caps on just about every Sauvignon Blanc I have seen from there.

Last words

Let’s get smart here and understand why we need to not only give this a chance, but love this closure. No cork means no corked wine. Did you realize that the one bottle from each case may be corked before we even pick it off the shelf or order in a bar or restaurant?  Screw cap means ease of use, no tools required, and easy to put back on to take with you. Did I also mention there is no need to store the bottle on its side!

A trick that may help

Cling wrap to the rescue?

Cling wrap to the rescue? © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

If a bottle you opened has exhibited the symptoms of TCA listed above, you can try something that may help.  Take about a foot of cling wrap and make a ball, then put it into a clean decanter. Then pour the wine into the decanter and swirl for a few minutes and then leave it for an hour. Pour the wine into a fresh decanter, (leaving the cling wrap in the first one) and serve. The chemical reaction from the polyethylene and the wine with TCA taint will actually remove some of the funky odors and tastes, bringing back some of the fruit that was lost due to the TCA. I have not found this to work well enough for me – but that might be because I am highly sensitive to TCA. Try it next time and see! Make sure you post about it here!

Related Links

Please post your comments, experiences, knowledge about this topic that has polarized the wine drinking community.

Steve from the Trellis

Tales From the Trellis

Back to Basics: I need closure Part 1/4! Seal the deal to enjoy it tomorrow.

15 02 2010

Preservers Montage 1

Preservers Montage 1 © Tales From the Trellis, 2010

Part 1 of 4 – Wine Preservation Overview

One important question that I hear all the time is what do you do with the bottle if you are unable to finish it right then and there. As more and more people are drinking wine, many new products are being created or updated – and are hitting the market to capitalize on the trend.

I run into this situation from time to time – but clearly the best way to avoid this situation is to enjoy it all so this won’t come up. Ok, seriously, that is not a good idea if you are driving or operating heavy machinery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about storing your wine, much of what is out on the shelves is for immediate consumption. This also means that once opened, the shelf-life will fade very fast. Oxidation (aka maderization) is the enemy here. So, what to do to prolong this and be able to enjoy it later?

There are many products in stores that can help extend the life of the wine once opened. Over the years, I think I have purchased and tried just about all of them. I will speak to some of the newer products with interesting use of technology and features in a later post.

I have tried many methods and tricks and have come  to this conclusion. Hurry!  These gadgets work to remove the oxygen and create a vacuüm that can help slow down (never prevent) the eventual spoilage from oxidation. Cooler is also better!

There are three basic catch-all categories of preservers that I will be discussing here:

  • 1) Pumps: Manual or battery/ac charged pump that works like a tire pump, but instead of putting air in, it takes it out and forms a seal. “I’m tellin ya baby, that’s not mine”– Austin Powers 1997 (warning: possibly NSFW).  Sharper Image, Vino Vac and Houdini are three widely available models.
  • 2) Gas Injectors: A pricier option that I have used on my finest and most expensive bottles. Producers like PEK puts an inert layer of gas on top of the wine, so that air can not get to it.
  • 3) Change the Vessel: Easiest and cheapest option (and sometimes used with either 1 or 2). Simply buy a half bottle of your favorite wine, or ask a friend that has an empty half bottle you can use.  Alternately, there are decanter “wine saver sets” on the market. The concept with this third option is to change (reduce) the percentage of wine exposed to the air.

I will be expanding on the above mentioned methods in upcoming posts to break down these options and speak to the pros and cons of each. Stay tuned!

Thanks for your participation, as always.

Steve from the Trellis

© Tales from the Trellis 2010