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Cork It, Cap It, Screw It

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 20, 2007 3:00PM

2007_03_stelvin_closures.jpgWe buy a lot of wine. It isn't as much in volume and dollar amount as we spend on beer, but it's still an impressive (or shocking) sum. Whenever we have company over, we're always amazed by the odd person who inspects our wine rack like we're being interviewed for acceptance to some Ivy League university. They'll look at the bottles, read the labels with the most serious of intents, then ask us why we're buying wines with screw caps. Their assumption being that if the wine doesn't require the removal of a corkscrew, it can't be good. Typically, we resist the urge to cuff them upside the head. Unless they crinkle their noses, then we go ahead and swing for the fences.

Once the domain of the Boone's Farms and fortified wines of the world, more vineyards are bottling their wines with screw caps these days. A major reason for this is economics: cork is expensive to produce and subject to failure before a wine reaches its final destination. As more vineyards use modern techniques to improve the yield and quality of their wines, they're also re-evaluating the need to cork a bottle. The screw-cap, or stelvin closure, has become increasingly popular among New World vineyard industries, New Zealand leading the charge. One of the most popular reasons for the change, besdies a shortage of cork, is that corks contain trichloroanisole, or TCA. It's found naturally in cork, but is more common among those that haven't been properly cleaned after bleaching. TCA is one of the leading causes of corked wines - that musty smell, like wet cardboard, one smells when he opens a bad bottle of wine.

There was once a time when one major roadblock towards switching to the stelvin closure is that it didn't allow air to the wine, which is essential for wine geeks who love to let their bottles rest for months and years, maturing. Cork does that; remember, wine is in a constant evolution, even in the bottle. Savvy vineyards have taken to sealing their stelvin elclosed bottles with non-reactive substances like Sarinex. Sarinex is a cellulose-based material that allows for small amounts of air to enter the wine, without corking it.

The biggest impediment preventing wineyards from making the switch is that pesky perception that screw cap wines are cheap. As we wrote previously, it's almost a mandate in New Zealand. We've had a wide array of Kim Crawford wines, all with stelvin closures, all of amazing quality. The lunatics at California's Bonny Doon vineyard are also making the switch, going to great lengths to educate their customers along the way on the benefits of ditching the cork. Sure, twisting a cap doesn't have quite the flair as the pop of a cork, but if it keeps the wine from turning before we have a chance to drink it, we'd rather be boring. So the next time you see a bottle of wine with a screw cap, don't be so quick to pass judgment. It could be one of the best wines you've ever tasted, and will spare you a smack on the head from us.

Photo courtesy of Avalon Wine.