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By Doug Drowley

Cork versus screwcap: don't judge a wine by the stopper

It takes more than 60 years to buck hundreds of years of tradition. Even so, the inroads are being made in the wine industry as more and more winemakers choose to protect their creations with a more efficient, less-expensive alternative to cork as a bottle sealer. That alternative is the screwcap.

Originally created by the most renowned makers of wine on earth — the French — in the late 1950s, the screwcap quickly lost favor with the very people who invented the product. French researchers had good reason to seek an alternative to the traditional bottle stoppers made from cork. It is generally accepted that three to five out of every 100 bottles of wine that use cork as their stopper are what the industry calls, well, "corked."

The layman's term "corked" refers to contamination of a wine by trichloroanisole, or TCA, a natural compound that imparts a musty odor or taste to a wine, reminiscent of wet cardboard. Wineries are very careful to keep their facilities and equipment sterile throughout the winemaking process. TCA can form as a by-product of the process of keeping things sterile. And while drinking a bottle of wine contaminated by TCA will not make a person sick, it does affect the taste of the wine in what most people would consider a negative way.

Cork also is susceptible to temperature. Cork expands and contracts, like most woods, when temperatures fluctuate more than just a few degrees. Those who have opened a wine bottle to find a cork stained up its sides with a trickle of the wine in the bottle have seen the evidence of such fluctuations. When confronted with such staining, the concern becomes whether the wine inside has suffered from oxidization — too much air allowed into the bottle during storage due to contraction and expansion of the cork.

A wine suffering from oxidization also can exhibit flavors or odors of taint, or again, being "corked." On the other hand, cork does offer positives for the wine industry. Among them:

  • Tradition: Cork has been the standard-bearer for the wine industry for centuries, though screwcaps are gaining. While the percentages used to be overwhelmingly in favor of cork, now only about 60 percent of all bottles continue to use it as a stopper.

  • Presentation: Whether at a restaurant, or at home with friends and/or family, popping a cork on a bottle of wine creates atmosphere and ambiance for a meal or occasion.

  • Nuance: A wine aged properly, without great temperature fluctuations, with a cork stopper allows just enough air to reach the wine over time to blend and meld the specific attributes of the grapes from any vintage, bringing forth the mastery of a winemaker in the resulting flavors.

  • Renewability: Since cork is made from tree bark, it is a renewable resource.

While screwcaps may not evoke such tradition or nuance, they do create an airtight seal for wine bottles that eliminates the threat of oxidization, moldiness or TCA. Making wine is an expensive endeavor, and widespread use of screwcaps would cut down on the spoilage rate that could reach as high as eight percent industry-wide.

Detractors of the screwcap point to image as a failing. Screwcaps have been associated in the past with a wine being of lower quality. Everyone remembers their first experience with products such as "Boone's Farm," cheap products that served as an introduction for many to wine drinking. But slowly, industry leaders are changing that image.

Many people can remember when the white wine blend "Conundrum," then made by Caymus and now a spinoff from the renowned Cabernet Sauvignon-making winery, became one of the first high-end white wines to switch from cork to screwcap. Australia, which purchased the rights to the screwcap from the French after the product's invention, have been using the screwcaps on higher-end wines for decades.

And now in the U.S., other big-name wineries are following Caymus' lead. Among those embracing the use of screwcaps are other high-end producers. Napa Valley's Plumpjack sold out the half of its 2000 Reserve Cabernet ($150) that used a screwcap before the half that was stopped with cork. Bonny Doon, Hogue, Pepi, Bookwalter in Washington state and too many others to list also use more and more screwcaps.

Bottom line, the stigma of using a screwcap as opposed to the traditional cork is being removed from the wine industry. When choosing a wine from the shelf, consumers no longer need to shudder or hide a bottle stopped with a screwcap as they check out at the cash register. Instead, whether toting a bottle with a cork or a screwcap, consumers can be comforted that a wine can be judged by the flavors inside the bottle, and not by the stopper atop it.

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