Don’t Scoff at the Screw Cap
By Brian Goode
In my years as a wine lover and salesperson, at the retail as well as the restaurant level, I have come to notice a recurring list of Frequently Asked Questions from my customers. If I could pick one question to answer just one time to properly inform everyone it would be the one about the corks and the screw cap tops. You probably know how it goes because chances are you’ve asked it yourself, in one of these forms- “Why are screw caps used, and does that mean the wine is cheap?”, “Why do they use plastic (synthetic) corks now?”, or “Why are there more and more wines without traditional corks now?”
One easy answer is that the world has grown significantly since you drank Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine with the twist off cap. Back then we drank a few wines from Italy , a few more from France , and some from that upstart state of California , usually in jug format. That, and maybe a couple of German wines or Mateus Rose from Portugal comprised much of our wine consumption. However, along with the near tripling of the world’s population since then we now get wines from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Washington State, Oregon to mention a few. More bottles, but fewer trees from which to get the cork to stopper the bottles. More competition for cork and less available cork equals higher prices for cork, equals higher wine prices. Necessity, the mother of invention, led to the search for less expensive alternatives. Hence synthetic corks and screw caps were born.
Another factor in the discussion is that today’s wines are made differently than those of about thirty years ago. Technological improvements and better understanding of the winemaking process, from soil to grape to climate to storage have allowed us to bring wine to market sooner than in the past. Many wines today don’t benefit from excessive bottle aging, as they did previously. Corks allow for the slow release of oxygen into the bottle, and assist in the development of wines which are meant to be aged. However, today’s ready-to-be-consumed wines, sometimes known as international styled wines are made to be close to their ultimate potential as soon as they are bottled, and to be consumed within 3-5 years.
About 12 years ago or so, wine salespeople were talking about the coming changes in wine stoppers. The Australians were the first to wholeheartedly embrace the screw cap, putting them on $30 bottles of Shiraz . I remember feeling indignant when one of my favorite Australian producers switched from cork to screw cap, and vowed to “vote by refusing to purchase the wine.” The next year screw caps were showing up on $45 dollar bottles of wine, thus ending my revolution… The wines were still good, so I figured that there had to be a good reason for the change. The next step was trying to explain this change to customers, something which I’m still trying to do today. Some guests at the restaurant may miss the ritual of opening the wine and presenting the cork. Here is where I bring up one definite plus to the screw cap-wines. Without corks the wines don’t run the risk of being ”corked”- spoiled when the cork degenerates and imparts a distinctive moldy flavor to the wine. You don’t have to be an expert to detect a corked wine- if it smells like a moldy cork, like a damp basement, the wine is corked.
Another benefit of a screw cap top is that screw caps have been shown to be superior for keeping oxygen from the wine. A cork can dry out and this allows air to get in, oxidizing the wine and giving it a sherry-like flavor. This is much less likely with a screw cap. Screw caps are far better than synthetic corks in this regard, as they perform the poorest, allowing the greatest amount of oxygen to permeate the bottle. For most of today’s wines the screw cap provides the most protection for the wine, and at the least cost.
So, romantic flourishes provided by popping corks aside, the answer to the screw cap question is that your 3-10 year old wine is probably in the safest hands when a screw cap is involved. Not to disparage an old way of life, but sometimes, change is indeed good…
Brian Goode has been a chef and wine enthusiast for over thirty years, ever since his college days as a science major in Santa Cruz, California, and during his chef training at the Culinary Institute of America. During a Foodservice and Hospitality career in many areas around the country, he has received numerous awards for his cuisine, as well as several Wine Spectator Awards for his wine lists. He and his wife Joanne have been owners of Ye Olde Centerton Inn for seven years. He rarely declines an offer to talk about or taste wine and food.www.centertoninn.com or visit us on facebook