At a recent tasting of luxury boutique wines on the Hawaiian island of Maui, John Conover, general manager of the PlumpJack Vineyard of Oakville, Calif., stood accused.
"A lady in the audience stood up and said, 'You're the one. … You're the one that bottles with screw caps,'" he recalls, noting his winery is proud to be experimenting with the closures.
"She said, 'You're taking the mystique out of wine.'"
Why is some lady at a highfalutin' affair so threatened by a screw-capped wine? Perhaps because this isn't the cheap stuff you might see a wino clutching in a brown paper bag.
Conover works for the PlumpJack label, whose 1999 limited edition Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon costs $155 per screw-capped bottle.
Fed up with tainted corks ruining some of their finest bottles, eager to reach more consumers, and inspired by studies out of Australia and California suggesting the once-humble screw cap offers better quality control for some wines, wineries are contemplating ditching corks for the easy-off tops.
The Portuguese Cork Association, known by the acronym APCOR, estimates 7 percent to 8 percent of the wine market — up from past years — now uses non-cork closures, including plastic stoppers and screw caps.
Now — with APCOR fighting back through quality-control efforts and a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign — a California vineyard is taking perhaps the biggest U.S. leap yet into the screw cap fray, taking aim at the mass market.
Bonny Doon Vineyard's Ca' del Solo label this month is shipping 70,000 cases of its Big House Red wine and 10,000 cases of its Big House White with screw-top "Stelvin" closures. The suggested retail price: $9.95 per bottle.
Karen MacNeil, chairwoman of the professional wine studies program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., and author of The Wine Bible, says California winemakers are likely to keep a close eye on the Bonny Doon experiment. That's because with Australian competitors already using screw caps, artificial closures are "very much on the minds of people in wine country right now."
"I would bet that every large winery in America is discussing behind closed doors whether or not they should start bottling with Stelvin caps for their … everyday drinking wines," says MacNeil. "There used to be a stigma, but at this point there's also an incredible frustration among people who just spent $20 for a bottle of wine or even $10, and you get home and the bottle is ruined."
Despite the historic and romantic allure of a cork in a wine bottle, wine producers are increasingly frustrated by the belief that cork sometimes ruins their wine — possibly as much as 3 percent to 4 percent of the time — a perception APCOR is spending millions of dollars to combat.
Some of the millions are going into a research initiative, launched in May, on how to prevent 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, commonly known as TCA, a compound nurtured by cork that can spoil wine by giving it a dank, musty, cardboard taste.
Citing a new study by Britain's Wine and Spirit Association, APCOR says the actual rate of spoilage is far lower than some wine industry figures say, and that spoilage from other causes sometimes gets blamed on cork. The British study found that about 0.7 percent to 1.2 percent of wines are perceptibly tainted by TCA, with a slightly higher amount of spoilage in corked American wines tested.