Aug. 6, 2002 -- 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.
Will Others Follow?
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.
"As far as the cork industry is concerned, even 0.7 percent is unacceptable and the industry is doing everything to absolutely eliminate TCA entirely," says Mary Burnham, an APCOR representative in Chicago.
APCOR adds an independent study it commissioned shows consumers have an overwhelming preference for wine sealed with cork — perhaps something for wine producers to keep in mind.
Even Britain's Prince Charles has jumped into the fray, saying in a June speech that a reduction in cork demand could jeopardize cork oak forests — mainly in Portugal — which are stripped of their bark every several years for cork production, but otherwise remain intact as a wildlife habitat. Besides, Charles said, "Why anyone should want to encounter a nasty plastic plug in the neck of a wine bottle is beyond me."
Research and Acceptance
However, Charles' comments were mocked in print by British wine critics, with Malcolm Gluck in The Guardian jokingly calling for Charles' head and declaring corks "atrocious products [that] not only taint a proportion of the wines they are supposed to protect, but cause huge variation in quality from one bottle of the same wine to the next."
In fact, studies in California and Australia suggest screw caps, or even some plastic cork substitutes, preserve wine far more uniformly than cork — at least in the short term.
Germaine Greco, director of special events for the Sommelier Society of America in New York, says despite a "déclassé" image that keeps non-cork stoppers out of many fancy restaurants, the wine industry seems to have accepted the findings — believing artificial stoppers may work better for wines, such as Rieslings, intended to be consumed soon after bottling, but that corks still work better for aging wines.
In addition, some wineries might want to switch to screw caps for reasons other than quality control, according to Robert Smiley, a wine economist at the University of California at Davis, who also is on the board of advisers of Gardner Technologies in Napa, Calif., a screw-cap manufacturer.
In UC-Davis' survey of about 400 people in the wine industry, most felt "potential snootiness of the product and the difficulty in consuming it" kept wine limited to a small segment of the American population, Smiley says. Many focused on corks, which require special tools to remove, as being at the root of both problems. Screw caps were seen as a potential solution, but the survey showed consternation among those surveyed about taking the leap.
"Everybody else wants somebody else to do it first," Smiley says.
John Locke, Bonny Doon's director of public relations, says the sense that screw caps are risky is less important for Bonny Doon, because the winery has a reputation for experimentation and eccentricity.
"No one else at the moment has the cojones to dive in in a big way," Locke says. "We're about 99.78 percent certain it's going to be a huge hit. We're counting on the psychology of the reverse chicness. People don't know they're going to want this, but they will soon."
In a top-10 list to wine writers and distributors that accompanied his winery's leap into screw top wines, Bonny Doon President Randall Grahm jokes that APCOR has "3 ½ legs in the tar pit." One of his tongue-in-cheek, reverse-chic reasons for using screw caps is, "Never pay corkage fees again."
Though Bonny Doon may become the only American winery with screw tops on moderate-priced wine for the mass market, other wineries also are experimenting.
Large numbers of Australian Riesling producers from the Clare Valley region decided in 2000 to bottle their products with screw caps — a move followed by other Australian competitors. Screw caps are also popular in neighboring New Zealand.
In America, besides Bonny Doon and PlumpJack, the Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards of Windsor, Calif., have bottled premium Chardonnays with screw caps, and other wineries — including Downing Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., Argyle Winery in Dundee, Ore., and WillaKenzie Estate in Yamhill, Ore. — have used the closures. Fetzer Vineyards of Hopland, Calif., has been supplying single-serve screw-cap bottles to airlines for years, but so far has not used them on full-sized consumer bottles.
PlumpJack has been bottling half its limited edition Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with screw caps and half with cork since its 1997 vintage of a few years ago, and marketing one of each as a pair. Some swear that, other than an occasional spoiled bottle of the corked stuff, they can tell little difference between the two.
Unresolved Question of Aging
But still, even converts to the idea of screw tops find it hard to dismiss cork entirely.
"Ten years ago, I myself wrote an article on that I couldn't imagine living without cork," MacNeil says. "In the course of writing The Wine Bible, I pulled about 30,000 corks. I love that sound.
"[But] I'm more concerned about the quality in the bottle at this point," she adds. "If the Stelvin cap can save you from spoiled wine, why not? … Except Château Latour. I'll still take that in a corked bottle … because Château Latour, or a wine like it, is the epitome of tradition. And there's still that nagging, unresolved question of age: Will it age in a Stelvin?"