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Let’s Bring Some Closure

Almost 10 years ago—when the whole ‘screwcap thing’ was just starting to percolate—one of our New Zealand producers gave us a choice on our container order (1,100 cases) of Sauvignon Blanc: ‘you can have cork, or screwcap…same price’. Being early adopters, we were inclined to say ‘make it all screwcap, thank you very much’. But some involved (who are undoubtedly more thoughtful and reasonable than the Wine Geek) opined ‘let’s make it 50/50 just to be safe’. Safe, schmafe…‘fortune favors the bold’ said others. But caution prevailed—this is the wine business after all. And then a funny thing happened: we gave our customers the same choice—cork or screwcap, same price. And what happened? (drum roll) We sold all 550 cases of screwcap wine before we sold even 25 cases of the cork-sealed wines. The voters had spoken, and there would be no turning back…or so we thought.

First a bit of history: the catalyst for alternative closure boom in the early ‘00’s frankly was a ‘crisis’ with the reigning closure—natural cork. Increased wine volume all over the world put massive pressure on the cork industry—a highly regulated, skill-required endeavor. Since it takes nine years between harvests (essentially shaving a portion of the bark from mature trees), the trend lines indicated there was an impending shortage. Prices were climbing, and at the same time, cork manufacturers were trying to come up with more economical ways to process the corks. That’s when the presence of TCA (2,4,6—Trichloroanisole), the pesky compound that causes wines to become ‘corked’ or develop ‘cork taint’, started to increase dramatically. Humans can detect TCA in amounts as little as 2 PPT (that’s parts per trillion). Cork is a natural receptor for this compound (as is wood—which abounds in most wineries from oak barrels to wooden beams), so cork that was tainted by TCA was the easiest way for wines to become affected and spoiled; at least that was the general conclusion (in reality, chlorine bleach was part of the problem too). Now that the guilty party was identified, the numbers started rolling in: estimates as high as 12% spoilage due to ‘cork taint’ stated to circulate. More reasoned estimates came closer to 7%…still an outrageous number of faulty products to be foisted on consumers; we’re actually surprised the plaintiff’s lawyer-types didn’t have a bunch of class action lawsuits cooking. In Geek’s experience, a rate of 5% corked wines was not too high an estimate based on the 100+ bottles opened in his presence each month.

Due to this crisis, the nascent wine screwcap closure industry started to be embraced by a wide range of producers—not just the Aussies and New Zealanders (two production zones that had embraced screwcaps to a fairly large degree even before the crisis), and not just for wines that sold for $7.99 or less: even Plumpjack Winery put a portion their Reserve Cabernet under cap…and they still do so to this day. Even some First-Growth Bordeaux properties have studied this and bottled some wine under screwcap. Of course, for premium wines, the great unknown was how the wines would age under screwcap compared to cork: Corks actually ‘breathe’ letting microscopic amounts of air into the bottle and alters the wine…i.e. allows it to ‘age’. This is referred to as the Oxygen Transmission Rate or OTR. Being natural, each cork is slightly different and can have slightly different OTR’s (can you say: ‘bottle variation’?). But screwcaps too can let oxygen into the seal: they can be ordered to allow zero oxygen, or in a small number of OTR rates, depending on what the goal of the winemaker is. And these OTR rates are much more predictable.

This said, to consumers—especially consumers of premium & super-premium wines—there is no substitute for the look, feel, and tradition of natural cork. Paying say, $150 for a bottle of wine, and then twisting off the top as you would a bottle of San Pellegrino took away some of the romance for many consumers (there has been much market research on this subject). But there is still that nagging potential for a corked wine—down to an incidence rate of only 1% by some estimates, it still can happen: and it seems that it happens mostly to that expensive bottle you’ve had in your cellar for years—such as the 2001 Barolo Geek opened last night…then fed to the kitchen sink.

Happily, there might be a compromise looming. Many of our very best producers—estates that would never go to screwcaps or plastic stoppers (generally considered to be the bottom of the ladder in terms of quality)—have now embraced ‘technical cork’: a natural cork product which has been ground up and reconstituted into a cork. It’s the best of both worlds: none other than David Ramey of Ramey Cellars uses the DIAM Cork for all of his wines now. He was experiencing about 3% TCA contamination in his wines, so switching to these corks—which essentially eliminate TCA—was a no-brainer. The cost is about 50% of the cost of a cork, but David said “I would pay more for DIAM corks”. Not only is TCA eliminated, but the OTR rate is predictable & dependable.

The bottom line to this dilemma? Buy from a great producer; they are at least as concerned about the quality of your wine as you are. And when someone who has his or her name on the bottle makes an informed decision…Geek will (uncharacteristically) shut up and drink.

… To be continued

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