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A Twist of Fate

Back from New Zealand, where corkscrews aren’t necessary
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 24, 2012 2:00pm ET

Near the end of my two-week tour of New Zealand, Rippon winemaker Nick Mills led me through his new community hall and tasting room.

It’s a rammed-earth edifice with a wood-lined, vaulted ceiling. It overlooks Rippon's sloping vineyards, which extend below to the shores of the vast Lake Wanaka in Central Otago.

There in the hall, hanging on the wall, looking rather lonely and deserted, was a framed, mounted collection of corkscrews.

It looked very much like a museum piece. Many of the corkscrews were antiques. I recognized some of different shapes and styles, since my mother had collected old corkscrews for me on her trips through Europe and from garage sales and second-hand stores.

The moment I saw the corkscrew display I knew what I needed for the box of corkscrews my mom had collected. They’d been sitting on a shelf in my garage for years. Now they would have a decorative purpose.

What made Rippon's corkscrew collection stand out is that one rarely sees corkscrews in New Zealand. Most of the country's 650-plus wineries prefer twist-off closures for most of their wines. Of the 200 or so wines I tasted there on my visit, only a handful came with corks.

Once you start drinking a lot of screw-capped wines, the simplicity of twisting off a wine cap becomes readily apparent, whether you're dining in a restaurant or pouring a guest a glass. The cap snaps off in an instant.

Seeing someone use a corkscrew seemed an odd juxtaposition in New Zealand, a country that is so comfortable with twisties and so convinced they are the superior closure. New Zealand may be one of the youngest wine industries in the world, but it is light years ahead of the closure curve. Once you get used to twist-offs, as New Zealanders have, corks seem terribly passé.

Over the years I’ve tried hundreds of corkscrews, and while all of them have served their purpose—some better, some worse—none has been the perfect all-around tool. Now, with wines from some parts of the world, they aren’t even necessary, and happily so.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 24, 2012 4:27pm ET
One of my Kiwi winemaker friends told of being in a crowded restaurant in Auckland when the sound of a cork popping caused the restaurant to go silent, and everyone to turn toward the sound with puzzled looks on their faces. Every corkscrew is indeed an antique there. And I love it!
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  February 24, 2012 4:57pm ET
Harvey's story reminds me of an incident that occurred in a restaurant in Wellington some six years ago. We ordered a New Zealand pinot noir that still used corks. When the waiter tried to open the bottle with a corkscrew he dropped it and the bottle shattered on the floor. Fortunately none of us was doused by the wine, but it drew quite a bit of attention, to say the least. See what happens when you're out of practice.
Dirksen Stamp
Monument, Colorado —  February 24, 2012 5:48pm ET
James did you have an opportunity to taste more mature wines that were capped vs. cork? What's your option or the New Zealander's option about the aging process with caps vs. corks?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 24, 2012 6:00pm ET
Dirksen, I didn't, but I'm sure some Kiwi winemakers can weigh in with their thoughts. The few I had were a mix of both closures and I was not impressed, that is, the wines had not gained in my view. On the other hand, I have had wines with twisties from elsewhere that have aged well; the closure has less to do with quality than what's inside the bottle.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 25, 2012 9:00am ET
We've been doing side by side trials for 5 years now and have been thrilled with how screwcaps are performing. We went screwcap on most of our Appellation wines during this time and are taking all of our single-vineyard wines to screwcap closures as we use up the glass designed for corks.

There was a recent study, published in Practical Winery and Vineyard Magazine, that shows greater growth of brettanomyces in cork closed bottles (assuming the wine had brett to begin with and wasn't filtered) due to oxygen ingress. Another reason to consider screwcaps!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 26, 2012 3:01pm ET
Jim, they are relics, indeed, like the phone booth or the horse-drawn carriage. I am delighted that New Zealand (and a lot of Australia) is out there at the front of this movement. Adam's points about the aging success & diminution of brett are new to me and really interesting ones as well. I have purchased Siduri and Loring wines recently solely because they have embraced twist-offs, and thank them greatly for doing so! Likewise, I always throw a greater segment of my wine budget behind twist-offs, and sometimes avoid brands entirely because of poor track records from cork-related TCA. On the Aussie side, I noticed that Thorn-Clarke, Elderton, Hazyblur and Kilikanoon are bottling more under screw caps now. It's a very, very good thing.
Christopher Dunn
Honolulu, HI —  February 26, 2012 5:33pm ET
In 2004, there was a flurry of reports on the WS site (and in the magazine) about Hogue and other wineries going to screwcap, esp. for whites. The reports suggested that "screw caps better kept the wines fresh and fruity, with the white benefiting the most." For those of us who like our wines to "mature" and "age" and take on some secondary characteristics, I think I'd rather stick with cork and take my chances on taint, etc.
Marchello Chacchia
Connecticut —  February 26, 2012 8:27pm ET
With such a title, I was expecting an epitaph on the end of the era of cork in the land of the Southern Cross. I am all for screw caps on most "drink now" bottles. Romance aside, sometimes it is all about the now: grip it, rip it, and sip it. I especially appreciated the twist you included James involving the corkscrew montage. I think we could all enjoy one in our cellars. Cheers!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 27, 2012 12:53pm ET
I guess I better start my own cork and corkscrew collection before it's too late!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  February 27, 2012 1:33pm ET
Christopher, in my experience wines under spiral do develop the extra nuances you want with years in the bottle. They also keep their fruit. I consider that a plus. It's what you get under a perfect cork.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 27, 2012 2:23pm ET

Indeed....wine ages both aerobically and anaerobically. From the studies I have seen anaerobic age occurs both in screwcaps and under cork (of course). And, while corks have a range of oxygen ingress that allows for aerobic changes over time, screwcaps (with saranex liners) also have a rate of oxygen ingress which allows for these changes to occur...albeit slower and more consistently (as the rate of oxygen ingress in less but more consistent).

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Christopher Dunn
Honolulu, HI —  March 1, 2012 1:49am ET
Dear Harvey and Adam: Thanks for your thoughts and experiences. That is good news! Apparently, the screw cap technology has advanced since the 2004 reports. Aloha!

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