Bottles ruined by cork taint frustrate everyone. Despite the success so many top wineries have had with twist-offs, there are those who balk at using them. Domaine Serene stuck with cork when many of its prominent neighbors went all-in for the screwcap.
Stalwarts such as Chehalem, WillaKenzie, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Maysara, Patton Valley, Raptor Ridge, Boedecker, Sineann, Siduri, Argyle and Roco consistently rate in the 90-plus range ("Outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) in my tastings, employing twist-offs. Ponzi, Erath, Trisaetum and Penner Ash use them for white wines. But Ken and Grace Evenstad, Domaine Serene's owners, could not bring themselves to join that trend.
"We taste a lot of wine here," says Ryan Harris, general manager of Domaine Serene, "and it's an ongoing frustration, whether it's a competitor's wine or our own. We have been able to reduce [the incidence of cork taint] in our wines over the years, but not get it to zero."
The Evenstads are convinced a new wrinkle in testing corks for incipient taint is the answer for them. Two cork providers offered to guarantee that every single stopper would be free of cork taint, a guarantee that they announced they are passing on to their customers.
For years, the only way to test for the telltale chemical of cork taint, known as TCA, was to randomly sample closures from each bag of thousands. If, after soaking in water for a while, a test batch smelled of TCA, the whole bag could be rejected. This sort of diligent testing could reduce the incidence of cork taint to less than 3 percent—still an unacceptable number to many of us, including the Evenstads.
To test each cork individually, each one is sealed in a small bottle with a few drops of water. One supplier uses gas chromatography to probe for TCA, but Domaine Serene went for one that uses human beings to sniff each container. "A person can pick up on things other than TCA, and reject those corks too," notes Harris. The sniff test costs an extra 26 cents per cork, according to Harris, who adds, "We won't pass that on to the consumer."
Domaine Serene tried the corks on several wines. After 18 months they found no tainted bottles with the human-sniffed corks. The winery announced a guarantee on every bottle, starting with wines being bottled this year from the 2014 vintage, both for Domaine Serene and Château de la Crée, their recently acquired domaine in Burgundy.
Cork taint, of course, is not the only issue with cork closures. Another Oregonian, Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Wines, demonstrated in a recent series of tastings that twist-offs not only eliminate cork taint, they prevent oxidation, preserving fruit character.
Domaine Serene waves off those concerns. The winery is in the camp that believes that tiny amounts of air seep through a cork to encourage proper aging.
"We like the way our wines age," Harris says, "and wouldn't want to make the move to Stelvin only to find out we guessed wrong."