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harvey steiman at large

Those Pesky Screwcaps

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 3, 2006 7:12pm ET

Somebody asked Vinny the other day how to open a screwcapped wine bottle when the screwcap won't loosen easily. Dr. Vinifera, the ever helpful super mouse, or whatever he is, suggested a device that functions like one of those jar-lid removers.

There's an easier way, and cheaper. I'll get to that a little further on.

I thought about Vinny's advice as I looked across the table at the wines I had to taste one day this week. It was a flight of about 20 Australian Rieslings. Every single one of them had the telltale spiral on their lips. They were all bottled under screwcaps.

A smile sneaked across my face, a grin of relief. There would be no wines today spoiled by the reek of cork taint, not even bottles that raised a question of it. I would not have to parse out whether that touch of earthiness I caught in the background was the wine or the cork. For this wine taster, a sea of screwcaps is a glimpse of heaven.

There was even a Riesling from the 2000 vintage in the tasting. It had developed some wonderful marmalade and toast overtones from aging, but it still had a refreshing zing of freshness. Bless those screwcaps.

And you don't really need a jar opener to get a twist-off open, not even if it sticks. No, you don't turn the wine bottle over and tap the top on the table like you would a ketchup bottle. Here's the trick, taught to me by New Zealand winemaker Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River winery (a screwcap pioneer). It couldn't be easier:

Hold the bottle in your left hand by the neck, just under the cap. Grab the base of the bottle in your right hand and turn the bottle counterclockwise. The added torque you get by turning the bottle is usually enough to pop the seal on the cap. Then you can unscrew the cap easily. (Also, you won't cut your hand on the edge of the cap, which could happen in a rare instance.)

If you're left-handed, hold the bottle by the neck in your right hand, but you still have to turn the bottle counter-clockwise.

Works every time.

If you want to get really nerdy, you can do as waiters in New Zealand do. Once the cap is loosened, run the top of the bottle along your forearm, elbow to palm. The cap unscrews as it rolls across your arm, and drops into your palm.

Michael Johnson
Terrace, Canada —  August 4, 2006 12:42am ET
Here's a sure fire method to relieve any bottle of its cap. The space between the inside edge of a door and the hinged edge of the doorjam works tremendously to hold the cap as you twist the end of the bottle with your hand. Guaranteed to remove the most stubborn cap and a very practical technique to boot. Harvey, does your Washington wine tasting ever take you north over the 49th parallel to the BC Okanagan?
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 4, 2006 2:33am ET
I'm all for screwcaps now too. I've talked w/ several winemakers and reps from AU, NZ, and here in the states (mainly OR) and many are onboard. Some AU wineries cork ONLY the American exports and screwcap the rest of their line. There are a few drawbacks but not nearly as many as w/ cork. Plus, here, so many drink the wines so young (restaurant-wise) that aging isn't in the equation anyways. I have a mix of screwcaps and cork on the list and so far have not received negative feedback or slow sales due to the cap. I just ask the servers to not set the cap on the tbl and don't make a big deal out of it one way or another during the service. It drives me nuts to recommend a wine only to have a guest say it's "flat" or "funky" Twice this WEEK I took back corked wines that I personally recommended. Both were truly off, one slightly but definitely not what I tasted a few weeks back. It hurts my credibility as well as the wineries. Fortunately I was able to get a 2nd(but different wine) for each of these guests. Neither wanted to chance a retry of the corked wines.
Michael Culley
August 4, 2006 11:12am ET
Apj Powers....can you send the bottles back to the distributors for credit? I don't understand why someone wouldn't try another bottle of the same wine that they originally ordered. Especially if you had recommended it. Count me as WAY anti-screwcaps. If they are going to do that, why not just put the wine in a can with a poptop?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  August 4, 2006 11:56am ET
When i just moved into my apartment .. i couldn't locate my corkscrew... after unpacking everything it seemed it miight have been lost in transition ... i was so frustrated, i took a drill and drill a hole in the cork, stuck a screw in there, and used a hammer to pull out the cork. if they used screw caps i woulda saved alot of trouble!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  August 4, 2006 12:10pm ET
To offer a serious answer to Michael, cans with poptops leak after a while. Ever open an old can of soda? It goes flat. Screwtops make a perfect seal nearly 100 percent of the time. The wine remains unaffected by external taints. Get used to it. The glass stopper might do as well (although doesn't seem to be getting much traction in the marketplace), but nothing keeps wine better than a twist-off, short term or long term.
Robert Fukushima
California —  August 4, 2006 12:37pm ET
I can understand the position Apj is in. Most people ordering wine from a restaurant are simply people out for a good time, many ordering a wine for the first time. If you don't know what to expect, and your first taste is as bad as a corked wine can often be, you aren't going to want to taste that again. And there are many wines on the list to switch to usually. Even if I know the wine, there is a little concern after opening and tasting a bad bottle for when you open the next one. I recently finished the last of a 1/2 case of a very good California meritage that the first 5 bottle had been quite good. I had timed it over 6 years to have the last bottle at 8 years of age. It was corked, big time. When a friend pulled the same wine from his cellar, there was a strange apprehension, totally unwarranted as it turned out. His bottle was incredible, all that we had hoped mine would've been. But, there was that small sense of this could be bad.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  August 4, 2006 12:43pm ET
Michael... and what would be wrong with wine in a can with a poptop? Or bag in a box? Name another product where you care so much about the packaging. It's the product itself that matters.

Granted, I "get" the aging argument. But there are so few wines in the world built to age, that it seems like alternative closures or packaging would make a lot of sense to people - especially considering the issue of TCA.

I'm sure there were people who were WAY anti-cork when they came into wide spread use.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 4, 2006 12:46pm ET
Harvey, is there any technology in the works that will provide a permanent record of the temperature to which a wine has been exposed? My only concern with screwcaps is that I can't tell if the bottle has been frozen or cooked. Wouldn't it be great if someone created a liquid crystal strip that would record both the lowest and highest temperature for the bottle?
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  August 4, 2006 3:53pm ET
Troy... interesting idea but no winery in the world would use it. Here's a list-o-reasons:

1) The important infomation would be the temperature of the wine - not the environment it's exposed too. That would require a much more sophisticated type of measuring device... which would be way too expensive.

2) Too easy to tamper with - or be damaged to give a false reading.

3) What's a "safe" temperature? You'd get people with varying thoughts about what's acceptable and what isn't. It'd be a nightmare.

4) AND THE BIGGEST REASON... most big wineries wouldn't want you to know how they ship wine.
Brent Shinyeda
Chandler, AZ —  August 5, 2006 1:58am ET
Just had a wine dinner featuring Whitehall Lane. The sauv blanc and chard were both in screwcaps. The 03 reserve cabernet was sealed with the glass stopper. Easy to open, easy to reseal and the look was very classy. The wines all drank great and the guests all seemed impressed with the alternative closures.
Michael Culley
August 6, 2006 6:30am ET
Brian, I was just trying to say "why go half-way?". Since cork can affect wine in negative ways, and also light, just go for it and put it all in cans. Isn't the Sofia sparkling wine all in cans? Wht kind of tops do they employ? Here in Italy I buy all my extra-virgin olive oil in cans and not in bottles(they have twist-off plastic lids). I always thought those over-sized(like 5L)cans of imported beer were pretty cool looking. I didn't realize they would go flat(thank you Harvey for the serious response). There are plenty of examples where screw-tops would serve well. And BIB(they call them BRIX here)have their place. But I don't want to forfeit the enjoyment of pulling a long, compacted, pigment-stained, beautifully-grained cork from a special bottle of wine. It can tell you things about the wine that a screw cap cannot. I understand the economic and practical points of view, I was just voicing my own viewpoint and certainly hope you didn't feel I was condemning yours. I am amazed after five years here the few times I have had corked wines. After years in wholesale in the States if I had a client I really wanted to impress with a particular wine, I always took a back up bottle because of the corkage problems. I think shipping is a big culprit in the process. Even shipping in refrigerated containers isn't an absolute guarantee. The wine has to be loaded on and then off of the container. What do you think of all the major DO appellations in Spain inserting the rule into their disciplines that their wines must have cork closures? I know it's a huge industry there, but even so. Keep those thoughts and ideas coming. That's what these blogs are all about. Oh, the product/packaging question....how about...cars?Ciao dopo...('see you later', not 'goodbye dope')
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  August 6, 2006 1:32pm ET
Michael... I'm always amazed when people say they rarely get a corked bottle of wine. I guess I have to chalk it up to personal sensitivity... but I find corked bottles a lot. Probably on the order of 4-6% of the bottles I open. And that's unacceptable to me. Especially when the wines all sell for over $50. If you tell me that you return every corked bottle for a refund, then maybe I'll accept that cork is a good closure for you. But if you "eat" the cost, then I'll tell you you're getting ripped off. I too have done the backup bottle thing... which is based upon the fear of opening a bottle that's bad. That fear alone has ruined any sense of romance I have about corks. Cars are an interesting example... but I'm not sure that it's exactly the same thing. True, the design of the car often has little to do with the functionality you buy. And if you're saying that both the car and wine bottle can be an art piece, I agree completely. But you buy the car as a whole and use it that way. Wine is bought to be consumed, and as such, the bottle is just the delivery vehicle, and is discarded afterward. For the car example to match... imagine that the car came in a wrapper to protect it. Would you care what the wrapper was, provided it protected the car?
Gregory Walter
Sonoma, CA —  August 7, 2006 12:28am ET
Brian, Michael and Harvey:I too find a depressingly high percentage of corked wines in my line of work. It's not only a huge financial hit for everyone in the chain from winery to consumer, it can really put a damper on a special dinner or tasting. It's become so bad that other than an occasional bottle of high-end Chardonnay or White Burgundy, I won't buy a white wine with a cork. My wife and I drink a lot of NZ SauvBlanc (among other things) and every bottle has a screwcap.

Greg Walter
Michael Culley
August 7, 2006 11:01am ET
Brian, I am very sensitive to corked wines and I know that many of my friends(who were never in the business and love wine)would have drank bottles in restaurants had I not been there to point out the corkiness. The car example popped into my mind because I have a SEAT(Spanish), which is owned by Volkswagen. I could have bought the exact same car as a VW except it had a different body style. Hence, the package point of view. Made you think a bit though, didn't it? Thanks for giving it some consideration. I have a completely different perspective being no longer in the business and not being a wine collecter. I don't open as many bottles these days so it should seem that the percentage of corked wine is reduced. But even taking that into account I feel that it is not as bad here as in the States and this leads me to wonder more about the state of shipping. I shall consider myself fortunate that the romance of corks still thrives within. What level of the chain are you involved in anyway?
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  August 7, 2006 12:02pm ET
Harvey, quick question. Would it be possible to "recork" very old wines with a screwcap? Has anyone tried that before? I know recorking has its pitfalls, but that could be a thought, if possible, for serious collectors.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  August 7, 2006 12:28pm ET
Hey Greg...great to hear from you. I know that once you get used to screwcaps, it's annoying to deal with cork on so many levels. We drink a lot of NZ Sauvignon Blancs at Aussie Rieslings at home. I love the wines, but I wonder if I gravitate toward them in part because they are under spiral (as my wife likes to say).

On the issue of "recorking" under screwcap, I am afraid that's a nonstarter. When a cork taints a wine, it happens very quickly, within hours or days. So there's no point in taking a wine out of a corked bottle and putting in in a screwcapped one. The damage is already done. And yes, it would require transferring the wine to another bottle. You can't put a screwcap on a bottle that isn't designed for it. Also, sealing a wine under screwcap requires some pretty fancy machinery.
Gregory Walter
Sonoma, CA —  August 7, 2006 6:46pm ET
Harvey:Yeah, I would have to say that part of the appeal of the NZ SauvBlancs (and others) is the convenience and the protection factor of the screw caps, but they're also delightfully tasty wines. Now if only they'd put my favorite Reverdy Sanceres "under spiral"...
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  August 9, 2006 12:54pm ET
"What level of the chain are you involved in anyway?"

Michael.... I own a small winery in California. We decided to move away from cork with our 2002 vintage, due to the TCA issue. Even though we were buying really good (and expensive) corks, we still saw about 4% of the bottles ruined by TCA. We used a synthetic for our 2002 and 2003 vintages, then switched to screwcaps for the 2004 vintage. All our wines sell for about $50... and all are under screwcap!

But I'm also consumer. And I live in constant fear of all those corked bottles of wine in my cellar. All those expensive bottles of wine. All those wines that should have been amazing... but are now waiting to be poured down a drain.
Michael Culley
August 10, 2006 10:35am ET
Brian, Thanks for responding. I'm going on six years away from the wine importing and distributing 'link'. Let alone six years away from the US. This has helped me realize that I'm not totally against screw tops but still believe corks can be improved and used effectively. I'm not on the bandwagon but at least I've stopped throwing rocks when it drives by. Note of (possible)interest...I read in an Italian wine magazine here that referred to the wine distribution chain here as the "catena d'esagerazione"...."the chain of essageration"...

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