There is no shortage of U.S. wine producers lamenting the shortcomings of natural cork closures, yet many are not sold on the aesthetics or marketability of screw caps for high-end wines. Napa Valley estate Whitehall Lane and Oregon-based Sineann believe that they've found a viable alternative: a glass stopper that resembles a decanter top, first released in Germany in 2003 under the brand name Vino-Lok.
Sineann is using the closure, rebranded Vino-Seal for U.S. distribution, on five offerings that range in price from $16 to $60. Whitehall Lane has the glass stopper on the estate's top two bottlings: the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve (not yet rated, $75) and the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Leonardini Vineyard (not yet rated, $100).
Those two wines comprise about 4,500 cases of Whitehall Lane's 55,000-case annual production, which also includes Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. "People have asked who would pay $75 for a bottle of wine that doesn't have a cork," said Thomas Leonardini Sr., owner of Whitehall Lane. "My question is why would anyone pay $75 for a bottle with a cork, put it down for a few years, then find it's got TCA?"
TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) is the primary chemical responsible for causing what is known as "cork taint." At higher concentrations, TCA causes wines to have musty aromas and flavors. Even miniscule quantities mute wine, squelching richness and vibrancy.
Vino-Seal, which is designed by Germany-based multinational Alcoa, is relatively expensive. An acrylic (thermoplastic) version sells for around 40 cents, while the glass stopper costs about 70 cents, according to Sineann owner and winemaker Peter Rosback. (Natural corks generally top out at 50 cents apiece, whereas twist-offs are usually no more than 18 cents, although twist-off wine bottles are currently more expensive than regular ones.) Representatives of Alcoa say that 350 wineries in Europe, mostly in Germany, are using its stopper. In the United States, Don Sebastiani & Sons is also topping some of its affordably priced wines with the closure, according to Alcoa, and numerous other wineries are testing it.
Currently, automated bottling equipment compatible with Vino-Seal is not available in the United States, so both Whitehall Lane and Sineann have to seal the wines by hand.
Rosback said he doesn't begrudge the hand bottling. This year, he expects to use Vino-Seal for 2,500 of the 9,000 cases produced by Sineann, which is best known for its Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. "I've had many calls from California winemakers asking about this," he said. "Corks ruin wine. And we're all looking for something that performs and that has good aesthetics. And this is the first [closure] that does it for me."
The initial version of Vino-Seal has an aluminum outer cap that goes over the stopper, which requires a bottle with a flange. But Whitehall Lane wanted something that more closely resembles a standard, cork-sealed bottle. So over the last two years, winemaker Dean Sylvester and general manager Mike McLoughlin worked with Alcoa engineers to produce a bottle that can also accommodate a traditional tin capsule. Whitehall Lane is the first winery in the world to try the new design, on which it spent an extra 40 cents per bottle.
"Part of the sex appeal of this is that it has an elegant look, which is what we want for the reserve package," said McLoughlin.