More major California wineries have reached closure on the debate over wine stoppers, and they've found it in the form of a screw cap. While many U.S. wineries are still releasing experimental batches of screw-capped wines to test the market, producers such as R.H. Phillips and Kendall-Jackson are committing entire brands to twist-off tops, once found only on jug wines.
Starting in May, R.H. Phillips, based in northern California's Dunnigan Hills appellation, will bottle its entire line of R.H. Phillips varietal wines -- a total of about 300,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz -- with screw caps. "We like that quality assurance that every time you open a bottle, it's fresh and tastes how we intended," said winery cofounder Lane Giguiere. Natural corks are subject to TCA taint, which results in "corked" wines, and can let air leak in if the seal is not perfect, allowing a wine to become oxidized.
R.H. Phillips will be the first winery to use Torqued On Pilfer Proof (TOPP) screw caps, which are used on bottles of spirits. Unlike the more common Stelvin cap, which is spun onto the bottle, the TOPP, as its name indicates, is machine-torqued onto the bottle, hiding the screw threads underneath a plastic sheath. The R.H. Phillips bottles also got a makeover; they now have shorter necks and higher shoulders -- much like the bottles of high-end spirits that first used the TOPP closure. The wines, which retail for around $9, will be released in June.
The Giguieres also plan to switch the entire production of Washington's Hogue Cellars -- which was purchased in 2001 by Canadian wine giant Vincor International and merged into a division with R.H. Phillips -- to the TOPP closure. Hogue makes about 570,000 cases a year; its basic line includes several red and white varietals priced at around $10 a bottle. And a 50,000-case trial run of Toasted Head, another R.H. Phillips brand, will be bottled with the TOPP and released this fall.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates will bottle the entire 2004 production of its Pepi brand -- about 100,000 cases of seven varietals -- with a Stelvin closure. "You hear a lot of mixed opinions about the screw cap, but we got frustrated with corked wines and wanted to look at alternatives," said Pepi winemaker Chris Johnson. "Kendall-Jackson chose to experiment with Pepi because the brand has been marketed to a younger demographic and less-traditional consumers, who are more open to the idea of using a screw cap."
Along with the release of screw-capped Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese, Johnson has added Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to the Pepi portfolio. All of the wines will retail for around $11.
Santa Cruz's Bonny Doon Vineyards was the first large California estate to commit heavily to screw caps when it topped 80,000 cases of its Ca' del Solo with the closure in 2002. This year, the wine company plans to put Stelvin closures on roughly 440,000 cases from the 2002, '03 and '04 vintages -- about 98 percent of the company's total production. Bonny Doon is not yet able to bottle all of its wines with Stelvins because it uses a small number of 500ml bottles that are incompatible with the closure and because three European wineries with which it works currently do not have screw-cap bottling equipment.
While most wines being switched to screw caps are relatively inexpensive, some wineries aren't afraid to make wine drinkers twist open their more expensive wines. Kendall-Jackson plans to test the Stelvin on a 500-case release of Archipel, Jess Jackson's high-end, Bordeaux-style red from California, which is being made in partnership with French winemaker Pierre Seillan.
PlumpJack was the first California winery to put a screw cap on a pricey wine -- and charged an extra $10 per bottle for it. Whitehall Lane Winery in Napa Valley recently announced that it will release 1,800 screw-capped half-bottles of its 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, at $22 each, in May. Other notable wineries that use screw caps include Sonoma-Cutrer, Downing Family Vineyards and Beringer Blass in California, and Argyle in Oregon.
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