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Corked Courage

Posted: February 3, 2000

Corked Courage

By Matt Kramer, columnist

So there I was, at a table under the big top, at the Friday night dinner of this year's Napa Valley Wine Auction. Now, the Friday night dinner is a fancy-pants "do," full of luscious-looking women dressed (or undressed) to the nines and men looking like, well, the way we always look.

Anyway, it's a swell time for gawking and schmoozing. This year, for once, the food was really good, thanks to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who had the courage to forgo the usual "Look-Ma-no-hands" froufrou that other chefs have previously employed. How good was her (simple) food? Good enough that if you closed your eyes, you could have thought the dish was made in a small restaurant rather than served to 2,000 people in a big tent. If I wore a toque, I'd doff it.

But I digress. As you might imagine, the event is where Napa's wine elite meets to bleat. So I was hardly surprised to find myself seated next to one of Napa Valley's better-known winery owners and his wife. We've had minor contact over the years and, as best I know, he had no grudge against me (I hadn't dissed his wines), and I certainly had nothing against him. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Mildred, bring the paper towels! There's going to be blood on the floor!" Not a bit of it. Why, I was on my best behavior. And the winery owner and his wife were Napa Valley charm personified. (Let me tell you, they know from charm. Napa's motto? "Get well-met. It pays.")

It is true that we got into a "discussion" about corks. I said something like, "You know, I'm sick and tired of buying wines only to discover five years later that they're corked. It's time you did something about it. Now."

Actually, I don't think I put it precisely that way, but I suspect the tone was there. It's hard to hide these things, you know. Just a week before, I opened one of my beloved magnums and, dang, the sucker was corked. And this sucker was steamed.

I related all this with a full measure of plaintive self-pity. They were as empathetic as Oprah. They told me of their pain, too. They too knew what it was like to lose a loved one. It was time for less Oprah and more Dr. Laura. "This has got to stop," I said. "Especially given what you're charging these days."

It was a low blow, but it got their attention. Today's wacko prices are a sore point. They know it's loony, but since they're screaming their heads off all the way to the bank, it's impolite to mention the fact.

There was the usual murmuring about how they were working on it. Really, they said, wringing their verbs, they just didn't know what to do. Oh, this cork problem, they said, shaking their heads like baffled parents wondering just what the current generation was coming to.

"How about this?" I said brightly. "Why don't you offer us a choice?" What a concept. "Why don't you offer in your mailer the opportunity for us consumers to decide whether we want a natural cork or a synthetic stopper?

"You can explain that you've done the best research you could and you've selected the best brand of synthetic stopper you could find. No guarantees, of course. But if we put in our orders by such-and-such a date, we can get our wines bottled either way. Or we could buy some of each."

I knew this needed a kicker. "Besides," I said, "you could charge, say, 5 percent more for the synthetic-cork bottles because of bottling-line 'complications.'"

They woke up as if jabbed with a hat pin. "Five percent more, did you say?" they asked. "Why not?" I said with a grin. "Who's to know that actually it's no big deal?" "You're right, it's not," they conceded.

"Let's be honest," I said. "Most of you high-end guys don't use synthetic corks because you don't want to be the first to do it. You're waiting for someone else to go first." "That's true," they said.

"Well, why not let us decide for ourselves? I know I'd pay a small premium to get my most treasured wines bottled with synthetic corks. I'm willing to take the risk, if you'll just give me the chance. And I bet a lot of my readers are, too."

"Why don't you ask them?" they said.

So I am.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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