Corks and Screws

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Imagine you and your significant other just sat down at your favorite restaurant with a few friends from out of town. This is what you describe as your favorite place to eat with an unbelievable selection of wines from their exclusive wine list. Your friends’ know you’re a bit of a “wine snob” so every move you make when deciding on the perfect wine is being severely scrutinized under a microscope. After a few minutes, you decide that the Charles Smith Velvet Devil is the perfect wine for the evening. This particular wine is a Merlot from the Colombian Valley of Washington State. Everyone at the table is convinced that this wine is just as good as you do because they trust in your expertise. The server brings you the bottle, you confirm it is in fact the Velvet Devil and then walla…the server opens the wine with a nice, sleek, assertive twist of the top that can be heard around the entire restaurant. So far everything seems great but one of your friends sarcastically suggests that this better be a good wine, considering it didn’t require a wine key to open. Now you’re left with an opportunity to either blow off the comment and move forward, or enlighten your guests with a few of the reasons why you know this wine will be great. They’re probably not even aware of the success of this wine through blind tastings and the fact that’s it’s only $12 in the store when it carries itself like a $30-$40 bottle. Now it’s up to you to decide where you want to go from here.

What I want to do is give you a few things to consider when dabbling between corks and screws, if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. This way you can offer up any information that you see fit, without taking anything from the rest of the evening. You can also use this information to better teach yourself the differences between corks and screws while appreciating the way technology is shaping the world of wine today.

It’s suggested that roughly 5% of all bottles of naturally corked wine will eventually show some degree of spoilage. This may not seem like a lot considering the amount of the wine produced around the world. Still, winemakers want to make everything work because 5% loss is still a loss. One of the main reasons for this statistic is due to Trichloranisole, commonly known as TCA which is a chemical that comes from reactions within corks due to naturally occurring molds. Another reason for cork spoilage is the chlorine bleach used in the actual manufacturing of the corks. 

For winemakers not wishing to deal with these unnecessary headaches, synthetic corks have been a viable option in recent years. You would think this is an easy fix, kind of wipe-the-hands clean and move on, right? The reality is, it’s not that simple. One problem with synthetic corks is the hard plastic can make it difficult to pull the cork loose. It can also be difficult to get the cork back into the bottle, if you prefer to save the wine overnight. I can’t tell you how accurate this is and how often I’ve used a natural cork from a previous bottle to re-cork another bottle of wine. There are alternatives for this like using a vacuum wine saver that comes in two parts and actually resembles a cork with a tool that is used to simply pull air out of the bottle. This preserves the wine to its max potential overnight not leaving you wondering whether the cork did its job or not. 

Moving forward this begs the question, what’s the best solution for the overall situation at hand? This solution seems rather simple…screw caps. Not only are bottles that are sealed with screw caps easier to open, but they don’t require a wine key, which is a standard tool used to pull corks from wine bottles. Screw caps make for a perfect wine closure preventing cork taint and oxidation to occur in the bottle. Natural oxygen left in the bottle at manufacturing is part of the aging process as wine is broken down over time within the bottle and “aged.” Another benefit to screw caps is their failure rates are drastically less than a traditional cork. 

One might argue that the long-term aging process of certain wines could be affected differently due to the use of screw caps, but that isn’t necessarily the case; Plumpjack for example, a very prestigious winery out of Napa Valley California, released their 1997 Reserve Cabernet in 2000 with a screw cap option. Later in 2007 this wine was blind tasted with the cork version by its side to see just how similar the two matched up. Both tests provided similar results and in 2009 another test was initiated and suggested that the screw cap bottle was more fruit driven. This pleased everyone considering no long-term aging for screw caps had been initiated in the past. None the less, the screw cap was quite impressive and thank goodness considering the retail value of the 2000 Plumpjack Cabernet sells in the upwards of $150 a bottle. 

With everything being said and all things considered, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of corks and screws, the pros and cons if you will. This information is in no particular order: 

Cork advantage

  1. Has a long-standing track record 
  2. Biodegradable and recyclable 
  3. Great for storing long-term 
  4. Can indicate wine that is “corked” or gone bad 

Cork disadvantage

  1. Too many cork options 
  2. Can easily break and fall apart, or crumble 
  3. Can experience TCA corruption 
  4. Carry a heavier price tag 

Screw cap advantage

  1. More affordable 
  2. No cork corruption 
  3. Has proven long-term aging 
  4. No cork taint or oxidation 
  5. Lower failure rate

Screw cap disadvantage

  1. Less breathability 
  2. Can be perceived as “cheap” 
  3. Inconsistent manufacturing 
  4. Not biodegradable like cork 

Hopefully this offers clarity to some of the frequently asked questions about choosing between wines with corks and screws. At the end of the day, it truly is all about what makes you happy as a consumer. Personally, I’m a bit old-fashioned and prefer natural corks as opposed to synthetic corks or screw caps. Some of today’s more eloquent wines are manufactured with natural corks and then sealed with a wax capsule. Typically, winemakers use standard foil covers when doing this but I feel one of the benefits of using wax capsules is to prevent unnecessary oxygen from seeping into the bottle. Some wines don’t even come with foil capsules, rather a wax drop is placed just inside the lip of the bottle over the cork. This also works just as fine so I think it’s all preference. Plus, a lot of the things I’ve just mentioned are more marketing strategies than anything. At the end of the day whether a cork or a screw, all that matters is that the wine is preserved in the way it was intended for. 

Cheers