Friday, November 09, 2012

Life in black and white: thoughts on corks, screwcaps and alternatives

I hate corks
   Are you saying that you really want to unscrew a bottle of la Tache?
No, actually I don't think that screwcaps are the answer.
   But you say you don't like corks...
Yes, I hate the unreliability of corks and I don't believe that screwcaps - however reliable - are really appropriate for bottles of fine wine.
   Why not? They've been proven to work brilliantly.
Yes, and so do quartz movements in watches. But I don't want one in my $10,000 Patek Philippe. It's not an efficiency issue, it's a matter of perception. Luxury goods need luxury packaging. Expensive perfumes don't come with basic screwcaps.
   But surely, it's just a matter of time. People will learn how much better screwcaps are than corks.
What evidence do you have for that expectation? There are actually fewer bottles of screwcapped wine on sale in the US than there were two years ago. And no one is seriously succeeding in selling them in China. Even the Australians are using natural corks there. So that's two big markets that aren't heading towards screwcaps. Actually, I'd argue that being sealed with a screwcap has been a major handicap for some Australian super-premium wines in the US.
   Yes, it's frustrating... Why can't consumers there see the logic? Screwcaps are simply more reliable than corks.
Well, consumers won't - in your words - see the logic until the people who produce the wines they like point them in that direction. Most consumers don't read articles about wine; they simply go out and buy a bottle of something they think will taste good or make them look good. And when all the top wines from France, Italy, Spain and California have corks, the screwcapped bottles stand out on the shelf like the guy who's showed up to a smart wedding in jeans and a t-shirt. I know, because we tried using screwcaps for our le Grand Noir reds in the US - and had to switch back within six months. Retailers and consumers simply didn't get it.
   Screwcaps are working in some countries.
 There are only three countries that currently favour screwcaps for quality wines: New Zealand, Australia and - to a lesser extent - Austria. (Switzerland loves screwcaps, but only for its cheaper wines). All three, interestingly, have small populations and a relatively young industry. (And that's true of Austria too). British consumers accept screwcaps - on lower-priced wines, but they don't want them on their Burgundies.
   What about New Zealand Sauvignon and Pinot Noir?
Okay, those are the proverbial exceptions to the rule; they also hit higher price points than other countries, but they are a tiny part of the market.  
   So..?
Well, most of winemaking Europe is against screwcaps because it's naturally conservative, and the US is against them because US producers like selling highly priced wines and can see the disconnect between the $100 price tag and the Coca Cola-style closure. (However prettied up it might be).
   So, you don't see them changing?
Why should they? Who's pushing them to do so? People are happily shelling out $1000 for top Bordeaux with unreliable corks. On that basis, you could say if it ain't broke, why fix it?
   But you admit that corks are unreliable?
Yes, as I said, I hate the horrible variability - both in terms of TCA, from marginal to blatant, and the far more serious incidence of random oxidation.
  So what about Diam and Nomacork?
I like both of those a lot more than I like natural corks. We use Nomacork for our le Grand Noir wines (apart from the bottles we send to China, unfortunately!) but they are not the answer.
   Why not? Surely they both offer the reliability you're looking for. And Nomacork even offers wineries the choice of how much oxygen permeability they want. Isn't that a perfect solution?
Yes, it's terrific, but I'm sorry, both Diam and Nomacork are still effectively copies of natural corks, And even when a copy is better than the original, it's still a copy. And I still don't really want to pull one from my bottle of la Tache.
   So what's your solution?
Well, I don't actually have one but I do like the notion of the Vino-Lok/Vino-Seal glass stoppers.
   Why are they better than screwcaps or synthetics?
Because they're far more stylish and genuinely innovative, while referring back to the notion of decanter stoppers. They're made of glass, can be branded with the producer's name - and even the vintage - are easy to remove and replace. What's not to like?
   Well, the price for starters!
They cost the same as a top quality cork and applying them is little more difficult than applying a screwcap. Producers like Henschke in Australia and Cusumano in Sicily are using them, pretty happily from what I hear. 
Half of all Hill of Grace is now under Vino-Lok

   But how reliable are they?
Okay, if the bottles aren't perfect, the stoppers won't work properly: they're less forgiving than natural or synthetic corks. But that's just a QC issue at the glass manufacturer. Steven Henschke told Dr Vino that, after five years of testing, he's happy with them. The bigger question is 'how well does wine mature under them?'
   And what's the answer?
Obviously nobody knows, yet, and nobody stands much chance of knowing for the simple reason, that too few proper tests are being carried out. It's the same as it was for screwcaps. The first test on those was conducted at Haut Brion in the late 1960s. And nobody bothered  to follow it up. Everyone says how wonderful the Universities of Bordeaux, Davis and Geisenheim are, but until quite recently, none of them did any proper research in any of these august institutions on quality red wine under screwcaps. It was left to the Australians. So, now we're all getting excited at Chateau Margaux and Davis finally doing some closure research, which is great, but the Margaux tests haven't even included the glass stoppers.Tragically, wine producers across the globe seem to have decided on corks, screwcaps, Nomacorks or Diams, and stopped looking elsewhere. I think many of them are much more likely to have an affair than to explore other ways to seal their bottles. Stephen Henschke is my hero, for saying to Dr Vino that he'd "always viewed screwcap as a transitional closure, poised between cork and, well, we don’t know what,”
   But let me get this straight. Are you saying that you think that glass stoppers are or aren't the answer?
A wise man once gave me an invaluable piece of advice when I was struggling to decide between two options. "In my experience", he said, "the correct choice when you are juggling between A and B, is often C". I don't know whether the C in this instance is the glass stopper or something we haven't seen yet. All I do know in my own mind is that in a decade the debate will have moved on and the cork fascists ("We've always had them so we'll always have them") and the screwcap fascists ("We've proven how well they work over the last decade; everyone will come round to our point of view") will have a real argument on their hands. What I can't understand is how, in an age when we've sent robots to Mars and decoded the genome, the wine industry is still essentially arguing over whether to seal its cherished bottles with unreliable bits of wood or cheap-looking copies, or even cheaper-looking aluminium screwcaps.

If you found this interesting, please do read the comments below; You may also want to read the follow up piece to this

21 comments:

  1. Nothing to add; perfecto.

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  2. Robert, you took the words right out of my mouth. How I enjoyed reading your post. Culture, habit and more importantly perceptions and associations isn't something you change in a day.

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    1. Thank you Martin. It's interesting how many other habits - from smoking to the way we dress - have changed. My problem with the wine world is its unwillingness to properly explore alternatives

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    2. Robert, culture and habits (smoking, dressing) etc. can and do change but more or less slowly. Knowing this and knowing how consumers perceive the closure on one or another bottle, what quality they associate with it, and the degree of acceptance, is something that the industry needs to take into acount to, as you say, properly explore alternatives.

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  3. Frankie Cook3:06 pm

    Great piece! I wonder if the preference for corks is more marked among older wine drinkers (who have the moolah for Burgundy etc.)? And therewill will this change as today's younger SB drinkers grow up?

    Personally I don't mind if more expensive wines have a screwcap, though I know I'm in a minority.

    Have noticed a few decent Austrian whites come with a glass stopper - confusing to open at first if you aren't aware!

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    1. Frankie, I prefer the idea of fault-free fine wine so, logically I have no problem with screwcapped La Tache. And logically I have no problem with top restaurants dispensing with tablecloths. But in both cases I know that the emotional answer is that screwcaps in $100 bottles and table-cloth-free Michelin starred restaurants just doesn't work. Any more than my quartz-powered $10k watches.

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  4. I'm all-in with Diams now. The "imitation" is way better than the original if you care about wine quality. They're doing some nice work with fire-branding and more choices on size and longevity. They are still recyclable, sustainable, will work with the vast array of bottles and the time has come to match the romance with a guarantee of quality.

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    1. Tom, I agree that Diam are a good bit of interim technology - like the Prius. But I refuse to believe they're the best that mankind can come up with.

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    2. I agree with you on that point. I can't help but wonder that, with all the research ($$$) that I've read on oxygen transfer through various closures under various conditions, is much research being done on eradicating TCA precursors? The whole thing about cork is so loaded with irony, emotion and aesthetics but it's truly ridiculous that a wine can cost thousands - and take 10 years or more to come to market - and get dumped down the drain. Wha??

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  5. Anonymous9:02 pm

    I dont see PlumpJack Winery having a problem selling a $200+ bottle of their Reserve Cabernet under Screw-Cap!

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    1. You're right Anon. Plumpjack were the California screwcap pioneer, along with Randall Grahm. But I challenge you to name 10 more high profile producers there to make up a dozen. Most US wine stores are very light on screwcapped wines - certainly on the higher-price shelves.

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  6. But what to put federweiss under when eating onion cake? ;-) ... Good enunciation of thoughts here Roberto. MB

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    1. Thanks Mike. Now in Turkey at EWBC with differnt food challenges!

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  7. Anonymous10:51 pm

    Last I heard, Henschke stopped using the glass stopper. The article you referenced is about 18 months old.

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    1. Thanks Anon, but I think Stuart (see below) has responded to this. My point however is NOT to say that Vino-loks are the answer. Reread the post and you'll see that I'm complaining at the limited drive within the wine industry to solve its packaging problem: how to find a closure that is both efficient and genuinely appropriate to consumers' expectations of fine wine.

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  8. Henschke's Mount Edlestone 2009 (just released) comes with a Glass Stopper. Heggies 'Prima' Off-Dry Riesling also uses a lass stopper. Has a certain aesthetic appeal.

    Happy for producers to use cork if they provide a guarantee for it. Is it fit for purpose?

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  9. Great dialogue. I totally agree with you on the cork screw on their suitability with fine wine.

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  10. Interesting.

    There is one more country where screwcap is very accepted, even for more expensive wines, eg. grand cru chablis, although I don't know how accepted it would be for the most exclusive ones though: in Sweden, a country with similar characteristics as the ones you mention.

    There is one thing I think you are missing in your reasoning.

    You need to distinguish between two things:
    1) closures that avoids defects, and
    2) closures that have characteristics that you want.

    1) Everyone wants to avoid defects, e.g. TCA from cork, leakage (or reduction etc) due to screwcap, polymer leak from plastics,...

    2) However, it is less obvious what is "the best" closure once you have avoided defects. No closure is "neutral", meaning it has no effect on the wine.

    I have participated in a few blind tastings to compare closures. In all those cases the wines have been without faults, i.e. the closures have functioned correctly. However, in all cases the wines have been *different* when under cork and when under screw cap.

    But which has been "best"? Not obvious. In all cases the blind tasting panel has been split roughly 50/50 on which wine they liked the best (cork/screw cap). Just like in the much publicised Margaux tasting in London recently.

    So what would do you then mean with "best"? It depends.

    -P

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    1. Sorry for the belated reply... My answer Per, is 1) that we should all agree that we want to avoid defects and with natural corks having at least a 1-2% fault level, that should be unacceptable. 2) Yes, we want a closure that suits the wine (and vice versa). 3) we want a closure that suits the consumer and 4) maybe most crucially for me - we want consistency. The infuriating characteristic of natural corks is the lack of knowledge of how each closure will perform. For some people this is the magic of wine; for me wine evolution is sufficiently mysterious and magic not to need additional variables from unpredictable closures.

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