Wine: A Look at Corks and Screw Caps

All photographs by Nick Kindelsperger

"Oh no, I don't want that." She pushes back the bottle, wincing, and attempts to pull back the credit card receipt she'd just signed. I could see it in her eyes. She has realized the horrible fault on the glistening new bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc she just purchased: It has a screw cap. Horror flashes in her eyes as she begs me to reconsider the transaction, "Can I just exchange it for something else, please?"

If the customer is always right, then this would be very simple. Substitute one thing for another, let her have her lovely day. Lots of people have fears about screw caps, box wine, and other ways of packaging wine, and most of these fears are based not on hearsay and indoctrination but on experience. These methods are, for the most part, a cheaper way to deliver wine, and, for many years, that meant if you had a really cheap wine (i.e., bad wine) then you would just flop a screw top on or saddle it in a box and sell it for less.

But that’s not the case any more.

"I've had it before, and I really don't like it," she continues, referring not to the particular wine, producer, country of origin, or even grape, but the screw cap. "They are so bad."

Screw caps are fine. In fact, it would be harder for her to find a New Zealand wine with a cork than with a screw cap. It’s estimated, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, that more than 70 percent of New Zealand’s wines have these new closures. And there's a reason: Screw caps are cheaper, easier to open, and end up protecting the wine in ways in which cork fails again and again.

How does cork fail? The results swing wildly depending on the polls and who conducts them, but it is believed that anywhere from 1 percent (cork industry) to 8 percent (French journal La Vigne) of wine sold is "corked," which is the term used to describe the funky mold aroma that can appear in a bottle. Once you’ve isolated its distinct characteristics, corked wine haunts you. You begin to suspect that every bottle opened could be infected with this menace that turns perfectly balanced wines into overearthed messes. Well, it haunts me, anyway.

That’s where the screw cap comes in. Because there is no cork, there is no corked wine. Since there are no corked wines, you can be almost certain that your wine is safe and enjoyable.

But my customer is still not pleased. Now she’s just staring at me, prodding me to remove the bottle from the bag and give her another chance at an enjoyable evening. It’s then I began thinking, why has the cork been so ingrained in wine culture?

Cork is a remarkable product of nature that does two paradoxical things. It is light and flexible but also impervious to water and, for the most part, gas. That made it, for nearly 400 years, the perfect way to cheaply close bottles of wine. Because of its development wines were able to age for longer, and that led to better wine.

But technology has caught up with cork, and now other nontraditional closures are gaining steam. Instead of excitement, this cheaper, safer way to store wine has most of wine-buying public terrified. And I think I know why. Beyond its cultural significance, the cork also holds a special place in wine ceremony. Try this scenario: You've just done something really remarkable like gotten in to Harvard Law or received a pay check, and you want to celebrate. You buy a really expensive bottle of wine, say a Hermitage, and you go to open it. Instead of that rush of digging the cork in, wiggling it out, and that pop of excitement, you hear just a quick twist, as if you just opened a bottle of Coke. Really, this is what it comes down to. It’s gotten so ridiculous that some Australian screw cap makers are engineering a cap that will make the pop sound. Absurd.

Is the "pop" a part of the pleasure of wine or is it something else? Children can open a screw cap—not that they should—and so can someone who’d never really bought wine before. But a cork—now that requires knowledge, understanding, and some vague understanding of machinery. Think about the corkscrew. Do you prefer the waiter style to the bunny ears? What kind of tool you possess says a lot about who you are as a wine buyer and what you value. But do we really want wine to be pretentious?

It's a bunch of interesting questions, a few of which I've asked myself. I think most of these fears run through the back of our head sometimes, but whether it is covered by tree bark or aluminum foil, most people's fears came from tasting, and until recently screw caps were just not found on serious wine. But now they are. New Zealand is just one example. Australia also is producing more and more, and the phenomenon is slowly gaining a foothold in the United States.

For the time being, white wine is being capped far more often, mainly because most whites are supposed to be drunk right away. All that is needed is an air-tight seal to get the wine from producer to consumer. And screw caps do that very, very well.

For reds, it’s a little different story. Some winemakers believe that cork lets an infinitesimal amount of air in that aids in the aging of the wine (although some scientists disagree with this statement). More expensive wines also tend to use more expensive corks that have been held to a higher standard, so they have fewer instances of corked bottles. It’s hard to argue with people who make the best wine on the planet.

I’m not here to bring down the cork machine or fight one pretension with another. But you shouldn’t be scared. If you trust your wine shop, and there is a screw cap on a bottle, then go for it. A great place to start is that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which we highly recommend, and look, isn’t the price great? It’s going to be delightful. Screw cap and all.

Any Serious Eaters have views on corks?