Putting a cork on cork usage

Vintage Point

Winemaker turns to screw tops

October 02, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There's going to be one corker of a funeral in New York tonight. It should bring everyone involved a sense of closure.

Randall Grahm, the irrepressible owner of California's Bonny Doon winery, is billing the gathering at Grand Central Terminal as a service to commemorate "the death of the cork."

The black-bordered invitations have already gone out. The menu for the memorial dinner, consisting entirely of black foods, has been planned. It is, naturally, a black-tie event.

"It's going to be a very solemn occasion," Grahm said. "We're going to have a coffin filled with corks and we're working on a little cork corpse."

Jancis Robinson, a famed English wine writer, will be there to deliver the eulogy of Monsieur Thierry Bouchon, whom Grahm has pronounced dead at the age of about 400 years after a long career as a wine-containment specialist.

(Bouchon is French for cork. Tire-bouchon is corkscrew. Grahm is quite lucky this country doesn't use the guillotine.)

Grahm is holding his shameless publicity grab - it worked here, didn't it? - to promote the conversion of his diverse family of wines to screw tops. Showmanship aside, Grahm's event tonight is more than a simple twist-off fete. It represents an important challenge to the established order in the industry because it comes from a fine winemaker who is well-known as a trendsetter. (Grahm was one of the original "Rhone Rangers" who popularized syrah and other little-known grapes.)

Grahm says he's making the switch because he's fed up with contaminated corks.

Corks have been the preferred stopper for fine wines since the 17th century, and while they are a big improvement on the technology that preceded them - rags, leather, sealing wax - they do have a defect.

Winemakers estimate that 1 percent to 2 percent of natural corks are contaminated with the chemical TCA. Wines affected by TCA, even in concentrations as small as 6 parts per trillion, are described as corked. A corked wine develops a smell that can be compared with sweaty socks left to ripen at the bottom of a teen-ager's gym locker for six months. The flavors aren't much better.

(Note to consumers: Should you encounter a corked wine, don't tough it out. In a restaurant, send it back. At home, recork it and bring it back to the store for a refund. When entertaining, always keep a backup bottle on hand.)

Despite laborious efforts to avoid contaminated corks, TCA finds its way into even some of the world's finest wines. I recall a gracious host mortified when a Ramonet Batard-Montrachet that must have set him back $250 turned out to be corked. Grahm recalls that a 1976 Scharzhofberger auslese - a classic German dessert wine - "really bummed me out something fierce."

Grahm believes the problem goes deeper than one or two bottles in a hundred. He estimates that 7 percent to 10 percent of wines are negatively affected in more subtle ways by cork problems. Corks, he said, are "a dinosaur with 3 1/2 legs in the tar pit."

"Corks are wonderful, beautiful, aesthetic, natural products. It's a great product, but we loved it to death," Grahm said. He blames overproduction and premature harvesting brought about by the dramatic growth of the wine industry in recent years.

Like many winemakers, Grahm has experimented with artificial corks made of various plasticlike substances. But he's decided they haven't worked out as well as he had hoped.

His answer: the humble screw cap, a closure that has been associated with the cheapest wines and shunned by producers who want to project an image of class.

Grahm is hoping to turn the perception issue on its head. "Sophisticated wine drinkers are ready to embrace what I call reverse snobbism," he said. "Real connoisseurs will insist upon a screw cap. Those people who are more focused on the trappings, the ritual, will insist upon a cork."

Screw tops, Grahm says, are the best available technology because they allow the least amount of oxygen into the bottle. He dismisses the frequently expressed concern that wines will not age well without corks and plans to start bottling his flagship Le Cigare Volante, a long-aging Rhone-style blend, with screw tops starting with the 2001 vintage.

Predictably, the cork people see things differently.

Peter Weber, spokesman for the Cork Quality Council, says the demise of the industry is "grievously exaggerated."

"Actually, the industry is doing quite well. We have made tremendous progress against TCA," Weber said. "We expect that natural cork will continue to be the most effective closure for fine wines."

Weber said Grahm is a great winemaker with a gift for gaining publicity for his winery, but he compared tonight's stunt to the antics of comedian Tom Green. "I used to think Randall was funnier," Weber said.

Grahm says he has based the idea for the funeral on the J.K. Huysmans novel Against Nature, in which one of the characters, upon becoming impotent, hosts a "black dinner" to mourn the death of his libido.

"This is the book that shocked Oscar Wilde," Grahm said.

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