Corkscrews soon may be passe

VINTAGE POINT

August 04, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Among wine writers, it's widely understood that you don't bash a producer because one of his wines is "corked."

The attitude is: TCA (a nasty cork-contaminating substance) happens. If that gets into the product, it's not the winery's fault. Foul luck, old chap. Bad bottle. Take a mulligan.

That's starting to change.

After conducting a four-year study of various bottle-closing devices, Hogue Cellars of Washington state announced this summer that it will convert 70 percent of its wine production this year to Stelvin screw caps.

Eventually, it hopes to jettison corks for all its wines, said chief winemaker David Forsyth.

Hogue will apparently become the largest U.S. producer of premium wines under screw caps - more than 300,000 cases out of a production of 500,000 cases.

The Washington winery follows a handful of smaller American pioneers in adopting screw caps - notably Bonny Doon and its Ca' del Solo affiliate; Oregon's Argyle; Kendall-Jackson's Robert Pepi winery and the Napa Valley's PlumpJack, which sells $150 cabernet sauvignons with twist-off tops.

In Australia and New Zealand, screw caps have become commonplace for bottling fruity whites such as riesling and sauvignon blanc. The results are excellent. The giant Penfolds winery recently announced it will convert its Koonunga Hill wines - red and white - to screw caps for the Australian market. (Not the U.S. market. The folks at Penfolds apparently think Americans are a bit slow.)

Even in tradition-encrusted Bordeaux, corks are crumbling. Last month, winery owner Andre Lurton announced he would release 2003 wines from three prestigious chateaux - Couhins-Lurton, Bonnet and La Louviere - with screw caps.

It's time for the rest of the world to follow. Every winery from Gallo to Chateau Petrus should have a no-TCA strategy in the works. The problem of contaminated corks is bad, getting worse and not going away.

On my kitchen counter sit two bottles of wine opened in the past two weeks - both full except for the one glass that was quickly dumped down the sink.

One was a pinot grigio from an excellent high-end California producer; the other was a chardonnay from a leading Washington state winery (not Hogue). Both were undrinkable because of bad corks.

For now, the wineries deserve sympathy and anonymity. But in the not-distant future, they won't. They now have a choice.

The screw cap has proven to be a superior closure in extensive tests in Australia and New Zealand. Hogue's testing merely confirms those results but is valuable nevertheless. Americans tend to distrust research conducted on foreign soil.

Hogue bottled a 1999 merlot and a 2000 chardonnay under natural corks, two types of synthetic cork and Stelvin screw caps.

In December last year, Hogue assembled a panel of wine professionals and tasted the wines side by side. The screw caps consistently outperformed natural and artificial corks with the red and white wine.

Forsyth said Hogue's tasting found contamination running about 18 percent with the natural corks. It found no contamination in the synthetic corks but found the wines bottled that way oxidized quicker than others - losing fruit and aromas.

Hogue is moving forward this year to bottle what it calls its Fruit Forward wines - red and white varietals costing about $10 - under screw caps.

In what Forsyth realizes is an anomaly, Hogue will continue for now to bottle its more expensive Genesis and Reserve wines under the traditional but inferior closure.

"We've got our eyes on them too," he said.

The challenge facing Hogue and other producers is a public perception that corks are a sign of sophistication, quality and romance.

Screw caps, on the other hand, carry a stigma from decades past. Forsyth said consumers see them as a cost-saving effort by the winery rather than a step forward.

"There is a negative perception there, but it's not surprising," he said. "It carries some baggage with Annie Green Spring and things like that."

Forsyth said the burden will be on wineries to persuade a skeptical public. That's fair enough, but critics can do their part in changing the paradigm.

If I'm still in this line of work with the 2006 vintage, no breaks will be given to winemakers who produce tainted wines. Readers will get a description of the sweaty-socks aromas and the moldy flavors, but no excuses about bad corks. Names will be named.

This isn't about cork. It's about bad wine. If the cork industry can come up with a reliable technology for avoiding contamination, more power to them. Otherwise, it's time to put the screws to the wine industry.

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