Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Screw Caps and the Loss of Romance in a Bottle

Forward: Yes I pretty much posted this exact same thing about 2 weeks ago, but I had this written for a different purpose and it went unused so I figured after putting work into it I might as well post it. I promise to be less redundant in the future.

Working in a liquor store most of the excitement to be had comes in the form of an eclectic set of characters that come to buy, steal or beg for booze. On a good day there may be a few drunks that scream and swear as they begrudgingly leave the store after being denied their fix, a few kids who “forgot my id in the car, just sell this to me and I’ll go grab it for you,” and the occasional customer who is actually interested in the libation they wish to consume.

Sunday has long been known as the day of rest for God, bums, kids and rabble rousers; as such the eclectic set of characters who stroll through the door is seriously reduced. The only form of entertainment to be had on the Sunday shift is correcting the misconceptions of the notoriously restless and misinformed well to do urbanites.

One such urbanite walked into my store on a long and drawn out Sunday shift. She was cute, well dressed and resigned herself to an often believed myth about wine closures. Grabbing for a cheap and terrible bottle of sauvignon blanc (sealed with a cork) I suggest to her much better bottle (sealed with a screw cap) for the same price. She looks dismayed.

“You can always tell it’s a good wine when it’s sealed with a screw cap” she says sarcastically. I am elated, I now have a mission for the evening, I get to challenge someone’s beliefs and with any luck change her view of the world of wine.

“Actually,” I chime in “this is an awesome wine.”  She looks at me quizzically. I explain that the cover sealing up a wine does not dictate quality. If anything the quality of a wine is likely to be better if it is sealed with a screw cap. I can tell she doubts my expertise, the romance of a cork is just too enticing for most, but as with an awkward teenage boy trying to woo his paramour the display of romance may simply be a cover for an inability to deliver.

I walk over to the New Zealand selection of wine. “Take a look at these,” I point to a bottle of pinot noir and then bottle of sauvignon blanc. “New Zealand is famous for four things: sauv blanc, pinot noir, screw caps and sheep.”  Her face lights up. She explains she was on a date a week ago and her date brought her back to his place where he poured her off a few glasses of an “Amazing!” NZ sauv blanc. Her cheeks blush Beaujolais red after revealing that it was a very good night. “Did you happen to check out how the bottle was sealed?”  I ask. She admits she was off powdering her nose when he opened the bottle. It was almost definitely a screw cap closure I tell her. New Zealand has championed the use of screw caps, and with more high quality wine coming from this nation than ever before they have proved to the world there is no reason to sheepishly back away from the screw cap. In the first five years of the 21st century the nation went from having less than 1% of their wine sealed with a screw cap to roughly 70%.

“So if I buy a bottle of wine that uses a screw cap there is actually a better chance of the wine being good. Why don’t the French use them then?  And what makes a screw cap so much better than a cork?”  Her question is more of an accusation than an inquisition. I have to admit to her that a wine’s quality is not actually related to the presence or absence of a screw cap; there is just a slightly higher chance that the wine will not be spoiled when sealed with a screw cap. Cork, being a natural product, makes a nice abode for fungi. This is bad news for a wine. If a wine happens to be sealed with a cork that happens to house a certain type of fungus the wine will turn rancid. This is what wine people are referring to when they say a wine is “corked.” The wine either becomes dull and tasteless or it will actively offend your nose and taste buds. Industry estimates suggest that anywhere from 1%-10% of all bottles sealed with a cork are victim to this terrible disease. Realistically the figure is probably much closer to 1% than 10%. She seems to accept my rebuttal to the first part of her accusatory question. Suddenly a look of horror creeps across her face. I think I may have just scared her into never buying a bottle of wine sealed with a cork again. “What if this happens to the wine I buy!?  Will I die?”  No don’t worry it’s harmless -- it just tastes like wet dog.

As for France and Europe in general, wine has been sealed with cork for hundreds of years: things are slow to change. The old world tends to stick to old traditions, whereas the new world, in which New Zealand is located, seems to feel more free to experiment with new techniques. The French also seem to be inordinately in love with the popping sound a cork makes when removed from the bottle. The leading manufacturer of screw caps is actually in the process of trying to reproduce the popping sound for screw caps to appease French consumers.

While screw caps do eliminate the risk of a wine being corked there are differing opinions as to weather a screw cap has the same ability to age a wine. Cork allows for trace amounts of oxygen to enter a wine bottle: this is necessary for aging a wine. There are now screw caps that effectively do the same thing but since they are relatively new to the market there is some skepticism, people don’t necessarily fully trust screw caps to age wine.

New techniques and technologies are being created to reduce the rate of “corked” wine. There are new treatment techniques for cork that are starting to be employed that completely eliminate the risk of cork taint. But with new technology comes more cost, cost that a winemaker may not always be able to afford. Both cork and screw caps are good methods of sealing wine. While cork may have the draw back of potentially destroying a wine, screw caps are yet to be fully trusted in their ability to age a wine.

“So what you’re saying is I shouldn’t be biased?”  Finally; I managed to gain her trust and convince her that a screw cap is no reason to think a wine will be sub-par. I tell her that if she is debating between buying one of two bottles of wine not to let the sealing method be a deciding factor. She smiles, grabs a bottle of New Zealand sauv blanc and leaves the store screw cap sealed wine and all.