WineS: A matter of closure

In the wonderful world of wine, milestone events prop up legend and mystique. If you’ve followed wine for awhile, you no doubt have heard of the “Judgment of Paris.” The blind tasting in 1976 led judges to favor a Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from California and a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, also in California, over French competition.

Mon dieu! Oui, and heavens to Betsy, too.

OK, that event dealt with the stuff inside the bottle. Who’s to say whether Nov. 10-12, 2004, will come to merit similar legend, because those dates link to the first International Screwcap Symposium. More than 250 people gathered from all points in distant New Zealand, to revel in the glory that has become … the screwcap?

The closure of choice for cheap gallon jugs of La Mesa and Red Mountain, back in the day?

Well, yes. As Ross Lawson of Lawson’s Dry Hills winery put it three years earlier, when his winery and three others from New Zealand announced their intent to bottle a good share of their wine using screwcaps, “The wine world is on the brink of a closure revolution.”

End of story? If only closure to the issue of … closure … could come so fast. When it comes to wine, stories evolve. Argument and debate thrive, because you’ve got to talk about something over a glass of wine, so if it isn’t the merits of the juice, it might as well be the merits of labels, or bottles, or … closures. Screwcaps vs. natural cork vs. synthetic cork vs. … well, whatever some enterprising inventor has devised and suggested will supplant everything that has come before.

“It’s a very emotional topic,” says George M. Taber, author of “To Cork or Not to Cork.” “They want to throw bombs at each other.”

And rest assured, they are. And not everyone is convinced that screwcaps are the end all and be all. And research continues. And based on that research, advocacy continues.

“When someone makes a decision, they become evangelical,” Taber says. “They don’t just decide to use a given closure on their wines; they want to convert the world to their position being right.”

So before we get into the here and now of how best to protect the wine in the bottle, let’s look back a bit at the history of containers and closures and how we got to the fine and contentious mess that we find ourselves in today.

Cork, derived from the bark of a tree that grows largely in Portugal, has been the standard for close to 2,500 years. From about 500 B.C. to around 500 A.D., large chunks of cork were stuffed in the mouths of earthenware jars. Pitch or tar was used to seal around the cork and create an air-tight closure and reduce the risk of oxidation, which is what takes fermented grape juice to vinegar.

“Then in 500 A.D., the Swiss invented and the Romans adopted the wooden stave wine barrel, and it became the standard for a thousand years,” says Taber, a former Time magazine writer who makes his home on an island off the coast of Rhode Island.

In the 1600s, he says, history notes a triple play of advancements. The English developed a thick, rigid glass bottle that could be transported without breaking. They figured out how to shape and stuff cork into the neck to seal it. And they developed the corkscrew to get the cork out so they could drink the wine.

Fast-forward to 1994, when SupremeCorq of Seattle developed the first successful synthetic cork.

Dennis Burns, founder of SupremeCorq, was on a trip to Napa when he noticed that winemakers were using plastic bungs to seal large aging barrels. He asked why this was, and learned that they were afraid of losing an entire barrel to cork taint. But they were still using cork in their wine bottles.

Burns reasoned that a synthetic bottle cork would help protect against the off-putting aromas and flavors associated with a chemical occurring naturally in cork — 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, commonly called TCA.

TCA is created by a combination of a bacterium and chlorophenol compounds, which are linked to pesticides and chemicals used to preserve wood. Taber says the problem of TCA taint exploded in the 1980s.

“What had been a minor problem, say one bottle in 50 or one in 100, suddenly became one bottle in every case, so that’s a lot of loss,” Taber says.

It became particularly noticeable south of the equator, in the wine-growing regions of Australia and New Zealand. Some thought it was because they were getting inferior cork. Others theorized that the trip through equatorial heat and humidity hyper-activated the bacteria.

TCA taint is more obvious in white wines than red, in large part because aging in oak barrels imparts a flavor that can obscure the musty character of cork taint, Taber says.

In any case, the taint problem became an opportunity for SupremeCorq, based near Seattle, Wash. Joyce Steers-Greget, director of marketing, says the company is today the leading producer of injection molded synthetic corks.

It and other companies doing injection molding use what they describe as “thermoplastic elastomeric materials.” Got that? OK, the stuff is similar to what is used in medical devices and baby products. They are neutral – flavorless, odorless – and not a friendly environment for the growth of bad bugs such as those that create TCA taint.

To those in the industry, production process matters, but consumers may not fully appreciate why it may matter more at their end of the line. Have you ever pulled a synthetic cork, then had a major wrestling match with the bottle to get it back in? It wasn’t just that you hadn’t been hitting your gym workouts. There’s another reason.

“The advantage of injection molding is that the ends are slightly rounded, so they’re easier to get back in the bottle,” Steers-Greget says.

The other kind of “plastic” corks are extruded like a long tube of sausage, then lopped off to appropriate length. The ends of each “cork” flare a bit when removed from the bottle, and that can make it a challenge to reinsert.

The solution? Well, duh-uh – drink the rest of the bottle.

Taber says synthetic corks are growing in popularity, closing about 20 percent of all wine bottles today. Natural cork closes about 66 percent, and the balance – 13 to 14 percent – is covered by screwcaps.

Richard Grant Peterson has been a winemaker since the 1950s. With a doctorate in agricultural chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, he has brought an inquisitive eye to many aspects of winemaking, corks and other closures among them.

He’s a big fan of natural cork. His own research shows that cork has worked well for years because of its unique structural qualities. Thousands of tiny cells each hold a bit of air in them, allowing cork to compress well, and expand tightly against the inner neck of the wine bottle.

“Air passes through many of the plastic corks out there,” Peterson says. “There’s a terrible seal. There are one of two that do seal well now, but as recently as a couple of years ago, there weren’t many that had a good seal.”

Natural cork is superior, he says, but it isn’t perfect. When the cork is compressed to get it into the wine bottle, cells at the end of the cork are ruptured and give off a tiny bit of air into the wine bottle. This degrades a bit of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) that is essential to maintaining fresh bouquet and color in the wine.

“From then on, there’s no leakage of air,” Peterson says. “That allows the bottle bouquet to build as the wine ages. When you open an old bottle of wine at dinner, you get bottle bouquet.”

He explains that what we typically call the wine’s “nose” – what we smell when we stick our nose in the mouth of a glass of wine — has two components. The “aroma” comes from the wine grapes. The “bouquet” comes from the aging.

Off-putting taste is another matter. To address the problem of cork taint that at one point was causing loss of 4 to 5 percent of all bottled wine, Peterson traveled to the cork-producing regions of Portugal. After TCA was identified as the cause in the 1990s, cork producers began a concerted effort to eradicate the mold by use, first, of chlorine, and later, peroxide.

“Today, the loss rate is only about 1 percent,” Peterson says.

He also has tracked the evolution of the aluminum screwcap. Advances in materials used inside the caps to create an enduring seal against the glass lip of the bottle have greatly increased the appeal of the screwcap.

“Over time, they’ve used better plastic so they don’t leak air anymore,” Peterson says. “Back then, the cap was good for two years. Today, a good cap is good for 15 years.”

The screw-cap began its major advance shortly after a study comparing all closures came out in June 2001. Conducted by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), the study used “14 different closures: a screw-cap type, two grades of conventional cork, two types of ‘technical’ cork (natural cork with a synthetic component), and nine closures manufactured from synthetic polymer material.”

A semillon wine was bottled in the summer of 1999. Testing continues to this day. Results after 20 months showed that some closures work fine for short periods – six months to a year.

Although researchers said no single type of closure “could be considered entirely suitable,” they did conclude that “wine sealed with the screwcap retained the greatest concentration of SO2 and ascorbic acid, and had the slowest rate of browning.”

The study found that synthetic corks allowed the greatest loss of S02, and “appeared least ‘consumer-friendly’” because of the work involved in removing, or re-inserting them.

Less than a year later, noted West Coast wine maverick Randall Grahm released 80,000 cases of his Bonny Doon Big House Red and White with Stelvin screwcaps.
Quietly and concurrently, Jordan Ferrier, research enologist at The Hogue Cellars, one of Washington’s largest wine producers, was in the midst of a four-year study of his own. He released results in June 2004, concluding that screwcaps worked better than anything else.

The findings from his four-year study drove the winery to make a major shift in production that year, using S t e l v i n s c r e w c a p s w i t h S a r a n e x l i n e r s on 7 0 p e r c e n t o f its 2004 vintage.

No wonder that McCormick Family Vineyards in south central Washington state, from its first bottling in the summer of 2007, went with the screwcap closure.

“We use screwcaps on everything we bottle,” says owner Rob McCormick. “We believe it’s the best technology. We’re doing it to avoid corked wines, which can be 5 percent of your total.”

McCormick says his family’s wines aren’t meant for long-term storage.

“Nobody knows how long they’ll last, but that’s not a concern for us,” he says. Customers tend to buy and consume his wines within a year or two.

All that said, it’s apparent by the numbers, and by the bottles in your hand (occasionally, anyway), that cork has not disappeared from the wine-opening experience. Tradition dies hard.

Think about the various places and company in which wine is opened. Around a backyard BBQ, a screwcap is just fine, and hardly worth a comment.

At dinner in a fine restaurant, however, the server and the bottle and the corkscrew just all seem part of the experience. Having some rube arrive at your table and twist off the beer cap … er, wine closure … well, that’s just a little too down-market, yes?

“It’s not a very glamorous ritual, to unscrew a bottle of wine,” admits Taber, the author of “To Cork or Not to Cork.”

“As many religions have discovered, rituals are important.”

Peterson, after four decades of research, has stuck with cork in his own wines, bottled under the Richard Grant Wine label.

“There’s still a better image for cork,” he says. “There are a lot of fairly nice wines bottled with a screwcap, but the consumer tends to assume that a wine with a cork finish is a little bit better than if it was a screwcap.”

He tells the story of talking with Fred Franzia, president of Bronco Wines, which produces a number of low-cost wines, including the popular Charles Shaw (Two-buck Chuck). Franzia told Peterson that he uses real cork stoppers in Charles Shaw wines, because synthetic or other closures would suggest that the wine inside was of lesser quality.

As producers weigh the merits of the three dominant closures, they all also keep an eye out, as Grahm once noted, for the next best thing. So, what is it?

It may be something called MetaCork, developed by Dr. William Gardner, a former engineering professor at the University of California-Davis, home to the well-regarded Viticulture & Enology program.

Introduced five years ago on a variety of familiar labels – Fetzer, Clos du Bois and Amusant – the MetaCork integrates a resealable plastic cap with a twist-out cork.

In that sense, it seems to combine the best of old world and new, the natural cork closures of tradition with the convenience of screwcaps.

Because, after all, no matter how well they work, screwcaps will always lack that certain cork … voice. As Taber puts it, “there are three sounds that will warm even the most jaded heart. One is the purring of a kitten. The second is a perfectly pitched ball being hit by a perfectly swung bat.

“And the third? That is the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle of wine.”