By Contributing Columnist Robin Mererdith
I'd like to welcome Robin Meredith as LENNDEVOURS' newest contributor. He is the former owner of Broadfields Wine Cellars and The Tasting Room on the North Fork of Long Island. He is now preparing to begin his Master of Wine education.
Most of the time, corked wine is caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), a hard-to-pronounce compound that taints the aromas and flavors of anywhere from 3% to 15% of the bottles we purchase, depending on whose estimates you believe. But — this is but one of the ways that natural cork fails us.
That’s why, for me, it was love at first twist. The first time I encountered a screw capped wine — not counting all those three liter bottles of Gallo Hearty Burgundy back in college — I knew this was something I wanted more of.
Cork’s most basic function is to act as a seal — keeping wine in and air out. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever stumbled across a sticky, leaky bottle knows, cork can’t even be counted on for this seemingly simple job. Entire vintages have been compromised by poor cork seals. And, because cork is a democratic troublemaker, this can happen to the world's best wines as well as more humble ones. The 1989 Chateaneuf du Pape from Chateau de Beaucastel, a Wine Spectator #1 wine of the year, was notoriously plagued by leaky corks.
Cork has also been implicated in the premature oxidation of several recent vintages of white Burgunies. It is believed that a chemical applied to corks during the manufacturing process wasn’t rinsed off properly, and contaminated the wines, leaving them exposed to oxidation. Countless $100+ bottles of wine were effectively ruined.
We tend to think of screw caps primarily as a way to sidestep the downfalls of natural cork, but they have some unique positive attributes of their own. The plastic liners that create the seal in screw cap closures come in two versions — semi-permeable, which allow some oxygen in over time and essentially mimic natural cork, and non-permeable, ones that a perfect seal, eliminating oxygen exchange entirely.
These non-permeable liners allow winemakers to bottle wines with lower sulfur levels, eliminating some of the “shock” caused by sulfur additions before bottling. This is especially beneficial for crisp, aromatic whites and roses that are at their best soon after bottling.
Are Screw Caps the Answer?
Given all of the advantages, why aren’t Long Island wineries using screw cap closures? I asked Russell Hearn, winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards and Director of Winemaking at Premium Wine Group, a shared winemaking facility in Mattituck that produces wines for Martha Clara Vineyards, Lieb Family Cellars, Schneider Vineyards, and a handful of other East End producers. Earlier this summer he organized a seminar on screw cap closures and he has probably thought more about this topic than most.
He told me that “It seems like there is a certain amount of fence-sitting at the moment. Everyone likes the idea, but there is some reluctance to be the first one to take the plunge.”
Marketplace resistance is a very real concern, both from consumers and, perhaps more importantly, from members of the retail and restaurant trade who are concerned that consumers will reject wines with screw caps.
But, as with so many things, the decision ultimately comes down to dollars and cents, and this is where it gets interesting. Wineries can save money on raw materials by converting to screw caps. A high-quality cork and custom capsule may cost as much as $.50 to $.60 per bottle, while an equivalent screw cap closure runs between $.15 and $.20. According to Hearn, “You don’t get much change back from $100,000” when you modify an existing bottling line to handle screw caps. This means a winery would break even on the investment in screw caps after about 22,000 cases.
The problem with this scenario is that wineries are more likely to utilize screw caps on their less expensive wines, and traditional closure costs for these wines can be much lower than $.50. An inexpensive synthetic cork and generic foil capsule can cost as little as $.20 per bottle, leaving you with a savings of a few pennies per unit and an astronomic break even point that can be many years away. Of course, inexpensive synthetic corks have their own quality issues.
Will We Ever See Screw Caps on Long Island?
Probably. Wineries are quite adept at pooling their resources and coming up with novel solutions to problems like this one. There are several mobile bottling lines on the West Coast that literally drive up to the winery and hook up their hoses when it’s time for bottling, and a few of these have screw cap capabilities. We don’t have anything like that in the eastern U.S., but it sounds like the sort of business opportunity someone must be taking a hard look at.
A shared winemaking facility like Premium Wine Group is another logical place to make the investment, since the costs can be shared (at least indirectly) among a large group of wineries. Hearn estimates that he would need a commitment of 30,000 cases per year to justify making the investment in screw cap machinery at Premium. Once that machinery was in place, it would be available to all East End wineries (not just those who are currently making their wines at Premium).
So what is a small, quality-oriented winery to do in the meantime? According to Christopher Tracy, winemaker for Channing Daughters, “cleanliness, a good trustworthy cork supplier, and no chlorine-based products in or around the winery” go a long way toward mitigating the problems associated with cork. And he reminds us that screw caps are not a panacea — “oxidation, reduction, and TCA from other sources (e.g. cardboard, wood) are all still a problem.”
Or, according to the always quotable Roman Roth from Wolffer Estate, “if some of the huge monster-sized wineries would use screw caps or synthetic cork there would be plenty of good cork for us smaller traditional and quality-oriented wineries”.
As with so many things in the wine business, there are no straight answers when it comes to closures.