Time To Pop A ... Screw Cap?

Two bottles of wine, one screw-capped, left, and one corked, sit in a window of the Willakenzie Winery, near Yamhill, Ore., Aug. 8, 2002. The move to screw-caps is one that wineries in Australia, New Zealand and California have all made recently with their higher-end wines, mainly due to complaints about bad corks. (AP Photo/The News Register, Tom Ballard)[Click image for details ]
AP/The News Register, Tom Ballard
The question now: how to seal a nice bottle of wine. White House correspondent Bill Plante happens to be something of a connoisseur.

The grapes of the 2007 vintage have been gathered in, the vineyards now quiet. But beneath the pastoral calm, there's a raging controversy in the world of wine.

At issue - says author George Taber - is not what's INSIDE the wine bottle, but what CLOSES it.

"Friendships have been lost over this," Taber said. "One wine maker in Australia told me 'This is the new wars of religion, you know, where everybody wants to burn each other at the stake.'"

For 400 years, cork was basically the only way to close a wine bottle.

In his book "To Cork or Not to Cork," Taber says an increasing amount of wine is being tainted by corks - perhaps as much as 5% worldwide.

"What's the problems with corks?" Plante asked.

"A chemical called TCA, [which] gives cork an off-flavor," Taber said. "It's a flavor that's been compared to wet cardboard or wet newspapers. And it comes from a combination of mold and chlorine."

In recent years, cork quality has deteriorated, prompting the search for alternatives. Lo and behold, the humble screw cap! The manufacturer - and some wineries - prefer to call it a "stelvin closure" because screw cap sounds, well, cheap!

"Basically, it's just like opening a bottle of water," Taber said. "You know, you just twist. Off it comes."

This year, 95% of all New Zealand wine will have screw caps, as will 50% of Australian wine. Only 5% of U.S. wine bottles have screw caps, but the number is growing.

Jane Rouse, and her husband Shep, own the Rockbridge Winery in Virginia, the fifth-largest wine-producing state. Forty percent of the 10,000 cases they produce have screw caps.

"You can't have a bad cork if you're using screw caps," said Jane Rouse. "So if you don't need the aging quality of cork, why not go to screw caps?"

Shep Rouse says while corks help to age wine over time, 90% of wine is meant to be drunk within two years.

"The stoppers are just a way to seal the bottle," he said. "That should have as little impact on the quality of the wine as possible. Ideally the wine is finished the day it gets into the bottle, with the exception of some of the red wines."

But the caps DO have an image problem, such as a screw cap means "cheap wine."

To counter that image, the Bonny Doon winery in California produced a video advocating the screw cap as better than cork.

Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann wines on New York's Park Avenue, said in the beginning some customers had problems with screw caps.

"We would get returns where people would bring back a bottle with the screwcap, and there'd be a big hole in the top and a broken cork screw. And they would say, 'Are you gonna replace our cork screw?'" said Aaron. "And also, "This cork is terrible." And we'd explain it was a screw cap."

Almost none of the high-end wines in this store - especially wines from France - have screw caps. George Taber says tradition still matters.

"Wine, for all its history, has never been just another drink that you pop the top and chugalug," Taber said. "And part of the ritual of opening the bottle is part of the romance of the cork. I find it difficult to imagine that any man proposed to the love of his life over a screw cap bottle."

Yet that, too, may be changing.

Mark Slater, sommelier at Michel Richard's Citronelle restaurant in Washington, offers wines from $30 to $5,000 a bottle. He says most of his customers pay little attention as he opens their wine.

"I think they're more interested in tasting the wine than playing with the cork, frankly," Slater said.

Citronelle has about two dozen wines with screw caps, out of more than 800. Slater doesn't seem to have a problem with screw caps: "Anything that will prevent wine from spoiling, fine wine from spoiling, is a good thing," he said.

"But would you take a bottle with a screw cap to someone's home as a gift?" Plante asked.

"There are bottles with screw caps that cost well in excess of $100 these days. So yeah, most certainly I would."

But wine under screw caps - if kept too long - may ALSO develop a taint. So there are other alternatives to corks. Fifteen percent of wine in the United States now has - no joke - PLASTIC stoppers.

"Plastic corks have always had a problem of being difficult to get in and out of a bottle," Taber said. "As one expert said, they're difficult to get out and can be impossible to get in."

And now there are even GLASS closures as well. It's called the "elegant solution" because glass is so attractive. It opens very simply. Just pop off the top, and there it is.

All the same, 80% of all the world's wine bottles still come with corks. So don't throw away your cork screw any time soon!