Aspen Times Weekly: Screw It

by Kelly J. Hayes


Reliability: TCA, or cork taint, is not an issue with a screwcap

Freshness: A wine with a screwcap is fresh when you buy it and remains fresh after you put the cap back on. Every wine is as the winemaker intended.

Ease of use: No more looking for the corkscrew. Simply twist the top and your wine is ready to drink.

Cost: It may not be reflected in your exact bottle, but corks can cost as much as a quarter each. Winemakers who use screwcaps can pass the savings onto consumers.

As I sat down in the Willamette Valley to taste the recent releases of Chehalem wines with winery founder Harry Peterson-Nedry, I glanced at the line-up and noticed a similarity. “Everything under screwcap?” I asked casually.

While purely serendipitous, I doubt I could have posed a timelier query to the Oregon winemaking legend. “Yes, we use Stelvin screwcaps on all our wines,” he said with obvious pride, noting the name of the Australian-owned closure system that has become synonymous with the ever growing global screwcap movement. “We began to run trials on alternatives to cork in 1994, started using screwcaps in 2003 and five years ago we began to use them on all of our wines.”

Ironically, just days before our tasting, Chehalem had launched a seven-city sojourn to showcase their experience using screwcaps for the trade and the press. Under the moniker “Aging Gracefully Tour,” Harry and his marketing staff are touring major wine markets with the last 10 vintages of their esteemed Chehalem Three Vineyard Pinot Noir. They are also taking along a series of charts that show geeky stuff like how the density, browning and SO2 levels of their wines have adjusted over the vintages under cork and cap. Suffice to say, their measurements have shown that the capped wines have either maintained or exceeded the corked in terms of performance.

For a man who is as passionate about the science and history of wines as he is about the taste, Harry’s quest to explore new closures is, well, intoxicating. Consider that using cork in glass bottles has been the unquestioned methodology of the wine industry since the mid-1700s. That is when a monk named Dom Pérignon began to use tree bark to seal in the fizz of the sparkling Champagne created at the famed abbey of Hautvillers. Some say the trend began even earlier, as far back as the Greeks and Romans who used wooden materials to cap amphorae and other earthen jugs.

As recently as a half-decade ago, when Harry took the plunge, you still would have found a significant segment of the wine consuming public who perceived a connection between screwcaps and low-quality, cheap wines. But thanks to those who had the courage to innovate and do the science proving the advantages of the new closures, that image/myth has been dispelled. Today, savvy wine consumers, millennials, and even Saturday night drinkers all have reasons to buy wines that are screwed.

There are a number of advantages to using screwcaps including cost and convenience. But the most important has to do with a substance called TCA, or more exactly, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, which results when natural fungi from the corks come in contact with chlorophenol, a stinky compound found in disinfectants. The result is a bottle of wine which, when opened, smells, well, very bad. Think musty, musky old newspapers. When you hear someone say the bottle is “corked,” that’s generally what has happened. “In our studies we found that up to 8 percent of our wines had some level of TCA,” said Harry about the scourge. “We can’t justify that kind of failure rate for our customers.”

Neither could an Australian wine executive named Peter Wall. In 1964, Wall, then a director at Yalumba winery, approached a French company, Le Bouchage Mechanique, which had produced a steel closure for spirits and liquors, to discuss alternative closures for wine bottles. Over the next decade, a number of Australian wineries joined Yalumba in the pursuit of change and in the mid-1970s the first Stelvin screwcaps were introduced. The winemakers of New Zealand embraced them, bottling much of their emergent Sauvignon Blanc under cap and consumers began to slowly to accept them.

But questions remained as to how well they would work with wines that typically required some aging. In 1997, PlumpJack Winery, a producer of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Oakville region of the Napa Valley that sells it’s wines for well over $100, placed half of its allotment of Reserve Cab in bottles with corks, and half in bottles sealed with Stelvin closures. Nearly two decades later, those who have attended tastings of the wines swear that they are still drinking great. And blind studies conducted at UC Davis have, in conjunction with other wines from the PlumpJack family, showed that screwcaps do a better job of keeping wines at the state in which they were originally bottled. That is, as the winemaker intended them to be served.

Owned today by the Melbourne, Australia-based packaging company Amcor, Stelvin has become so ubiquitous in the world of screwcap wines that they are virtually considered to be a generic. Though there are a few competitors in the growing market — GSeal, VinPerfect, and Guala are three California companies that are developing products — Stelvin closures continue to dominate the growing market. In the coming years it is inevitable that new technologies will evolve and that the current closures will be steadily improved and perhaps even made obsolete.

But regardless, the wines of today will be better tomorrow thanks to the Aussies, the Kiwis, the folks at PlumpJack and Chehalem’s Harry Peterson-Nedry. They took a chance to explore new frontiers for all of us who love wine.