Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
Aspen Times Weekly
This past week I went into my local bottle shop, looking to buy a few bottles of wine for an upcoming camping trip.
Nothing unusual there. But the twist on this particular shopping venture was that, for the first time in my life, I walked into a store looking specifically for bottles with screw tops.
Now, keep in mind that I drink a lot of wine capped by screw tops. First, other than white Burgundy and few California Chardonnays, nearly all of the white wines I drink use screw tops for closures. With my reds, I usually buy to drink, rather than to hold, and young wines that need no aging are perfectly fine under screw top. Also, I tend to drink a lot of wine from Australia and New Zealand, both strongholds of the screw-top revolution.
But my reason for seeking screw tops for the camping trip was convenience. I wanted a wine that I could open easily without having to search through my stuff for a corkscrew, close up easily between pours, and ultimately, drop back into the cooler without having to worry about the cork getting soggy or leaking. A no-fuss, no-muss solution.
I didn’t have to look far for my screw top wines, as I bought two bottles each of the 2006 Montevina Zinfandel from Amador County and the 2006 Monte Antico IGT, a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines cost around $12. You’ll note that, in addition to having screw tops in common, both wines were cheap and share “Monte,” an allusion to mountains, on their label. I was camping at 10,000 feet, so it just seemed right.
The wines, and their closures, worked perfectly, as I knew they would. Both were great with the wood-grilled sausage links and flank steaks that were the main courses. What I didn’t finish the first night was just as good and easily served the second night. It is the reason why, when I am grilling at home, I like to simply twist a screw cap, drink half a bottle, re-twist and save the rest for the next night.
For more than 400 years, cork has been the closure of choice for wine. Vast forests of the stuff are found throughout Portugal, which produces close to 60 percent of all the cork used for closures worldwide, and Spain, which accounts for another 20 percent. Cork forests are also clustered around the Mediterranean coastal regions of Italy and France, and across the sea in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
But in the last 10 years, there has been a revolution in how wines are sealed, and screw tops have rapidly gained market share. It is estimated that screw tops are now found on up to 30 percent of the 16 billion bottles of wine sold annually in the world. That is up from 5 percent a decade ago.
There are lots of reasons for this change. First was the fuss about corked wines, those that were altered by a chemical called 2, 4, 6 trichloroanisole, or TCA, that can leak from a cork into a bottle and ruin the wine. Then there was the issue of wines that had defective corks, allowing too much oxygen into a bottle and destroying a wine, or corks simply disintegrating in the neck of a bottle. It has been estimated by some that as much as 7-10 percent of wines had some sort of damage inflicted by faulty corks, although many of those stories are based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data.
Then there is the improvement in technology. As more producers use screw tops, the cheaper and easier it is to find good products. Stelvin, perhaps the most popular closure company, now has plants in Chile, Canada, Australia and the U.S., turning out a variety of different closures.
One might say “Vive la difference!” but there is this to ponder: Cork is a recyclable organic product, while metal closures certainly are not. And there is a school of thought that says the demise of the cork industry will ultimately lead to the demise of the cork forests and their fragile ecosystems that sustain unique and diverse flora and fauna.
As we move forward we all need to make choices that affect not just ourselves, but the greater world as well. Does my choice for the convenience of a screw top on a camping trip have bigger connotations?
I’m still working on that one.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.