A current debate in the wine world is whether traditional corks should be abandoned in favor of synthetic, man-made stoppers, or a screw cap. A screw cap! Can you imagine??? If you are a traditional wine lover, you probably have the same visceral reaction that I do to screw caps. But, in the interest of proffering a balanced presentation of the issue, I will restrain my passions……. for now.
The cork vs. screw cap debate is somewhat of a head vs. heart type of conflict. The logical mind must acknowledge that the screw-cappers have some valid points. Not that the cork proponents don’t have cogent rebuttals, but as will be illuminated, the mystique of the cork carries a nostalgic lore.
The problem with cork lies with the fact that sometimes it can become tainted by a chemical known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA for short. TCA is created when molds combine with other naturally occurring chemicals. Cork is made from the bark of certain oak trees found in Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. The trees themselves can be contaminated, or the corks can develop TCA independently from exposure to other elements during processing or even at the winery itself.
TCA is an extremely potent odorant that can be detected in infinitesimal amounts. A cork besmirched by TCA will impart a noxious aroma and taste to the wine, similar to damp moldy cardboard. Such a wine is said to be “corked” or “corky.” The obvious problem is the monetary loss. Wine collectors may pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, age it in their cellar and open it a decade or more later. If the wine is spoiled, it’s way too late to demand restitution from the retailer. Restaurants are in the same position, at least with wines that are aged and not recently purchased. And even when a wine can be returned to the original vendor or winery, someone somewhere is going to take a financial hit. Necessity isn’t the mother if invention, money is. And this particular mother’s brainchild is synthetic corks and screw caps.
The percentage of corks sullied by TCA depends on who you ask. The cork industry, naturally, espouses the lowest rate, 1-2%. Proponents of synthetic corks, (many of whom are the manufacturers) claim the percentage is as high as twelve. Most estimates I have encountered place the actual occurrence between 2-5%. I suspect this is accurate. Many feel this is an acceptable proportion. Of course opinions change when you are the one out $200 on your Chateau Lafite.
Advocates of synthetic corks and screw caps argue that never again will wine be ruined by TCA. Moreover, screw caps are easy to open and don’t require the use of a corkscrew. The counter argument is that wine needs to breathe in the bottle in order to age properly and these devices impede or halt that process. Although partly theoretical, it is further surmised that there is an optimum rate of oxygen infiltration. Too low and the wine doesn’t evolve. It becomes stagnant; frozen in time shall we say. Too much and its metabolism is accelerated; it ages prematurely and deteriorates far before its life expectancy. Cork provides balanced respiration with greater reliability than synthetic corks, (although corks, being a natural product, can vary in their density and hence, oxygen penetrability). As for screw caps, there’s no oxygen exchange at all.
Research is underway to determine with greater confidence wine’s need for inchmeal aeration and the most favorable pace of transmission. Moreover, the artificial corkers are already looking into designing stoppers that are permeable within certain tolerances. Now for the “heart” of the matter.
Screw caps are for ketchup, bottles of floor cleaner, and that cheap, rotgut swill that is the favorite of winos and frat party attendees everywhere. Quality wine is not an alcohol transmission device or a refreshment to be quaffed uncouthly in response to thirst or base impulses. On the simplest level, wine is about food and is therefore an inextricable component to all that food represents to us. But wine is even more than the gustatory pleasure of uniting a painstakingly refined product with exquisite food.
Wine is an icon of our culture, and a symbol of our heritage. Its sociocultural roots are imbedded in our theology, our celebrations of life, and our respect for the land. It carries a mystique and that venerable cork is the gateway to that mystique. I enjoy breaking out the corkscrew and taking my time opening the bottle. I want a little bit of anticipation as I immerse myself in the ritual of opening the wine. It’s a part of the process and the tradition. I want to hear that “pop” which signifies something worlds away from the sound of a Bud Light being opened. A screw cap cheapens wine, degrades it, and renders it pedestrian.
My sentiments may seem lofty, melodramatic, maybe even snobbish to some. But I am obviously passionate about wine and I truly believe it is so much more than just a nice alcoholic beverage to sip with my pasta. Passions are not about red and black ink, tradition-eroding technology, and other soulless creations of the modern age. They are about the things that make life meaningful.
Many years ago I bought two bottles of the 1986 Chateau Latour, one of the best Bordeauxs in the world and my personal favorite. The first bottle I drank at my graduation party upon completing my doctorate degree. The second I saved for the day I would marry the woman of my dreams. I finally got to pop that cork and it was one of the most meaningful sounds I’ve ever heard. Open my Latour with a screw cap? Screw that!