Turn of the screw

No longer on the cheap, twist-off caps outperform corks
No longer on the cheap, twist-off caps outperform corks

Most of us have tasted a "corked" bottle of wine; we just didn't know it. And that's a winemaker's worst nightmare. We go away thinking we just don't like the wine, when, in fact, it was contaminated with 2, 4, 6-trichloranisole (TCA), a chemical generated by molds that tend to grow on cork. In high concentrations, cork taint gives wine a nasty, wet-dog odor that's hard to miss. At low levels, it creates a faint mustiness that leaves less-than-confident drinkers believing they just don't appreciate the nuances of wine.

By conservative estimates, 3 to 4 percent of wines closed with corks are tainted. At a recent tasting at WillaKenzie Estate in Yamhill, Oregon, according to co-owner Ronni Lacroute, out of 13 bottles she opened, 3 were corked. More and more winemakers are getting fed up with that much product loss. And many now are looking to screw caps (Stelvins being the most common brand), a trend we first reported on in August 2001.

Unfortunately, early on, screw caps became associated with cheap wine because that's the company they kept. Premium wine in proper society was introduced by the pop of a cork.

More serious an issue is how wines age in screw caps. The perception is that permeable cork allows some sort of slow oxygen exchange that a wine requires to age gracefully in the bottle. But if a wine in cork is stoppered and stored well (on its side), there is no such exchange. Slow oxidation occurs, but only with the oxygen that started in the bottle ― a process that can proceed as merrily under screw caps as corks. Three years into a study at the University of California, Davis, wines closed the two ways show few differences.

The risk takers

Napa Valley's PlumpJack Winery was the first to take the risk on high-end wine with aging potential, closing half its 1997 reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with screw caps ― at $150 or so a bottle, betting that people will be able to shake the feeling that they're twisting open a jug of plonk. At a recent blind tasting of the 1998 to see whether we could tell the wine in screw cap from that in cork, I got it wrong. In my defense, general manager John Conover missed it too, and winemaker Tony Biagi was sure of his pick only because a chunk of the cork landed in one of his glasses.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard began skewering 17th-century cork technology with his 2001 Big House Red. Almost all Bonny Doon wines are in screw caps now. And Beringer Blass Wine Estates is aiming its new screw-capped TwoTone Farm Chardonnay and Merlot at a young audience it's counting on to bring an open mind ― and a fear of corkscrews ― to the table.

Maybe it's only a matter of time before we'll be free of airport corkscrew confiscations ― there'll be no reason to tote the tool.

Our favorite Western screw-capped wines:

Argyle Pinot Noir 2002 (Willamette Valley, OR), $18. Brambly berries, cedar, and smoke.

Bonny Doon "Old Telegram" 2001 (California), $32. A meaty, spicy Mourvèdre.

WillaKenzie "Pierre Léon" Pinot Noir 2001 (Willamette Valley), $36. Rich and smoky.

KOSHER NEWS

There are more high-quality kosher wines available than ever before. Here are our top picks for your seder this year.

Bartenura Moscato d'Asti 2003 (Piedmont, Italy), $12. The Italians like to serve moscatos like this at large family gatherings ― and no wonder. This fruity wine is as irresistible as sorbet, with gorgeous peach and apricot flavors. Its very low alcohol level ― 5 percent ― makes it a nice afternoon quaffer.

Herzog Special Reserve Chardonnay 2001 (Russian River Valley, CA), $28. Enticing custardlike aroma gives way to an opulent, buttery mouth-feel. If you like big, rich, creamy Chardonnays, this is for you.

Herzog Special Reserve Syrah 2001 (Edna Valley, CA), $32. Medium-bodied and sleek, with spicy black licorice aromas and terrific wild blackberry flavors. Great with lamb or game.

Château Giscours Margaux 1999 (Bordeaux, France), $55. A lovely, classic Bordeaux. Tobacco and leather aromas and cassislike flavor, with hints of dark chocolate and a good, long finish. Great partner for beef. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club