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

Most of us have tasted a "corked" bottle of wine; we just didn'tknow it. And that's a winemaker's worst nightmare. We go awaythinking we just don't like the wine, when, in fact, it wascontaminated with 2, 4, 6-trichloranisole (TCA), a chemicalgenerated by molds that tend to grow on cork. In highconcentrations, cork taint gives wine a nasty, wet-dog odor that'shard to miss. At low levels, it creates a faint mustiness thatleaves less-than-confident drinkers believing they just don'tappreciate the nuances of wine.

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

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

More serious an issue is how wines age in screw caps. Theperception is that permeable cork allows some sort of slow oxygenexchange that a wine requires to age gracefully in the bottle. Butif a wine in cork is stoppered and stored well (on its side), thereis no such exchange. Slow oxidation occurs, but only with theoxygen that started in the bottle ― a process that canproceed as merrily under screw caps as corks. Three years into astudy at the University of California, Davis, wines closed the twoways show few differences.

The risk takers

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

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard began skewering17th-century cork technology with his 2001 Big House Red. Almostall Bonny Doon wines are in screw caps now. And Beringer Blass WineEstates is aiming its new screw-capped TwoTone Farm Chardonnay andMerlot 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 airportcorkscrew confiscations ― there'll be no reason to tote thetool.

Our favorite Western screw-capped wines:

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

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

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

KOSHER NEWS

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

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

Herzog Special Reserve Chardonnay 2001 (Russian RiverValley, CA), $28. Enticing custardlike aroma gives way to anopulent, buttery mouth-feel. If you like big, rich, creamyChardonnays, this is for you.

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

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

Sunset's Wine Club

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