Napa Valley's PlumpJack Winery puts screw caps to the test

“It was my screwy idea,” says Gordon Getty. Depending on which of two wines ― one group sealed with cork, the other with screw caps ― triumphs in our group’s blind tasting at Napa Valley’s PlumpJack Winery, that’s either a confession or a boast.

With the 1997 vintage, San Francisco billionaire Getty and fellow PlumpJack proprietor (and San Francisco mayor) Gavin Newsom committed half of their reserve Cabernet to screw caps.

It was a highly publicized counterstrike against the number of bottles ruined by the bacteria commonly known as TCA, which can grow in cork and give wine a nasty wet-dog smell. (Imagine BMW shipping its cars using technology that destroys 3 to 5 percent of them.)

The big question, though: Can serious red wines age well without the slight permeability of cork? Some say these big wines need a little oxygen through the years to soften tannins and develop complex, interesting flavors.

Plus, in broad-stroke chemical terms, screw-cap wines can develop compounds at certain stages that make the wine a little stinky ― “reduced,” as they say.

But Randall Grahm, the thoughtful maverick behind Bonny Doon Vineyard who switched to screw caps a few years ago, says “the naughty smells” peak at about 18 months, depending on the wine, and then the wine “can crawl back into respectability.” In fact, he says, it’s capable of much longer aging than the same wine sealed with cork.

Back at PlumpJack, glass A of the 1997 seems soft and has evolved secondary flavors of cedar, cigar box, and gentle soy; I guess it has spent the decade under cork.Glass B seems a little leaner, more herbal, with a floral character that gives it a fresh lift; I think screw cap.

I’m wrong, of course, and I’m not alone. The winner for taste (by a nose)? Cork.

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