Cork vs. Screw Cap

I was recently at a tasting of 2015 vintage Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs that ranged in style and price. Some were full of tropical fruit, tinged with oak flavors of vanilla and spice, while others were exceptionally austere, made in stainless steel—crisp, full of stony aromatics and flavors of chalk, sea stone and citrus.

Tasting the wines was a range of vintners, including longtime winemakers Bill Dyer (former winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery) and Sara Folwer (director of winemaking at Peju) as well as relatively newer winemakers such as Laura Barrett (Cliff Family Winery) and Simon Faury (Merryvale Vineyards).

Each of the nearly 20 wines tasted was examined intensely. The bottles were passed from one participant to another, shrouded in thick brown paper bags to hide their labels, with only the top of the bottle’s neck peeking above the rough paper edge. The first round of six wines was poured and the participants went to work, each taster concentrating and taking notes, ranking the wines in order of preference.

On the third round of tasting, one of the more experienced winemakers made an observation that went largely unnoticed. “Hey,” she said, almost as if to herself, “some of these bottles have screwcaps.”

When I heard the comment I waited, holding my breath for a lengthy debate on cork versus screwcaps. But other than a few nods and mumbles, the comment seemed to have no impact at all.This lack of interest has become the norm when it comes to a topic that, not so long ago, elicited heated discussions among both wine professionals and consumers.

A different time

Six years ago, I was heading to a wine dinner at the home of one of our biggest customers, whom I’ll call Albert, who’d invited me to join him and a few of his friends for a private wine dinner in San Francisco. Albert was a prominent venture capitalist who loved finding small producers of handcrafted wines within California, but his true passion was for French wines. I was happy to be heading to a dinner where I might get a taste of any of them.

I drove to the party with another of the guests, a young, aspiring venture capitalist named “Raj.” As we drove south over the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun just setting and bringing with it the red-orange glow reflecting off the structure and the sky above, Raj redirected our light conversation.

“Let me just warn you,” he said, his voice gaining a sudden level of seriousness. “I don’t care what your own view is regarding screwcaps, but don’t mention them around Albert.”

“OK, but why not?” I asked.

“Because I’ve seen chairs thrown around the room when he and a guy who supported their use, got into it a while back,” Raj said. “And that screw-cap-guy was never seen again.”

“You have to be kidding me,” I said and then laughed a little.

“No, I am not,” said Raj. “It’s a really touchy subject with Albert.”

“Touchy enough to kill a guy over?” I asked.

Raj laughed. “No, man, not killed, just not asked back to these dinners,” he said, then quickly added, “And you want to be at these dinners. He serves really good wine.”

I nodded in agreement. Ultimately, the dinner was fine and the wines were excellent. I stayed quiet and enjoyed wines few have the opportunity to taste. There are many reasons wines are highly collected, and it was clear to me the vintages we sampled that night contained something special and deeply moving. Of course, none had screwcaps.

Would it still matter?

Given my recent encounter with winemakers and their seeming lack of concern over wine closures, at least for Sauvignon Blanc, I’d be curious to know if chairs would still be thrown at the very mention of screwcaps, even at a dinner with Albert.

Like everything else in life, our understanding of what’s acceptable changes. Personally, I love corks, but I think that has more to do with their natural origins and the fact they provide a certain level of tradition, theater and ceremony more than anything else. I do understand that expensive liquors such as scotch and whiskey are often closed with screwcaps, but I just can’t imagine an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir being cracked open with a twist-off. Then again, if the wine inside is memorable, I’m not sure anyone would even notice.

That said, I’ll hang on to my love of cork for as long as I can, much as I enjoy listening to music on old-fashioned vinyl. Come to think of it, though, I’ve recently been listening to a few downloaded songs on my smartphone, too.


Originally published in the Northbay Biz, June 2016