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Kulers Uncorked: Screwtop Wine? OK!

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Funeral for an old friend. Randall Grahm's mock wake for the cork industry in 2002. (Courtesy of Bonny Doon)

On a rare Friday night off, I was at one of my favorite eateries, No. 246 in Decatur, with Eleanore, my wife. As we dug into our baked ricotta appetizer, a woman approached our table to say, “Hi,” and, of course, had to know what wine I was drinking.

We happened to be enjoying a 2012 Bonny Doon “Le Pousseur” Syrah, which happens to be sealed with a screwtop.

“You’re not the screwtop type,” she declared.

And there you have it in a nutshell, many people’s impression of wines with non-cork closures. This pleasant, well-meaning woman, probably 40-45 years old, was practically aghast that a serious wine guy would deign to drink a screwcap wine…in public no less.

Funeral for an old friend. Randall Grahm's mock wake for the cork industry in 2002. (Courtesy of Bonny Doon)

Funeral for an old friend. Randall Grahm’s mock wake for the cork industry in 2002. (Courtesy of Bonny Doon)

Let’s be clear: I am a serious wine guy. In my dining room, wines are served properly, at the right temperature and in the right glassware. I read periodicals and books about wine. I attend wine conferences.

Serious, but I enjoy wine, too, and I have my favorites. I’m a sucker for cool-climate syrahs, like Le Pousseur, from the chillier parts of California’s Santa Barbara county. Why should I let a closure stand between me and the wines I like?

Hear, hear! says Randall Grahm, the guy who made our syrah. He’s also the man who held a much-publicized funeral for cork closures 13 years ago in New York City. “What I found was that even back in 2002, while many if not most consumers might have preferred cork, if they liked the brand and presumably the wine, the fact that it was in screwcap was just not that big of a deal. They bought it anyway. …most people really were pretty darn easy about the whole thing.” All of Grahm’s wines live under screwcaps.

During our e-mail exchange, Grahm reminded me that not too long ago, but perhaps just long enough to forget, corks ruined a lot of wine with 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, TCA for short. Corks contaminated with TCA make wine smell like damp cardboard.

“Sommeliers were up in arms; wine writers were up in arms. Winemakers of premium wines were totally frustrated with corks but felt totally powerless as they had the belief that customers would not accept screwcaps, which had already been shown in Australia to be an efficient and suitable closure, at least from a technical standpoint.”

In 2002, as a part an article on Grahm’s funeral for “Old Stinker,” I reported on studies claiming that as much as 15 percent of corked wines were tainted with TCA. Cork producers were doing an abysmal job of quality control and had little incentive to make improvements…at the time, at least.

Since then, cork producers have made great strides in keeping TCA out of their corks, but the door was left wide open for screwcaps and alternative closures, such as synthetic corks, to walk right in. Now, an entire generation of wine drinkers doesn’t really pay attention to the closure.

“I’ve always found non-cork closures in fine wines,” says Katie Myers, communications manager for Nomacorc and a self-described millennial. “I honestly can’t remember the first time I encountered them—they’ve just always been there.” Zebulon, NC-based Nomacorc is one of the world’s largest synthetic cork makers.

And despite the surprise of my tableside visitor, most wine drinkers are, indeed, as Grahm said, “pretty easy” about their closure. A 2012 study, conducted by Merrill Research bears this out.

The study showed that for 97 percent of survey respondents the type of closure is not one of their top three reasons for buying a wine— varietal, price and geographical region were most important criteria. Ninety-two percent of the 600 wine drinker surveyed said their main concern about closures was protecting the wine.

“While we continue to see the strong impact of label design on wine purchasing, we see little importance placed on the wine closure materials and methods and a continuance of the decade-long trend toward broader acceptance of less traditional closures,” according to the Merrill report.

“In my experience, the stigma is virtually gone and whatever residual stigma there is continues to abate,” Grahm said. “There are just a few areas of the country (the South primarily) where it is still an issue. As the old wine-drinking fogies die off, the problem will take care of itself, as there appears to be no stigma whatsoever for young people and screwcaps.”

Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

2012Bonny Doon “Le Pousseur” Syrah, Central Coast, Calif.

2012Bonny Doon “Le Pousseur” Syrah, Central Coast, Calif.

  • $28
  • Two Thumbs Way Up
  • Aromas of violets and ripe black cherries and black licorice. It has flavors of ripe dark berry fruit accented with bright acidity. It also offers a smoky, dry earth, dry mushroom, black pepper note on the finish.

Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.


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