Getting screwed

“I’m over it,” declared Central Market’s Heidi Holcomb. She was referring to her lack of surprise upon opening yet another case of wine to find that the producer had turned to screw-cap closures. Many of the rest of us aren’t yet accustomed, however, so a little history is in order.

Ironically, given that the French have only recently realized that they’d better pay attention to the spread of screw-cap closures in the rest of the world, it was a French company, Le Bouchage Mecanique, that first began research into alternative cork in the late ’50s in order to resolve two problems with the traditional closure: cork taint and excessive (or variable) oxygen infiltration. By the 1960s they had developed the Stelvin. It was aluminum, (mostly) airtight, easy to open, and lined with a wine-neutral lining. But it was the Aussies, in the 1970s, that first began using the closure, and initially they did so with messianic vigor. Stelvin-sealed wines were fruitier and fresher, they claimed. Gone was that five to 10- percent chance of a “corked” bottle. Customer resistance followed: The screwcap seemed cheap, it lacked romance, there was no ceremonial pop.

The marketing chasm between evangelicals and everyday wine drinkers is finally being breached, however, with more and more screw-topped wines stocked on shelves and no less a light than Robert Parker, Jr. declaring “Stelvin, the screw cap of choice, will become the standard for the majority of the world’s wines.” The minority, consisting of nattering nabobs of nay-saying negativity, traditionalists who feel screw caps exclude too much of the oxygen, and owners of exclusive properties who can present their wines however they damn well choose, will continue to use cork. And more power to them. Out of concern for a vanishing market, the Stelvin Scare has forced Portuguese and Spanish cork producers to clean up their act, and this can only be good for the industry as a whole.

Based on a quick survey of local shelves, screw caps are no longer just for cheap white wines meant to be drunk tomorrow. At the extreme end, Plumpjack, a cult California cabernet, has begun splitting some of their cases between Stelvin and cork. These wines go for upwards of $250 a bottle, “and we sold out of the screw-cap wines first, claimed Al Elias of Saglimbeni Fine Wines. Australia’s Mollydooker Enchanted Cab/Shiraz is tagged there at $90. Is there resistance?, I asked. “Not with a label like that (it’s madcap)” Elias replied.

Under-$20 Aussie reds such as Tate Ball Buster and SUXX (gotta love ’em), Boarding Pass, and Water Wheel are Stelvin-capped wines well worth your attention. From New Zealand look at almost any of the sauv blancs, including Kim Crawford and Villa Maria — plus many of the country’s up-and-coming pinots. (Eight out of 10 sported steel closures in a recent Omniboire tasting.) South Africa is another Stelvin stalwart, with personal favorites Sincerely Sauvignon Blanc, MAN Chenin, and Goats do Roam.

So far, it seems that the EU has been slow to dump the cork, but I recently tasted an apple-and-green-tea scented Grüner Veltliner from Austria’s Velt.1 ($9.99, on special at Whole Foods) under steel. Spain is also slow, maybe in sympathy with the cork pushers. As for Portugal, that’ll be the day.

In the New World, the Chileans beat out the Argentines, with Montes, Veramonte, Casillero del Diablo, and Torres Santa Digna among the better-known labels. Susana Balbo’s Crios series is one of the few from Mendoza I found. Washington’s Hogue Cellars did four years of tests before switching their value-priced wines to screw cap, but “Oregon is really moving in that direction,” said Holcomb, and labels such as Argyle and A to Z would seem to prove her right in pinot noirs alone. But when we get to California and “Screw Kappa Napa,” it’s Katie bar the door.

Bonny Doon’s irrepressible Randall Grahm was among the first to start beating the drum for Stelvin, and his Rhône blend, Le Cigar Volant, is just one of many screw-capped. Vinum Cellars CNW Chenin Blanc is a favorite, as is the Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc, but I note that the perennially (over)popular Conundrum blend ($27) is also now screwed. But the upscale Turnbull Sauvignon Blanc nearly pulled a fast one. Its sleek, gold-toned closure labeled Stelvin Lux + lacks the telltale ribs of most screwcaps, so at first glance … Nice try, guys.

Other alternatives to cork have appeared in recent years, of course, the most obvious of them being the synthetic stopper — sometimes cork-veneered in an attempt to paper over its true composition. But you have to hand it to the Zork for sheer inventiveness. Developed in Australia, this plastic top features a spiral tab one pulls to break the seal, plus a recloseable stopper that creates the wanted pop upon opening.

But in the long run, the success of any of these alternatives may depend more on their being higher on the totem pole than other options, and here is just that low-lying whipping boy: the $15 Berger Grüner Veltliner from Austria. It comes with a shrouded, beer-bottle cap. Any boho bubba could open it with a church key, with the obvious intent (since it can’t be resealed) of knocking down the whole thing. It may be a liter bottle, too, now that I think of it.

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