Screw-top wine is moving from Skid Row to Quality Street.
Three years ago, it was slightly shocking when the upscale PlumpJack Winery put screw tops on a US$135-a-bottle cabernet. This month, as PlumpJack makes its third such bottling, dozens of wineries are experimenting with the unorthodox tops.
"It's so exciting for all of us in the industry because we've talked about screw caps for years and years but because of the perceived marketing problems, people were just petrified to even consider it as a closure on their fine wines," says John Conover, general manager of PlumpJack.
Screw tops have a checkered past as the closure of choice for cheap, high-alcohol wines such as Thunderbird and Night Train Express.
In recent years, however, more than two dozen wineries in Australia and New Zealand have given their seal of approval to screw tops, and a number of other top California vintners are considering the switch.
Wine winemakers say traditional corks have a serious drawback, the musty "off" taste blamed on "cork taint" that is estimated to spoil 3 percent -- some estimates put the number much higher -- of all wines.
Winemakers blanch at the thought that many consumers, not being sensitive to the nuances of cork taint, simply assume the wine's no good and strike that label off their shopping lists.
Screw tops, Conover says, don't have cork taint, don't require drinkers to do battle with balky corkscrews, aren't as tough to get in and out of the bottle as synthetic corks and can be simply screwed back on for storing leftovers.
"Obviously, people are fairly nervous in the cork industry," said Peter Weber of the Cork Quality Council.
Cork is harvested from the cork oak, coming primarily from Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The bark is stripped off and can be harvested every nine to 12 years, said Weber, whose industry group is based in the Sonoma County wine country town of Sebastopol in California.
Natural cork supporters say switching to screw caps could put thousands of people out of work, since other uses of cork aren't as lucrative as the wine stopper business. "The concern is the whole industry could go away," Weber said.
Weber agrees that cork taint is a problem, but says manufacturers are working to reduce that. Some in the industry have turned to synthetic corks, which are rarely associated with taint but can be difficult to get out of the bottle.
"Our feeling in the cork industry is you don't have a stopper that's really neutral. It's best to have one that's made with the same material that your wine is aged in. We really think that the cork has shown that it performs better in the long run," he said.
The big question: Will consumers, particularly those who've parted with US$50 or more for a prized vintage, accept the homely screw top and abandon the traditional tableside pop of a drawn cork?
Christian Butzke, an enologist at the University of California, Davis, said consumer research ``has really shown that most people don't really care too much about how their bottled wine is closed.''
Butzke has been studying the PlumpJack screw-top wine. He doesn't have definitive results yet, but said "we did a tasting last year and didn't see much of a difference."
Conover says opening a bottle of screw-top PlumpJack in a restaurant is "almost an event. I sit down and I order a bottle of our screw-top cabernet. It's almost like there's silence in the room. The sommelier comes up and twists the screw cap and you hear not the popping of the cork but the click-click-click of the screw cap."
PlumpJack, co-owned by billionaire Gordon Getty and San Francisco City Supervisor Gavin Newsom, is bottling half of its best cabernet, or 300 cases, in screw caps. The wine is to be released in September.
The bottles topped by a screw cap -- a sleek, silvery-gray model that blends with the label -- will be priced at US$155 each. Those with traditional cork closures will cost US$145.
The screw tops are costing PlumpJack more right now because the winery had to buy them in quantities much bigger than needed.
Next month, the Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz plans to bottle 80,000 cases of screw-top wine, mostly its trademark US$10 Big House Red, so-named because it comes from grapes grown near a state prison in Central California.
"Whether it confers upon us a heroic reward or converts into a party in a bankruptcy proceeding remains to be seen," said winery spokesman John Locke.
Like other wineries, Bonny Doon was spurred to try screw tops because of fear of cork taint.
Still, Butzke doesn't expect a "huge changeover any time soon" in the tradition-bound wine industry. "Whenever anybody tries to do something new, there's a lot of pressure. A lot of them are not daring to make major changes. They're watching the others."
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