May 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Unconventional Toppers for Top-shelf Wines

Producers of $20-$99 wines explain why they chose alternative closures

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 
Chehalem
 
Chehalem started trialing Stelvin screwcaps with the 1994 vintage, and began using them on some wines starting with the 2003 vintage.

Choice is a good thing…isn’t it? While some might argue that the ever-increasing quantity of wine styles, blends and points of origin confuse consumers, hard data demonstrate that the U.S. wine market just keeps growing. In the aftermath of the recession, higher priced wines have recovered market share.

Wine packaging suppliers continue to bring in new developments feeding niche markets, notably bag-in-box and single-serve options. The vast majority of premium wines still reach consumers in glass bottles, and most of them continue to be sealed with traditional natural cork and capsules.

    KEY POINTS
     

     
  • Despite more choices, two suppliers dominate the alternative closure market.
     
  • A more sophisticated base of consumers has learned to accept alternative closures, and resistance has diminished in the marketplace.
     
  • Women, who comprise the largest segment of wine buyers, appreciate screwcaps, which require less wrist-strength than cork closures.
     
  • Winemakers like the ability to regulate wine aging via their closures.

New Zealand’s winemakers overwhelmingly embraced screwcap closures, joined to a lesser extent by Australian vintners and European experimenters. Relatively recently, U.S.-produced premium wineries have begun adopting screwcaps and synthetic stoppers—largely without fanfare or consumer resistance.

Napa’s PlumpJack Winery, founded in 1995, was a notable exception, an experimenter that paved the way by brashly promoting its wines with screwcap closures. PlumpJack now sells some 10,000 cases per year, at an average $90 per bottle. Many PlumpJack bottlings, including half its Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and half of its Chardonnay bottles, are topped with a screwcap. PlumpJack’s winemakers frequently appear at conventions and trade shows, sharing decades of success with closures that many of their colleagues had deemed unsuitable for collectable, age-worthy wines.

Untwisting the screwcap debate
Florent Merlier, winemaker at Van Duzer Vineyards in Dallas, Ore., is a fan of screwcaps from the leading manufacturer, Stelvin. Van Duzer wines are sold mostly direct to consumer (DtC), at prices ranging from $18 to $85 per bottle.

Merlier got his start at Oenologie à Façon in Switzerland, a custom-crush operation where he became well versed in packaging and closure technology, including close work with Maison Hammel, which in 1989 became one of the first premium wineries to use screwcaps.

While at the Swiss company in 2006, “We compared different types of closures: Stelvin, Stelvin Deluxe, natural and synthetic corks, Vinoloc (a pricey glass stopper) and DIAM (a natural-cork product that reduces or eliminates TCA through processing).

“Screwcaps, natural cork and DIAM were the top three, quality- and consistency-wise,” Merlier said. Today, Van Duzer seals its bottles with 85% screwcaps, 14% natural cork and 1% DIAM closures. Only its highest tier of wines are sold under natural cork.

To close Van Duzer wines, Merlier said, “I am currently using the Stelvin Saranex, which allows some O2 transfer, as opposed to the Saran/tin, which allows low O2 transfer.”

Stelvin’s Saranex liners, he noted, have resolved some application problems. “Back in Switzerland, I faced many issues with screwcaps, especially those from Italy. The Stelvin was the most consistent. As the technology and the knowledge advance, consistency, quality and reliability increase,” Merlier said.

“As a winemaker, it is important to always question your choice and put the winery into a leading rather than a following position,” Merlier stressed. He is conducting trials with other screwcaps as well as Stelvin’s options for varied oxygen transmission.

Van Duzer did hear some feedback about its closure choices. “Some markets and customers voiced objections regarding screwcaps. It is not a traditional closure, but let’s face reality: Society is evolving, and technology is too. My role as a winemaker is to make a product that I am proud of and reflects who I am.

“I take ownership and want to make sure that each customer gets the best product. Unlike natural corks that have a degree of inconsistency (the bark is slightly different on the north and south side of the tree and from one tree to another), the screwcap is a more reliable product and offers less risk to the consumer such as TCA and oxidation.”

For Van Duzer, design work in the switch to screwcap involved nothing more than transferring existing artwork from capsules to Stelvin tops.

“I started bottling all my wines, including a 10-month-aged Cabernet, in screwcap in 2003,” said Dave Coffaro, owner/winemaker at David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery in Geyserville, Calif. “Do winemakers want their wines to age as long as possible? I think the answer would be screwcap closures; but of course if you want your wines to age faster, it would be cork.”

With annual wine production of 5,000 cases, 100% of which is now sold DtC, Coffaro brings a long-term perspective to the closure question with his winery founded in 1994. “I want my wines to last forever,” he told Wines & Vines.

His decision to go screwcap began in the 1990s, when he bought half a case of Central Valley Cabernets and found most of them corked. “Someone I respected from Australia” persuaded him to make the leap. He began experimenting with tin- and Saranex-lined screwcaps in 2004, and now uses tin-lined Stelvin closures, which provide him with superior engraving décor on the “capsules.”

He acknowledged that applying screwcaps necessitates “frequent tweaking” of bottling line equipment to maintain consistency. The process itself is perhaps more arduous: “You have to take the air out and put nitrogen in.” But, he added, “Screwcaps are far less expensive than cork/capsule: 20 to 50 cents per bottle.”

What the market says
“People are followers,” Coffaro said. But he’s not dealing with distributors or retail and does not report any resistance to the closure. “If I see a screwcap, I see quality,” Coffaro said.

“We use screwcaps for most items retailing for $20 and lower, and for style and winemaker preference on wines retailing up to $50 per bottle,” said David Anthony Hance, marketing director at 20,000-case Cadaretta in Walla Walla, Wash.

“We still use natural cork on a small percentage of our wines.” But, he added, “Cork taint is an issue. We have used synthetic cork in the past but prefer screwcaps for ease of application and opening.”

In the past 15 years, Hance said, “Consumer acceptance of alternative closures has definitely improved. Women in particular seem very happy with screwcap-finished wine. Lots less wrist strength is required for opening,” he noted.

The wine trade, he acknowledged, is a tradition-bound industry, and took a little longer to transition. “There is still some moaning and groaning about the ‘loss of romance’ with alternative closures, and occasional sustainability (‘corks are natural’) arguments.”

The Stelvin brand, provided by Amcor, has become so ubiquitous that the name is used almost generically, but other screwcap suppliers serve the wine industry.

Founded in 2013, Copper Cane Wines & Provisions in St. Helena, Calif., produces some 700,000 cases and continues to grow. With an average bottle price of $21, it sells a minimal quantity direct to consumer. Among its brands are Elouan, Carne Humana and Breton. Copper Cane also produces Meiomi (which means “coast” to native, coastal dwelling Wappo and Yuki tribes) Pinot Noir and Chardonnays made with blends from grapes sourced from coastal vineyards in California’s Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties.

Retailing for around $20, the sleek bottles have a glossy closure that at first glance might be cork. But a tiny arrow on the slightly bulbous top indicates it should be twisted: Sure enough, it’s a screwcap—specifically the WAK closure from Guala.

The Pinot Noir was sold strictly at restaurants through 2008, Wagner recalled. “For the 2007 vintage, we asked national accounts including Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s what we could do for better restaurant sales, especially by-the-glass.” The clients liked the idea of screwcap, and Meiomi put the 2007 vintage under Stelvin caps. Wagner switched the 2008 vintage to Stelvin’s Lux (which, with no visible threading, more closely resembles cork-and-capsule).

“We didn’t have much success with applying that,” Wagner recalled. So for 2009, he chose WAK, deciding it was “the best screwcap available.” Guala offers two different liner options, and “not so much oxygen transmission. Our 2009 and 2010 vintages are fresh—phenomenal,” Wagner said. “We’re trying to put wine in the bottle and maintain its original state.”

Wagner believes that the general public “would prefer screwcap, because it is consistent and not flawed.” He observed: “People are more accepting of closure options.” He’s still looking to elevate the public perception of screwcaps and considers a $40 Cabernet Sauvignon a reasonable candidate for the closure.

Other winery clients currently using WAK include Napa’s 60,000-case Silverado Vineyards and Monterey County’s 100,000-case Scheid Vineyards, according to Allesandro Bocchio, general manager of Guala Closures North America.

WAK signifies “wine aluminum keeper,” he said. The “capsule” is fitted with a pre-threaded aluminum insert. Unlike other screwcaps, it is screwed on rather than rolled on during the bottling process, he explained. From its inception, Guala viewed WAK as a premium closure idea, including enhanced aesthetic appeal. Developed in Italy, where it debuted, it drew Australian clients as well before coming to the United States.

Although pricier than some rival screwcaps, Bocchio said, “It’s still competitive, and cheaper than cork-and-capsule. It doesn’t go on a wine that’s sold for $3-$5.”

Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor, Calif.—now owned by Brown Forman Wines—has for decades been respected for its Chardonnays. Winemaking director Mick Schroeter declined to share supplier information, saying it was “proprietary.”

He told Wines & Vines, however, that closure decisions were “both a winemaking and brand decision, based on several factors such as consistency, quality and convenience. These wines truly run across all segments of the wine category from value priced to ultra-premium wines,” he said.

“We use the same liner for all varietals with this type of closure. The vast majority of our wine that is under screwcap is sold on-premise, and much of that volume is by the glass. We have had very positive results so far. Wine sold on-premise is more likely to use alternative closures.” Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual restaurant poll recently named Sonoma-Cutrer the No. 1 most popular Chardonnay in the United States.

Schroeter looks forward to new developments, saying there is “really interesting work being done with screwcap liners for varied OTR (oxygen transmission rates).”

Stop…in the name of ‘green’?
Similar to Stelvin’s domination of the screwcap category, Nomacorc, based in Zebulon, N.C., has become the default name in synthetic wine stoppers. It reports selling an estimated 20 billions units worldwide annually. Last year it introduced the Select Bio, made from renewable, plant-based biopolymers derived from sugar cane.

Nomacorc has quietly been adopted by top U.S wineries including 40,000-case Schug Carneros Estate Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., which employs Nomacorc stoppers in its Sonoma Coast tier of wines: Its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sell for $25 per bottle, and the Sauvignon Blanc retails for $20 per bottle.

Winemaker Michael Cox reported: “Consistency is important—avoiding bottle-to-bottle variation, as well as ease of application.” After experiments with screwcaps posed earlier bottling line problems, he said, “We are well entrenched with synthetic at that tier and have good customer acceptance. Oxygen transmission and ageability are also important.”

Schug began trialing synthetics in the late 1990s, and by 2000 he had committed to a mix of Nomacorc and Neocork (now Tasz), Cox said. “We had some difficulty with natural corks at the mid-quality level. They failed to meet expectations—inconsistent, TCA—prior to the cork processors developing new technologies.

“We have no intention of going to screwcaps anytime soon, for a combination of price-point (consumer expectations) and aesthetics,” he said. “We might consider Nomacorc for higher price point wines, but there, it is mostly a consumer expectation choice. If someone is spending $30-plus, we believe (and there was some consumer research to back this) that they expect it to be cork-finished. While some wineries will take up the challenge to change people’s opinions, we have other messages to try to get across, e.g., elegance and fruit over raw power, Carneros vs. other regions,” Cox said.

“For the most part synthetics go by unnoticed, which is their job. It’s about the wine in the glass, not the package it came in,” he continued. “I do think there is growing awareness that synthetics are consistent and do a good job of protecting the wines. In the early days there were many styles of synthetics, some not very good. They tainted a few consumers’ minds, but those corks for the most part have fallen by the wayside. It has been many years since I have had a retailer/sommelier or consumer offer negative feedback.”

Supplies and the market have evolved, Cox said. “Over time, the quality of synthetics has continued to improve and weaker companies were weeded out. I think people have had good experiences with synthetics as well as screwcaps and other closures, and (they) realize that the quality of the wine is key.”

We “have all had wines horribly affected by taint and can appreciate knowing that this bottle won’t be,” he said.

Cox would like to see continued research on long-term aging under synthetic stoppers. “Early synthetics did not have enough of a shelf life, as the OTRs were just too high. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a white more than 24 months post bottling and a red after about 36,” he said. “These days it is much longer. How much longer I can’t say—we’re still aging them.”

Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, Calif., uses Nomacorc closures for all of its wines. Founder Gary Eberle, considered the “godfather of Paso wines,” recently received the 2015 Wine Lifetime Achievement Award from the California State Fair.

Concerned with cork taint and oxygen management, winemaker Ben Mayo made the original decision to use Nomacorc 12 years ago. He felt Nomacorc had the best technology to help him manage both factors.

Eberle Winery’s average retail price for its wines is $25, and Nomacorc is used for the entire portfolio. Different densities are used for different wines. Red wine uses a tighter Nomacorc, while the whites use a more porous cell structure.

“As other types of closures have become more mainstream, acceptance among distributors, retailers, restaurateurs and consumers has grown,” publicist Stacie Jacob commented. “Education and a greater understanding of its benefits has made Nomacorc more acceptable and trusted.”

Today’s better educated clientele now accepts alternative closures, she added. “Eberle customers like to age their wines, and Nomacorc provides a solution for Eberle consumers to accept and trust the quality product delivered in each bottle.” Eberle produces about 26,000 cases annually and sells about 50% DtC. The rest is distributed in 34 states and six countries.

The opportunity to trial and employ varied closure options demands attention from both winemakers and marketing specialists. When it comes to selecting among the options, plan ahead and look for that happy balance of price, consistency, application ease, appearance and market acceptance to achieve a formula that fits your wines and keeps your audience satisfied.

 
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