Corks, Screwcaps and Wine Culture

French/American group concurs: We can all get along

by Jane Firstenfeld
John Conover
John Conover, general manager at PlumpJack, relays his winery's experience incorporating screwcaps into their high-end Napa Valley winesat an event held at the Napa Valley Country Club.
Napa, Calif.—The rising acceptance of screwcapped wines has only served to improve traditional natural cork closures, most of a bi-cultural assembly of wine industry suppliers, winemakers, distributors and other experts seemed to agree. Vive détente.

“Cork vs. Screw Cap: What impact on the market?” was the title of San Francisco’s French American Chamber of Commerce first gastronomy and wine conference at the Napa Valley Country Club on Sept. 17.

Despite partisan presentations from the supplier side—Frederic Catteau, general manager of Stelvin’s Amcor Flexibles and Peter Weber, executive director of the Cork Quality Council—the proceedings remained amicable throughout.

Jacques Brix, president of the French Association of Wine Executives and vice president/director of sales for Wines & Vines, keynoted with recent data that demonstrated the rapid rise of screwcaps in the North American wine industry: 38% of wineries currently use screwcaps on at least some bottles, vs. only 5% in 2004.

However, 84% of wineries continue to employ natural cork in some or all bottlings. Although not on the agenda, since 2006 a large minority of wines, primarily from the largest wine brands, have been using synthetic and agglomerate corks, Brix said. Figuratively donning a sales jacket over his golf shirt, Brix commented, “We love everybody.”

Ray Johnson, director of the Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute, introduced the supplier spokesmen.

Catteau recounted the relatively brief history of the Stelvin screwcap. Trademarked in 1975, the ubiquitous Stelvin (like Xerox or Kleenex, the Stelvin name has become so established it’s commonly used in the wine industry as shorthand for any brand of screwcap) was first trialed on bottles of 1964 Mouton Cadet during a 1969 tasting at Paris’ revered Tour d’Argent restaurant.

Since that auspicious debut, the makers of Stelvin and other screwcaps continue to improve both technology and visual appeal. “Liners are crucial,” Catteau illustrated with diagrams of Stelvin’s new line up of liners permitting different levels of oxygen ingress, or “breathability.”

Both the aluminum capsules and their PVDC-free liners are fully recyclable, he pointed out. “Screwcapped bottles are easy to open, easy to close, store and ship,” he stated. Modern screwcaps also can supplant capsules, available in different lengths, styles and as decorative branding enhancements.

Now available and cost-effective for short runs, screwcaps dominate the growing number of single-serve 187ml bottles, he said.

Representing the Cork Quality Council, a consortium of eight major natural cork suppliers, Weber acknowledged, “Alternatives have given us new things to discuss.”

Since alternative closures emerged in response to winery and consumer complaints about TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) contamination—once estimated to affect as many as 10% of bottles— cork suppliers have toiled diligently to reduce the incidence, achieving levels now reckoned at around 1% by the CQC.

Weber stressed cork’s environmental advantages. All commercial wine corks come from the cork oaks (quercus suber) surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—including Northern Africa, where the trees are, he said, “a stopgap against desertification.” Cork forests reduce carbon emissions, according to the OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine), he stated.

One member of the CQC has also answered the age-old problem of opening a cork-sealed bottle without a serviceable corkscrew. Amorim has partnered with bottlemaker O-I to introduce the Helix. Similar in shape to a sparkling wine cork, but without the pressure in the bottle, the Helix twists in and out of the bottle by hand with the help of a screw-shaped spiral molding.

Selling wine whatever the closure
Importer and distributor Emmanuel Lemoine, Northern California sales manager for Vineyard Brands, recounted stunning success selling screwcapped bottles in the U.S.

It started early in this millennium with La Vielle Ferme, a low-priced brand from the South of France. “We had huge success with the screwcaps. Sales went through the roof. We were first in the market with screwcapped magnums at Costco.

“In 2002, a premier cru Chablis house went with Amcor. Most 375ml bottles in Europe are now in screwcap. South African exports in the United States are now in screwcap,” according to Lemoine.

Selling “entry level” screwcapped wines to restaurant buyers was easy, he recalled. “Mostly for by-the-glass programs. It takes a few years of training” to convert buyers and sommeliers to screwcap for higher priced wines, Lemoine said. A major percentage of South American imports are now under screwcap and, he said, “We’re trying to get more from France.”

As an importer, Lemoine cited a practical reason to prefer screwcaps. With the cost and time involved in international shipping, “If a wine arrives corked, and is returned to us by our buyer, we cannot return it. We have to swallow the loss. We’d rather import 100% of our wines in perfect shape than 5% corked.” He acknowledged that some overseas producers had chosen cheap corks of bad quality, a trend that is changing due to cork suppliers’ vigilance and improved processing.

Sebastien Espinasse, vice president of sales and marketing for Fabrique Delices, a charcuterie based in Hayward, Calif., noted that buyers, too, follow trends, and they understand that 100% of the wine they purchase under screwcap will arrive in the condition expected.

“Wine evolves slower in screwcap; it remains fruitier,” a perception confirmed later, when attendees tasted identical vintages of two red Napa wines from PlumpJack and its offshoot, 12,000-case Cade Winery, sealed with cork and screwcap. The final tally: 51% preferred the wines bottled in cork; 32% voted screwcap and 17% could not decide.

Screwcaps have raised the bar for all closures, Espinasse stated. “The quality of cork has been raised thanks to the success of screwcap.”

Georges Passot, sommelier and manager at the family-owned restaurant La Folie in San Francisco, said the lunch crowd in the lounge next door to his Nob Hill eatery now is drinking 80% of its wine from screwcaps. In the upscale restaurant next door, it’s 60%.

“Twenty-five years ago, the percentage was zero; 20 years ago, the same. In 2000, we started to see movement come in. I was against it. I said I’d never have one in my restaurant,” Passot recalled.

Session moderator Don Neel, editor of Practical Winery & Vineyard, asked if younger waitstaff actually know how to use corkscrews.

“Our bar staff at lunch would never go back to cork,” Passot replied.

Restaurant consultant and long-time restaurateur Salvatore Campagna commented that certain agglomerated corks like the Diam have virtually eliminated cork taint. “In the rest, the possibility of corked wine is 1% to 3%. Most consumers can’t actually tell,” he said.

He welcomed the progress in screwcaps. “I’m glad to see they let the wine breathe.” Still, he acknowledged, “The sound of the cork popping is a marketing ploy.”

Passot reported that his wine-by-the-glass and half-bottle sales have increased in recent years, but he credited the change to more cautious drivers rather than closure options.

Flexible winemakers
Susie Selby, owner of 15,000-case Selby Winery in Healdsburg, cautioned that the decision to transition from screwcap to cork is major.

“You must be highly aware of the implications from a marketing standpoint,” she said when introducing her panel, including winemaker Aaron Miller and general manager John Conover from Napa’s 10,000-case PlumpJack Winery, an early screwcap exponent.

The concern from consumers, Miller said, was mostly with the ageability of PlumpJack’s powerful red wines under screwcap. “The new liners offer potential: They behave more like cork and offer lower oxygen transmission for white wines,” he said. With the 2008 PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon, later tasted by attendees, “There was no detectable difference,” Miller noted.

“I like the consistency” of screwcaps, he added. “Spongy corks can cause oxidation.” But screwcaps are not infallible. They can be broken if handlers aren’t careful. Accidentally flipping over a case can cause punctures, although if the liners remain intact, there’s no oxidation, Miller commented.

He said PlumpJack has not found reductive aging and increased sulfides under screwcap to be an issue.

Still, Conover recalled, when PlumpJack launched its screwcap program in 1997, “You should have seen our e-mails. I should have saved them: ‘Your career is over.’”

Although there will always be a place for cork, said Trevor Durling, associate winemaker at 40,000-case Provenance Vineyards in Napa, “The more you use screwcaps, the more comfortable you feel.”

PlumpJack’s earliest experiments with screwcaps were expensive, Conover said. Bottles were not readily available, and, he recalled, “We had to borrow spinners from Stelvin” because bottlers didn’t have the capability to apply the caps. Our early screwcap bottling was all done by hand; now they are all done on the mobile-bottling truck.

“What matters is what’s in the bottle,” Conover concluded. “The customers are the ultimate judges. Collectors are now buying screwcaps to ensure that their purchases won’t be corked” when eventually consumed. “They know it will remain consistent” with the passage of time.

Do winemakers change their protocol for wines bottled under screwcap? “Not really,” Conover said. “Just make the wine in a sound way.”

Philippe Bascaules worked at Chateau Margaux prior to taking the reins at Napa’s venerable 20,000-case Inglenook (most recently known as Rubicon). “When we change the cork, we must be careful. It’s good to have an alternative. A good screwcap, compared to good cork, maybe preserves better and keeps the wine younger.

“It’s so complicated; it’s hard to know. Is oxygen necessary? Maybe micro-ox is more important for reds. We still need time to decide.  Like new oak, cork can better the wine quality,” he said.

The French American Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco is a non-profit, non-governmental, member-driven association. Its mission is to “engage and animate the French-American business community and to help companies settle and/or develop their business in the Bay Area.”

On Nov. 22, it will host its annual fundraiser, “Le Soiree,” the French-American Gastronomy & Wine Show of the Bay Area at Terra & Mer Gallery in San Francisco. For details, visit faccsf.com.

Posted on 09.26.2013 - 09:46:18 PST
Hi JP, The speakers chose to focus on red wines at this event. For a sample of our prior coverage of white wines re: closures, please go here. The Editor
Jim Gordon
Napa, CA USA

Posted on 09.24.2013 - 13:41:59 PST
No comment in the article as to the heavy adoption of screwcaps in the white dominated producing areas of Germany and New Zealand? I am a proponent of screwcaps for all wine, but understand that it should be an individual marketing choice. Still, how can you discuss the two closures (cork and screwcaps) without highlighting the obvious benefits to white wine producers? Why only debate the effects on reds?
JP Eastridge