Do Corks Matter?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Do Corks Matter? A few weeks ago, while having dinner with a whole pack of new friends at Odeon, I ran into my first-ever corking problem with a bottle of wine ordered at a New York restaurant. Pretty good bottle of wine, by the way, the best value on Odeon's list: Casa Lapostolle's '97 "Cuvee Alexandre" cabernet sauvignon, $33 ($20 at Union Square Wine & Spirits). I'm thoroughly enjoying a lot of what Casa Lapostolle, a Chilean winery, has to offer right now. Their sauvignon blanc is terrific, and cheap, zesty and refreshing. But back to the point. The cork. Our waitress couldn't get it out. She was using the famously unreliable "waiter's friend" folding lever-pull corkscrew (you know, the one that resembles a pocket knife and requires some practice to correctly get down through the center of the cork), and, as far as I could tell, had shredded the wood in the process of extracting it. She then did the right thing?apologized and headed back into the restaurant (we were eating outside) to get a fresh bottle, which she sensibly opened?probably with a failsafe screwpull corkscrew?before returning. Now, I'm pretty good at getting a cork out of a bottle of wine, and I favor the folding lever-pull corkscrew myself, one I bought in Paris about seven years ago. But I open a bottle of wine almost every night. I get something like 300 days of practice, every year, at this skill. But plenty of other people are not so accomplished. Even with the screwpull, they screw up. The cork crumbles, leaving bits and pieces of itself bobbing mirthlessly in the wine. Recorking an unfinished bottle with a blemished cork is out of the question. And then there's always the embarrassment. The shame. The quiet tutting. The judgment. The snickering conversations later traded on the way home from the dinner party. That little fuckup. That stupid little piece of shit. That bitch.

    Well, maybe not, but I still wonder whether there isn't a better way than wrestling with these godforsaken neurotic little plugs. Actually, I don't wonder all that much. There is a better way: synthetic stoppers and screw-caps. What I honestly wonder is whether natural corks get stuck in wine bottles for reasons of marketing and perceived cultural inferiority. I don't wonder for very long. Corks do get stuck in wine bottle for reasons of marketing and perceived cultural inferiority. (They also get stuck in there, or once did, so that drinkers could sniff them and study them and judge the wine's health, but that was back in the days when winemaking was an altogether filthier practice, and a portion of any given vintage was apt to spoil.)

    Some science. Wines are corked for one reason: because something has to be jammed into the neck of the bottle to prevent the wine from coming into contact with the air. Air causes wine to oxidize, which destroys its aroma and flavor. (Additionally, a bottle that has gone off, due to "cork taint"?in which the cork itself becomes contaminated?will often be described as "corked.") Corks are used for this purpose because...well, because corks have always been used. They lacked plastic and screw-tops and bottlecaps and whatnot in the 17th century, when glass bottles were developed. They didn't lack cork, which comes from the bark of a particular species of young oak tree. Cork provides a more or less airtight seal, allowing wine to be aged. Cork does the job.

    But corks are also more expensive than their synthetic counterparts (nicknamed "corqs"), and infinitely more difficult to deal with than screw-tops. (There was also a problem with increased cork taint in the 1980s, compelling a lot of producers to abandon cork altogether and complain that the cork industry had slipped.) And there's a perception, a completely bogus one, that corks plug bottles better than anything else, but under scrutiny, this doesn't hold up. A cork merely seals the bottle. Lots of other things can do that. The idea is to keep the air out. For this purpose?versus aging?even in the case of a glorified Bordeaux, a coveted Sauternes, a super-expensive Napa Valley cult cabernet, a real cork is not imperative. A screw-cap would prevent oxidation just as effectively. And, believe it or not, bottlecaps have been shown to do even better, offering the only good alternative to cork for the purposes of aging.

    But for obvious reasons?tradition, snootiness, ritual, price, because that's the way they do it in France?high-end wines must be bottled with natural corks?not least because, over time, you actually want some air to get to the wine, to favorably aid in the aging process. I'm not going to dicker with this practice. Corks have proved their worth over time, and there is something kind of cool about them, about the way they link a red Burgundy bottled in the 20th century to one bottled in the 19th. Wine is continuity, a drinkable essay on the physical pleasures of history. If you need a cork to keep that going, I say stick with the cork. I realize that a $100 bottle doesn't absolutely really need a natural cork, but I think I want one in there, especially if I intend to keep the vintage around long enough to find out if it will become a $1000 bottle. I want to enjoy the precarious challenge of getting it out. I want there to be a mild threat, a thrill, at the moment of truth, after all that expense. I want the violation of a great bottle to be slightly fraught, slightly memorable. I want my fingers to shake.

    But for a $20 cab, such as the Casa Lapostolle "Cuvee Alexandre"? Or a $10 Chianti? An $8 rose whose aging potential is precisely nil? It just doesn't make any sense to me. If the producers can shave a buck off the price by going with synthetic corks, why not? Back in the glory days of Gallo Hearty Burgundy?the most important and influential American red table wine ever vinted?nobody worried about corks. Jug wine, regardless of how much tastier it might be than some fashionably costly varietal, did just fine with a screw-top. Julio Gallo, who was the winemaking brother, insisted on a screw-top, in fact. Corks being too patrician for a workingman's wine.

    Not with me on this screw-cap deal? All right, I can see why it might be regarded as...diminishing to break out your fancy bottle of Santa Barbara pinot noir or Sonoma chardonnay only to crack it open like a liter of Coke. But just allow me remind you of that last transatlantic flight you took, to London or Paris or Rome, when on the plane you were offered wine with dinner?decent wine, perhaps, not some dismal rotgut?and, with minimal flourish, the flight attendant produced a half bottle of your choice and twisted the screw-top right off, breaking the aluminum seal with a swift, corkless crack. And did that wine taste okay? I'm betting it did.

    It's not as if there isn't some precedent for modifying the bottling process. Numerous California wineries, Mondavi included, have dispensed with the foil wrapping that, for ages, used to encase the cork. They've opted instead for a simple wax cap, sometimes also a clear plastic sheath. Lately, I've been opening more and more bottles of wine in the $10-$15 range?and not just wines from California?that have synthetic corks in them. So maybe I won't witness a resurgence of the screw-cap in my lifetime. I can handle that. The synthetic cork, on the other hand?there's an idea whose time has clearly come. It splits the difference, pleasingly. Argue with me, you corkophiles, you slaves to the precious esthetic of your bits of bark. I dare you.