Corks, Screw Caps, and Boxes – Oh My

I can’t count the number of people that have expressed their contempt for the screw cap.  It immediately makes people feel that they have purchased an inferior wine, but this is just not so.  I’ll begin by telling you the story of the poor old cork.

I’m sure few have given little thought as to where the cork used as a wine enclosure came from.  The truth is that it comes from the Cork Oak tree (Quercus Suber) found primarily in Portugal and South Western Europe.  Each tree must be a minimum of 25 years old before it can be harvested the first time and then cannot be harvested a second time for 9 more years.  It takes a well trained hand to harvest the cork as the cut cannot be made too deeply or the tree will die.  These materials are then taken and manufactured into the cork stopper.

harvesting a cork oak tree

During this process there is chance that the corks can be tainted by  TCA (trichloroanisole) or TCB (tribromoanisole) which affects the natural characteristics of wine.  10% of all wine is ruined due to cork taint (which smells like wet newspaper or damp rags).  So when you do the math, it make  a lot of sense for a wine maker to choose a screw cap or a synthetic closure in lieu of the cork.  It says absolutely nothing about the quality of the wine.  One of my favorite California wines, Plumpjack, has always used a screw top and it sells for about $100 a bottle for a current vintage Cabernet – $300-$500 for older vintages.

I remember one year, my brother was hosting Thanksgiving with his girlfriend, my Mother wanted to bring a bottle of wine.  She asked what my brother’s girlfriends favorite was so I told her Conundrum.  It’s a white blend that was originally made by Caymus, arguably one of the best California wines ever made.  She bought it, brought it to dinner and then I watched the color drain from her face when we opened it by screwing the top off.  She later pulled me aside and said she was so embarrassed and “how could you let me bring her a bottle of screw top wine!”

The truth is that most white wines these days are going to screw caps.  They are made to be drunk young, 5 years old or less.  White wines are meant to taste fresh crisp and there is no need to bring the expense or risk of cork into the equation.  If you stood the chance of losing 10% of your work each year wouldn’t you eliminate the variable that contributed to the loss?  It’s just smart business.

screw cap wine

But wine is an art form, a piece of culture and history.  So there will always be that battle.  There is an expectation when you go into a restaurant and order a bottle of wine.  It will be bought to you, presented and then there will be a few awkward moments when an often incompetent server tries to remove the cork.  It is then presented to you for inspection.  Do you smell it?  Squeeze it?  Stick it up your ass?  Stick it up the incompetent servers ass?  All great options, but let me explain the history of why the cork is presented.

In the early days of wine export there were wine counterfeiters.  They would take a bottle of bunk juice and claim it to be something that it was not.  Wine labels didn’t exist in those days and the only way for a wine maker to label their wine was by stamping the cork.  The cork was originally presented to make sure the appropriate wine makers stamp was present and to see if the wine had been tampered with.   This is no longer the case, but the cork can be inspected to see where the wine stain is on the cork.  It should only be present at the bottom of the cork.  If the wine stain goes higher, the temperature at which the wine was stored likely fluctuated.  When exposed to heat or cold, the cork will expand or shrink respectively.  Air may then be allowed into the bottle which will affect the wine.  If the stain is high on the cork it does not mean unequivocally that the wine is ruined, it’s just an indicator that that bottle needs further inspection.  So no need to smell it or stick it anywhere.

And as for the box: I have to say that they have upped the quality of the box wine.  I’d be hard pressed to say any of them are good, but they are working on it.  Again it is a superior method for preserving wine.  Wine is tainted by prolonged exposure to air. It turns to vinegar.  Those bladders found inside the boxes are air tight.  You can keep a box of wine in your fridge for months, just having a glass when it suits you and it won’t go bad.  The cork, screw top and synthetic cork all allow air to enter the bottle so you only get a couple of days max once the bottle has been opened and re-corked.  All that said, I do not partake in the box.  Although I have when making big batches of Sangria for parties.  If there is one that you buy and enjoy, then don’t apologize for it.  Bottoms up!  I however just can’t do it.  I have tried a couple and they were okay, but I’d rather spend a couple of extra bucks and buy something that I want to drink.  Life is too short to drink bad wine.


About Wine Scrag

I was born a share croppers daughter.... Nope that was George Jefferson. Well son, whatever. I am married and have 2 amazing girls, 5 and 3 years old. I have a bachelors degree in Psychology from a private woman's university. I learned endurance, stamina, how to love and be loved while I studied there, but I figured out that I was capable of anything afterword. I spent 3 years backpacking through Europe and East Africa and then relocated to San Francisco's Bay area. Being a part of the food and wine culture there ignited my passion. Now back on the East Coast, I am a stay at home Mom, Certified Sommelier, Blogger and all around fruitcake!

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  • Pedro

    “10% of all wine is ruined due to cork taint”: This number is completely wrong, even in the past (10 years ago) the worst case scenario pointed to much lower numbers. Currently the latest reports point to levels below 1%.

    “The truth is that most white wines these days are going to screw caps.” – It’s wrong, I give you an example, the “Cape Point Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2011″ back to natural cork stopper after they try screw caps. Why is that?
    And this is only one example…

    • Wine Scrag

      You are totally wrong in your percentages. And you would have to ask those at Cape Point Vineyards why they converted back.

  • Filipe

    Are you a Screwcap seller? By the way you talk, it seems that you are selling some product or idea.

    • Wine Scrag

      No, I just think they make sense. Better for the wine and we are paying for the wine, not the vessel, right? I’m always impressed when a producer has the balls to use a screw cap instead of buckling under the pressure of pomp and circumstance. What do u think?

  • DMIH

    Great post! So many of my questions have been answered. No more fear of the screw cap for me! I’m still not sold on the box wine either though.

    • thealefamily25

      you are weird and i dont like you because you use grammar and love your kids i hate you and mom3 and amymom as you can see read our debate in the comments on american girl what a racket

      • thealefamily25

        and i hate my kids