For 3,000 years or so, if you wanted to make an air-tight seal without using high heat, you really had only one option: a cork, punched from the bark of the cork-oak tree. Today, you have a myriad of alternativesunless you happen to be in the fine-wine business, in which case you're still pretty much stuck with cork. Why should this be? Some people will tell you in all seriousness that a wine can only achieve flavor satori in a cork-sealed bottle. Maybe so, but it's a sure thing that bad corks are responsible for more wine spoilage than all other causes put together. No matter; the drawing of the cork, the solemn inspection and sniffing thereof, is so much a part of the experience of wine for some that they'd almost rather stop drinking the stuff than give up the ritual. Others can't wait for corks to join the buggy whip and the 5-inch floppy disk, among them winery market analysts whose studies show that for every customer who loves fussing with corks, they lose two more who order beer rather than sit through the solemnities. Screw tops are being used on some low-end wines that don't lean on snob appeal to sell. Artificial cork, too, has been available for some time. But purists don't like them because they don't "breathe" (whatever that means), while non-purists are put off by their resemblance to waxy plugs of human flesh. Latest up to the plate is something called the MetaCork™, designed to combine the convenience of corkscrewless opening with "the traditional finished look of a fine wine package." In practice, this means giving half a dozen turns to a hard plastic sleeve, which falls apart as one lifts it from the bottle into (a) a plastic screw cap, (b) a traditional cork cork with (c) a plastic knob of indeterminate purpose screwed into it, and (d) the plastic sleeve you started with. Items (b), (c), and (d) you then throw away, leaving (a) to be screwed back down on the bottle when you're finished pouring. And how does this differ functionally from a plain screw cap, you ask? Blessed if I can tell you. But MetaCork™ has succeeded in persuading a few reputable wineries to install the gadget on some of their midprice bottlings. Somehow I don't think this particular bright idea is going to catch on; I mean, it's a screw cap, folks deal with it. Artificial wine closures are bound to win in the end, I suppose; but for now we'll just have to keep on pulling corks, one at a time. GET THIS Some of the best dry white wines around come from the Sancerre district of France's Loire Valley. Not as pricey as Chablis or other white Burgundies, Sancerre is still not cheap, so when one as good as Henri Bourgeois' 2002 Quincy Grande Réserve comes in at around $12, attention should be paid. From sauvignon blanc vines averaging 30 years of age growing on chalky hillocks, this wine has the crispness of Chablis without its austerity.

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