Screwed for Good

What kind of business routinely ships its product knowing that between 3 percent and 5 percent of the items are defective? A business not likely to be in business long, you say? But the wine business has been around at least 2,500 years, and for a good part of that time its customers have had to bear the cost and annoyance of throwing away three to five bottles of each 100 purchased, with no easy way of getting their money back either. The reason for the high percentage of dud bottles? Corks: ill-fitting corks that let air in, crumbly corks that disintegrate at the touch of a corkscrew, but most of all corks tainted by a fungus which, in the presence of cool, moist conditions, generates a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole—TCA to its friends. At low concentrations (and we mean low, like under 30 parts per trillion), TCA kills off the fresh, fruity flavor that is one of wine's chief pleasures, and at high concentrations, it makes the wine taste like it was filtered through decaying newsprint on its way into the bottle. For every three bottles discarded because of "cork taint," experts figure that another 10 to 12 are affected, though mildly enough that only an expert would risk sending the offending item back to the kitchen in a restaurant. And despite the best efforts of reputable cork-producing companies to combat the problem, there's really no way to eliminate it. The fungus in question is native to the cork oaks whose bark provides wine corks, and chemicals powerful enough to ensure its eradication are worse for wine than the disease. The only real solution is to eliminate the use of cork completely, and there are two problems with taking such a radical step. First, it will mean economic ruin for much of rural Portugal, which in places has no other crop of economic value; and second, it will meet entrenched resistance from people for whom the silly rituals of opening a wine bottle—the inspection of the label, the cutting of the metal capsule, the insertion of the screw and drawing of the cork and its subsequent sniffing—are, truth be known, more enjoyable than actually drinking the stuff. Ritual and tradition are so important in the wine biz that recent years have seen a proliferation of "synthetic corks," made of supposedly chemically neutral plastic in a wide array of equally loathsome colors. Unfortunately for the wine Luddites, synthetic corks just don't keep air out like the highly compressible real thing, and over time they let the wine turn flat, brown, and nasty tasting. Despite all these drawbacks, there's still mighty resistance to the obvious inexpensive, foolproof, simple solution: Fit wine bottles with screw caps like those which have secured liquor bottles for decades. There hasn't even been a scientific study of the comparative advantages of such closures—until now. On June 30, Jordan Ferrier of Washington's Hogue Cellars winery offered members of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture results of a four-year comparison of two identical Hogue wines bottled with five different closures: two synthetics, two screw-cap designs, and natural cork. The winner: A screw cap with a plastic liner offered the best balance of security with natural wine maturation; synthetics came in a bad second, and natural cork dead last. Will the results be enough to overcome prejudice and tradition? We'll see; but beginning with the 2004 vintage, all of Hogue's Fruit Forward line, the 70 percent of Hogue wines that are designed for immediate, casual consumption, will be sold with screw caps with a plastic liner.

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