Joel Vincent

Technology. Wine. Family. (maybe not in that order)

Screw Cap: The Uncork…

There has been a lot of talk about what is going to replace natural cork as the preferred closure for wine. The main problem is the fact that natural cork has a chance of tainting wine (or cork taint) due to a contaminant found in the cork called trichloroanisole (or TCA). This is more commonly referred to as the wine being “corked”. Corked wine has a sort of musty smell, a little like your dog when it comes in out of the rain or your basement after a week of rain and hot weather. It can range from very subtle (you can drink one and not even notice it because the aroma is affected but not the taste so much) all the way to making the wine completely undrinkable. Estimates of tainted wine go as high as 17%. Some wine producers will anecdotally put the number higher than that.

For very large producers, even reducing this a few percentage points means big money so don’t be too shocked if you start seeing some large producer switching over. When your producing thoudands upon thousands of cases a few percentage points adds up. For instance, Hogue Cellars, the large Washington winery owned by Vincor International, plans to go screwcap on 70% of its wines beginning in January 2005. The conducted a study that found that consistently 17.6% of thier wines with natural cork get corked and that synthetic corks let in too much oxygen. Screwcaps, on the other hand, can be designed to allow precisely the right amount on oxygen in (you can’t seal it out completely or the wine won’t age correctly). And, obviously, no wines will be corked.

So whats the big delay in everyone switching over? If you haven’t noticed, there is a tradition of ego and “above all that” in the wine industry. The change over is going to have to happen at some point, its a matter of when. When you have a product and business driven by marketing it becomes difficult to convert to closure that is used for soda bottles. There is a big debate over whether or not to move away from natural cork. This debate is really senseless from a practical, scientific, stastical standpoint. But that isn’t driving the decision. Psychology is driving the debate. Why are Napa Cabernets more expensive than Australian Cabernets? Because the branding of these wines and strong marketing makes them more in demand and therefore allows Napa producers to charge more (although the Aussies are making a run at them). Its good branding driving good profits. To use a screwcap on a premium Napa wine would instantaneously demote the brand of that wine in the minds of the customers to something less then ultra-premium. So at this point, if cork taint is only affecting 5% of your wine (and many consumers won’t even notice) and you estimate the brand damage done by using a screwcap will cost you 10%+ of your business, would you switch? Wine, while delicious and fun, is a business and that is a business decision.

How does this affect you and me? Well, it doesn’t. If your favorite wine switches over to screwcaps you might save a couple bucks. If they ar smart business people, they’ll switch over and reduce the price so that loyal customers who might get turned off by the cap will try it anyway for the price. And guess what? It’ll taste the same. So keep enjoying the wine life.

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