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Screw Tops: Get Used to Them

By Ben Giliberti
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; Page F07

Picture this scene: At the finest restaurant in town, at the most romantic table, a young man nervously readies himself to pop the question to the young woman beside him. To express his tender feelings, he has ordered a super-expensive wine. (Let's say, for the sake of the story, that it's a highly rated Merlot from New Zealand.)

When the waiter arrives with the wine, the two gaze longingly into each other's eyes, awaiting the celebratory pop of the cork. But instead, they hear something else -- a scratchy, metallic sound approximating that of a bottle of soda being opened. The prospective groom is dismayed: The extravagantly priced wine he ordered has arrived in a screw-top bottle. The prospective bride says to herself, "If he thinks I'm going to spend the next 50 years of my life drinking swill, he had better find himself another gal."

Can this marriage be saved?

Yes, it can. The young man was well intentioned and chose what is undoubtedly a fine Merlot. What we have here is a simple failure to communicate -- about wine. That can be remedied. But what can't be remedied is the tinny metal closure on the wine. I'm afraid the screw cap will have to go. Not only for them, but for many others, myself included.

It's only fair to say, however, that using screw tops, even for expensive wines, is not an intrinsically bad idea. To the contrary, many top winemakers laud them.

To understand why, consider another plausible variation on the prenuptial dinner scenario. In this version, the bottle arrives with the traditional cork closure, it is popped to the merriment of all, and the wine is poured properly. But when they try to drink it, they discover that it tastes and smells like damp cardboard or worse. Their wine is "corked." The wine industry estimates that anywhere between 2 and 8 percent of all wines are corked, meaning that they are affected by cork taint, a harmless but exceedingly unpleasant mold or chemical taste imparted by infected corks. Despite prodigious eradication efforts, the cause of and cure for cork taint remains mysterious. Nor is the problem limited to the shriveled little stoppers found in cheap swill. Its prevalence is only slightly lower in the highest-quality corks.

It should also be said that the screw top on the New Zealand Merlot in my scenario is only distantly related to the crude shard of aluminum that adorns the top of some soda bottles. Modern wine screw caps are highly engineered pieces of packaging technology, developed over many years to do the job that corks seem to do only imperfectly. That job is quite simple: to keep the wine inside the bottle and to seal out the air. For a while, some tried to turn cork's deficient sealing capability into a strength, arguing that a slight amount of air exchange is necessary for aging. However, it is now generally agreed that wine is naturally bottled with enough air dissolved in the liquid to permit it to mellow with age. Even if that were not so, modern screw tops are so precise that the winemaker can adjust the tightness of the seal to allow more or less outside air to enter, without the risk of cork taint.

Because of these and other advantages, many wineries have decided to chuck corks entirely and go with screw caps, even for their best wines. No country has done so more zealously than New Zealand.

In this country, however, the vast majority of consumers invariably link screw caps with cheap wine. Why? For the past 30 years, those were the only wines that used screw caps. Once an association is made in the consumer's mind, changing it is an almost-insurmountable task. Consider Gallo. For 15-plus years, this former jug-wine juggernaut has saturated customers with advertising to promote its new image as a premium winery, which in fact it now is. Its Sonoma single vineyard bottlings, such as Frei Ranch, run $30 or more and are terrific. But if I bring a bottle of Gallo Frei Ranch to someone's house for dinner, I still feel like I should show them the receipt.

It's the same with screw tops. If I bring a $26 bottle of Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc, one of New Zealand's high-quality screw-top pioneers, to a party and everyone tells me they enjoyed it, I'm flattered to hear it. But I doubt I'd be as thrilled if someone would say, "What a great bottle of wine for five bucks."

In short, I believe screw tops will be limited almost exclusively to such inexpensive wines, and for a long time. But how long? For the answer, let's look at another scene with our bride and groom, which takes place some time after the little misunderstanding at dinner has been resolved. He and his bride are sipping a glass of fine wine before the fireplace. She looks at the bottle. It's the first vintage of Chateau Margaux ever to be bottled with a screw top.

"Isn't this sublime?" she says to him. "Yes it is," he answers. "It's the best wine our grandchildren ever gave us."

Wines of the Week

Columbia Crest Shiraz "Two Vines" 2002 ($9; Washington) ; Columbia Crest Shiraz "Two Vines" 2001 ($9; Washington) : The 2001 vintage of Columbia Crest's bargain basement-priced "Two Vines" Shiraz was rated the No. 1 red wine value in the world by Wine Spectator magazine. They may have to invent something above No. 1 for the 2002, because, almost unbelievably, it's even better. It has a northern-Rhone-like Syrah bouquet of blackberry and a finish marked by peppery, well-rendered tannins. Think of this as stand-in for Columbia Crest's once-sensational Merlot, which though still a good value, is no longer the sensation it was before production was increased to satisfy seemingly insatiable demand. If the 2002 Shiraz Two Vines hasn't arrived at your local shop yet, don't hesitate to buy the 2001, which is still drinking exceptionally well. Either way, this is a wine you don't want to miss.

Antigua 2003 Monica di Sardegna ($10-$13; Italy): This graceful red wine, made from native grapes on the island of Sardinia, is wonderfully subtle and delicious, offering a unique, rather exotic flavor profile. A floral, spicy nose of strawberry and light citrus is followed by ripe red fruit overlaid by hints of cola and spice. Though this is not a big red, it has authority on the palate, making it a great match with Indian, Asian and other spice-driven cuisines (Importer: Empson USA).

ASK THE WINE GUYS

Wondering what to serve? How to grab the wine list first at a business dinner? Send your questions to Michael Franz or Ben Giliberti. By mail: Wine Column, Food Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071. By e-mail: food@ washpost.com. Direct your question to Michael, Ben or both. Questions may be answered in future columns but the volume of mail prohibits the columnists from responding personally to each question.


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