UNTIL THE LATE 1600s, wine was stored in large ceramic jugs or barrels. Once they were opened, the wine interacted with the air and began to turn. But around 1700 corks came into use, and the bottle became the basic container.
Wine in a properly corked bottle lasted considerably longer, and the system was much more convenient for daily use. This arrangement has survived for almost four centuries, despite the recent advent of plastic caps and metal screw tops. But until pinot noir with a pull-top is on the market, most of us will still be using an incredible variety of corkscrews.
The dozens of designs fall into two basic types. One - the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or sheer force style - has coil or worm device attached to a hand grip. The coil is screwed into the cork and then pulled up. Sometimes you get it out. Sometimes you just rip the screw through the center of the cork. The second design utilizes some type of lever mechanism; theses are strongly recommended.
The classic waiter's corkscrew is similar to a pocket knife with three hinged tools: a small knife for cutting off the lead cap; the worm which screws into the cork; and a piece of metal sculpted to rest on the rim of the bottle as a vertical support for the lever action of all the levered corkscrews, this one makes the least use of that advantage. The power behind this tool is mostly you. Priced at about $4.
Victory over stubborn corks often lies in a winged corkscrew. A hollow cap fits over the exposed cork. Turning the handle (which doubles as a bottle opener) sends the worm down into the cork while a scheme of cogged wheels and levers projects the two arms into an upright position. Then you gently and steadily press down on the arms, and the worm and the cork are lifted out of the bottle. Priced at about $3.
Many wine authorities prefer double-action corkscrews, which consist of a series of counter-revolving screws. Tightening one set of dowels will send the worm down into the cork; reverse turns on the other dowel will slowly and easily draw it out. This model will not disturb the wine's sediment and can even be used when the bottle is lying on its side in a basket. The wine dealer I used for many years in France had a charming habit of enclosing a wood-enclosed, double-action corkscrew with each delivery. That particular model is widely available in America and is the ideal corkscrew for boaters - it doesn't rust and it floats. Priced at about $5.
The Sieger 600 is a modern version of the old double-action style. A plastic shell-shaped handle is designed to fit fully into a clenched hand. After the worm is screwed in and the bottom of the handle comes down to rest against the top of the cork, a ring at the base begins to push away from the rest of the handle, drawing out the cork. This is far and away the simplest and one of the most effective corkscrews. Priced at about $7.95.
This subject is more complex, however, because not all corks are the samel. The cork is a bottle of recent-vintage California wine will usually be firm but flexible. The cork in an old bottle of Bordeaux may be quite brittle. For newer corks, the waiter's corkscrew, the tages, I suggest the double-action model, or, if you're feeling strong, the sheer force Ah So Corkscrew.
This contrivance consists of an oval hand grip from which descend two fexible steel blades about 3 inches in length. The blades are gently inserted between the bottle and the cork. They manage to get a grip on the cork without ever piercing it, and you wriggle the whole thing up. This model can also cork a bottle. It retails for about $4.
There are two kinds of worms on corkscrews. One has a solid core with a spiral ridge running around it, quite similar to a common wood screw. The other has a length of metal that has been coiled into something that resembles a pig's tail. The first arrangement goes into a cork with great ease but may come up just as easily without the cork. The second design will get a good, solid bite, but can sometimes make mincemeat out of a dry old plug.
Whichever corkscrew you choose, be sure to get one that is made of stainless, chromed or tinned steel, so that no chemical interaction will take place between opener and wine. The air pump corkscrew and CO2 cartridge models are not recommended. There is a possibility the cork will split when removed with the air pump model. The CO2 corkscrew may make the wine taste of carbon dioxide and it there is a flaw in the bottle it may crack.
The handles must be firmly attached to the worm, and the spiral or blade must be long enough to pierce the entire cork, but not so long that the tip comes through the bottom. If the worm doesn't go down to the bottom of the cork, the pressure of the pull will split the cork in half. Do not use the tip of the worm to remove the metal capsule that covers the cork. The tip of the screw must be sharp, and it will not remain so if it is used on other surfaces. Finally, remember that cork is a natural object and, like most of us natural objects it suffers from the ravages of age. Be gentle. CAPTION: Pictures 1, 2, 3, and 4, no caption