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Adventures Among The Uncorked

Deanna Staffo

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 6/6/2007

Once upon a time I used to take my time shopping for wines. Chat with the clerks, read up on interesting little vineyards, try a little of everything, buy with an eye to laying down bottles to improve over a few years. I used to keep a wine notebook, for heaven's sake, pasting in the labels and writing comments about the vintage. Buying the wine conferred nearly as much enjoyment as actually opening and drinking it.

I still like me some fine wine, but life has changed. My most recent wine shopping trip involved dashing in to a local liquor megamart--the one my husband has affectionately dubbed the " Home Depot of Liquor" for its pragmatic, stack 'em deep steel shelving ambiance. My preschooler and infant were riding shotgun, and the clock was ticking. Could I score some relatively decent, inexpensive red wine and get out before someone--them, me, whoever--started screaming?

I thought it would be easy until I discovered that the Australian syrah that has served as our house red for a while had jumped three bucks a bottle with the new vintage, putting it above our $10-ish price point for everyday vino. Yikes. A roving wine clerk sniffed out my indecisiveness and circled in, recommending as replacement another Aussie from the same region of the Barossa Valley. She enthusiastically described bold fruit and peppery overtones and a price, with case discount, of $9 a bottle. What the heck, I liked the label. Sold.

That evening I opened the box and, corkscrew in one hand, lifted free a bottle. Doink! I couldn't get the foil to peel off of the bottle's neck, even after nicking it with the corkscrew's mini knife. It took what I now see was an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that there was no cork, and the foil wasn't peeling because it was a . . . screw top.

OK, so I know, intellectually, that screw-top wine no longer automatically denotes some nasty big-jug burgundy or fortified "wine product." All sorts of winemakers have reportedly embraced the proclaimed advanced technology of the screw top. For one thing, it obviously gets rid of the corking problem, a harmless but vile-tasting phenomenon called "cork taint" where mold (or other cork-related issues--the cause of corking is not well understood) affects the wine's flavor and smell. About three to five bottles of wine in a hundred suffer from corking.

But old habits die hard, especially in an arena like wine where emotion and ritual are as much a part of the experience as actual physical consumption. I declined to turn the top on that bottle that night, wanting to think it through a little first. I wanted to be fair: The wine deserved to be tasted and judged on its own merits, minus my screw-top prejudices. Honestly, though, I also wanted to preserve the option of returning it--what had I been thinking, buying a case solely on the recommendation of an anonymous liquor store clerk who appeared maybe two years past legal drinking age herself?

One of my main worries--that screw tops prevent wines from "breathing"--is a widely held anti-screw top belief. It also turns out to be wrong; although wine requires a certain amount of air to age and improve, nowadays most winemakers agree that there is sufficient air in the wine when bottled to facilitate the aging process. Also, screw-top manufacturers are on the case: Tops are now manufactured to such precision that they can actually, if the vintner chooses, be set to allow tiny amounts of air to enter the bottle.

Another, more leisurely trip to a wine store revealed that there are certainly more screw-top wines than I'd ever realized. My own wine preferences (California reds, the best I can afford, plus French and German whites) had kept me from previously experiencing screw-top surprise: The majority of metalhead wines are from Australia and New Zealand, although California wineries are gradually making the switch. It was an easy, and enjoyable, task to pick out half a dozen intriguing bottles for taste-testing--only in the interest of science, of course.

The selection, however deep, was ultimately narrow. Screw-top shirazes and Chardonnays--both big players in the Down Under wine world--abounded, and just about every $5 and under bottle sported a screw-on. As a matter of fact, all the screw-top wines I found occupied the Nice Price bins. Much searching turned up only a few bottles priced more than $20, and none over $30. Two clerks helped me comb the bins, and each ventured the opinion that Americans want their big-budget wines sporting corks, not caps.

Screw-cap proponents like to point out that California's luxury Plumpjack winery, makers of Wine Enthusiast magazine's 2001 No. 1 wine in the world, sells its $150 reserve Cabernet (and its other wines as well) in a screw-top bottle. Other high-end producers, particularly the French, have yet to go there, but the future is pretty clear: People like me, who buy at the pocket-change end of the wine spectrum, will see fewer corks and more caps. Which I am beginning to think is cool, really. I mean, what other beverage requires using a tool before you can drink it?

If you're interested in twisting a few caps for yourself, I highly recommend Armida's Poizin, a 2004 Sonoma County zinfandel (about $25). Very smooth, bold yet elegant fruit, and a nice rich finish. For an inexpensive summer house wine, Shenandoah Vineyard's 2005 Amador County Special Reserve zin is as good as it gets for $10 a bottle. Wine Spectator magazine rated it an 86 (is that like a B+?), and I like that it's made from organic grapes. Fruit forward, and the tail opens up with flavors of cola and cedar if you let it sit a little while. Finally, a chilled Big Fire pinot gris (2005, about $16) has a nice citrus edge, the touch of tokay grape blending in with sweet hints of pear. As for that case of shiraz, it was Silverwing's 2005 Barossa Valley, and it was OK, but I wouldn't buy it again.

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