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home : out and about : out and about December 17, 2014

11/15/2013 6:44:00 PM
CITY SIPS | The allure of the screw top
By Jeffrey Dorgan

So why are we being invaded by screw-top wines? Isn’t that an indication of cheap wine? Nope! The fact is that there is a little thing called cork taint that can affect the quality of the wine. 

According to Wikipedia, “cork taint” is a broad term referring to a wine fault characterized by a set of undesirable smells or tastes found in a bottle of wine, especially spoilage that can only be detected after bottling, aging and opening. 

TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) is the chemical primarily responsible for cork taint in wines. The most common result of a wine with cork taint is a loss of freshness and a musty, wet cardboard smell. 

For the most part, the cork stopper is normally considered to be responsible for a tainted wine, and a wine is said to be “corked” or “corky.” Cork taint can affect the cheapest or the most expensive bottle of wine — it is not discriminatory. The statistic for corked wines has been pretty astonishing: anywhere from 5 to 12 percent. 

Why would you keep using corks? In any other industry with that high of a fail rate, it would be a no-brainer to switch. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple when it comes to wine. 

Pretty much what it boils down to the mindset that screw tops are cheaper and for more inferior wines. When was the last time you saw a movie with a wine server tableside opening a screw-cap bottle of wine? It is the same thing as popping the cork on a bottle of champagne — you would not believe how many of my guests want me to shoot the cork across the room (and, in the process, potentially putting an eye out, as well as losing half of the champagne out of the bottle) People equate corks with class.

Things are slowly, but surely, moving into the screw-cap camp. Today, 38 percent of wineries in the United States use screw caps in at least some of their bottles, versus 4 percent in 2004.  

Preserving quality

As a wine director, I have many different choices to make when it comes to wine: price point, varietal, vintage, region, etc. One thing that I never think about when selecting a wine for my list is whether it has screw top. If anything, I would prefer to have a wine with a screw top as opposed to a cork. 

There are fancy restaurants that have upward of 60 percent of their wines finished with screw tops. It is especially good for a busy restaurant that goes through a lot of glass pour, much easier to open and you are not serving what could turn out to be a bad glass of wine.

It is important to always serve the best of any product, and wine that is finished with a screw top will never have the faults that a wine finished with a cork could potentially have. The screw top preserves freshness, especially in younger whites and Rosés.

More than 90 percent of all New Zealand wines and a huge percentage of Australian wines use screw tops.

There are many wineries in Washington and Oregon that have switched to screw tops to guarantee that the wine will not suffer from potential cork taint.

It is mainly a perception thing that has slowly been changing. I have noticed it when I bring a screw-topped wine to open tableside, most guests are happy that the wine is finished that way.

The cork industry has worked hard on eradicating cork taint, and many studies have shown that the percentage of wine bottles that suffer from cork taint have gone down to as little as 1 percent. 

JEFFREY DORGAN, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2009 Sommelier of the Year, is the wine director at the Space Needle. To comment on this column, write to

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