For a few years now, the screwcap and cork have been battling it out like an Olympic curling match. It’s not particularly riveting for those outside the industry, but wine geeks view it like the gold medal round. Comments often heard about screwcaps: “Easy to open”… “Does it age wine?”… “At least 10% of the wine doesn’t get ruined”. And on and on… the conversation has been repeated endlessly.
But there’s a new classy contestant that’s stealthily coming up the outside lane — really fast. The Vino-Lok (Vino Seal in U.S.), a glass stopper for wine bottles, is putting up a new fight. Invented in Germany in 2004 by Alcoa, it could fulfill the need of a closure for the “connoisseur” (aka wine snob who finds metal closures cheap and lame). Its familiar-sounding advantages come straight from the screwcap playbook: Keeps wine fresh, prevents oxygen from entering the wine and preserves integrity.
But what’s wrong with good ‘ole fashioned cork? A non-toxic chemical substance known as 2,4,6 trichloroanisole — TCA for short — lives in cork tree bark (the stoppers are cut from the skins of mature trees). Bleaching and sterilizing, part of the cork-making process, randomly causes a reaction in the cut cork and releases chemicals that kick off an unfavorable odor. Once the affected cork is placed in the bottle, it intermingles with the wine and the juice takes on the flavor of TCA – wet dog or wet newspaper. Not really scrumptious, eh?
But here’s the worst part – this process takes a while to happen, so the wineries have no way of uncovering the cursed corks until it’s too late – when you pour their wine into your glass. Even though only a small percentage of corks end up contaminated with TCA (from 2 to 10 percent), even 5 percent of a small, 60,000-bottle winery equals 3,000 bad bottles. That’s a helluva lot of waste and customers to lose — because of a 17th century wine closure tradition.
So wineries have been seeking alternatives for years. But the screwcap – despite dogged efforts by wine writers like me who laud praise on it – still wallows in disdain.
Words like “elegant”, “innovative” and “fresh” have been used to describe it. It nestles into the bottle like an upscale olive oil stopper, creating a glass-on-glass seal. And it doesn’t require a corskcrew. Dr. Rowald Hepp, winemaker for Schloss Vollrads Winery in Germany, has used Vino-Lok for his award-winning rieslings since 2003. He’s part of a board which researches closures and did comparisons with oak cork, plastic cork, screwcaps and Vin-Lok over a seven year period. He reported that the glass closure showed less variation and more freshness, offering “reliable aging of the wines.”
But will wineries and consumers embrace it? I’ve showed it to several people who find the Vino-Lok chic and different — decidedly more sophisticated than the screwcap. Ed Sbragia from Sbragia Family Vineyards uses it for his whites and you will begin to see it tucked under the foil of more and more white AND red bottles from Australia, California and Germany. But you won’t find it in high-end Italian and Spanish bottles. In an effort to protect their cork production industries, both countries have legislated their quality-designated wines (DOC and DOCG in Italy/ DO and DOC in Spain) must be closed with cork to ensure the award of the designation. But some Italian producers, in what is fast becoming a trend, snub the official regulations and are using glass closures for their lower-level classified (but not lower quality) IGT classifications.
What I learned: Some traditions do change and it’s all about the marketing.