Screw cap or cork? That is the question.
I have encountered this predicament personally for more than 15 years. Often, I have a guest snicker or sometimes gasp with disbelief that we serve screw-cap wines in our restaurants. This is the first in a two-part series examining the history of cork and the problems it presents, followed by the introduction of screw caps and their advantages.
First, let’s examine cork. What is it? Most of you probably know that it comes from a tree; more specifically, it is the bark of the cork oak, and it is grown mostly in southwest Europe. Half of all cork produced worldwide is from Portugal.
It takes a long time to produce a cork. Trees must be 25 years old before the bark is even mature enough to harvest. Bark harvesting takes place only every 10 years, and the first two harvests are usually of poor quality, so a tree is about 45 years old before it produces the quality corks that winemakers buy. Just think, if you’re drinking a 1998 cabernet, the cork in that bottle could be more than 50 years old!
A percentage of cork harvested is infected with tricloroanisole (TCA), a chemical compound that taints wine once it is put into the bottle. It imparts a musty, damp smell — like old books in your grandma’s basement. Bottles affected by TCA are called “corked bottles,” and it is hard to tell how many there are. It is estimated to be 10 to 15 percent. Someone has to first identify a corked bottle and return to the place of purchase. They, in turn, return the bottle to the distributor.
Whether a $200 Bordeaux or a $5 Shiraz, that 50-cent cork stuck in the neck of the bottle can, if contaminated with TCA, render the wine inside worthless.
What’s even more frustrating is that many people who buy wine are uncertain how to tell whether a bottle is contaminated. Most end up drinking it, then sitting back and thinking, “Well that wasn’t very good.” I often wonder how many people taste a corked wine and don’t know what it is; they just know it tastes bad and conclude that they don’t like that wine. Most likely, they will never purchase it again.
Bad corks are part of the reason for presenting the bottle of wine to the guest. When you are presented with a bottle at a restaurant, your sole purpose is to determine whether the wine is fit to drink — not whether or not you like it. If wine didn’t have the potential to be bad, there wouldn’t be a need for you to taste it.
Just last week, I had a guest order a bottle of cabernet franc that we sell at Cork for about $150. I presented the wine for a taste, and the guest paused for a moment. I asked if the wine was alright, and he said, “It’s just not like I remember, but it’s fine. We’ll drink it.”
I took one whiff and could tell it was corked, and I brought the couple a new bottle. If he hadn’t hesitated, they may have ended up drinking bad wine on their anniversary, which probably would have soured their whole dining experience. It’s important that if you think the wine is off, speak up. One out of 10 times, it probably is.
Look for next month’s column for the conclusion of the screw cap versus cork debate.
• Robert Morris is owner and manager at East Valley restaurants Cork, BLD and Stax Burger Bistro. Reach him at (480) 883-3773 or www.CorkRestaurant.net