@Dagney, perception is a powerful thing – and that wine rep you listened to “years ago” could have been me. (Might as well have been.) Screw caps are excellent closures for wine bottles. Period. But here in the States, the consumer’s perception of wines with a screw cap is “Gallo,” that is to say “jug wines.” Actually, it’s worse than that – it’s associated with wines like Thunderbird and Night Train Express, “Mad Dog 20/20” and all of those cheap bottles of “port” that the proverbial “bums on Skid Row” are drinking out of little paper bags . . .
But at the same time, screw caps have been used for California table wines seemingly “forever” – at least since the first days following the end of Prohibition. And screw caps have always been used far beyond just “jug wines,” although there is an important lesson to learned from them, too: when did anyone every return a jug of Gallo, Italian Swiss Colony, Carlo Rossi, Petri, etc. because the wine within was bad/spoiled/tainted?
Back in the 1960s and 70s, the Louis M. Martini Winery used to bottle their Cabernet Sauvignon in screw caps . . . and with “regular” corks, too. Why the screw caps? It wasn’t for the general U.S. market; it wasn’t for the export market. It was specifically for TWA – anyone still remember TWA? – for service on board their airplanes in First Class. And tasting the same wine under cork and screw cap from the winery’s “library” showed no significant difference. (I know; I was there.)
PlumpJack Winery caused quite a stir when they highly publicized bottling their 1997 Reserve Cabernet under both cork ($125/btl.) and screw cap – for $10/btl. more – and letting consumers choose which they wanted to buy. (They blew that one, IMHO; they should’ve sold a limited number of 2-packs, with one bottle of each – and sold them at the same price! – so consumers could participate in the experiment themselves!) Over the years, PlumpJack has donated substantial quantities of wines, bottled on cork and under screw cap, to UC Davis’ “wine library” for further research and taste tests.
That’s the BIG question: how well do age-worthy wines develop under screw cap? Better? The same? Worse than the same wines under cork? You can read the results of one such side-by-side tasting of the original 1997 PlumpJuck bottlings here.
Stop for a moment and think about how truly shocking that was. Corks have been used for centuries. All the famous French wines use them! Screw caps = jug wines (or worse)! And here’s a Napa winery charging $100+ for their Cabernet . . . and not only are they putting (some of) it under screw cap, but they’re actually charging more for it? WTF??? (Maybe they didn’t blow it, but I still think they should have sold the wine in 2-packs.)
As Robert mentions, “New Zealand has virtually eliminated corks.” True, and Australia has a huge number of wins under screw cap, as does South Africa. I have no doubt whatsoever that their willingness to try, and subsequently embrace, the use of screw caps is precisely because there is no association in those countries of “cheap, rot-gut” and “jug wines” with screw caps.
No wine producer is. Not completely, at any rate. (Or, perhaps, they aren’t willing to publicly admit it.) But many very famous “names” have bottled their wines under screw caps, even if those bottles shall never see the light of day, so to speak. For example, Château Margaux is but one producer in Bordeaux that has a sizable number of bottles under screw cap and stored in their cellars, side-by-side with bottles on cork, for aging experiments à la UC Davis. Some producers in Burgundy, too, are quietly running aging trials, and I’m sure it’s happening in other regions of France and the rest of Europe. Obviously, it’s happening here in the States as well, and all around the world.
A few final thoughts/comments:
- I have no problem buying wine under screw cap, and – like Robert – for wines meant for near-term consumption, “give me a screw cap over a cork every time.”
- I, too, have some “aging experiments” in my own personal cellar to see/taste the difference over time.
- Joel Gott is far from alone in California, and the US generally, in using screw caps. You’ll find hundreds of 750ml bottlings from wineries around the US and that becomes thousands around the world.
- The oldest wine I ever personally tasted under screw cap was a 1937 Colombard from the UC Davis wine library; it was tried in 1979 as a part of one of my classes there in Sensory Evaluation. It was in great shape.
And finally, let me return to the matter of perception. It becomes a “chicken-and-egg” dilemma. Consumers DID balk at the first uses of screw caps for “premium” wines here in the States due to their association with jug wines. That is fact. But at the same time, you have wineries that are therefore loathe to adopt them for fear of tarnishing their image/losing customers through the use of screw caps – basically saying Let some other winery use screw caps first. There are many winemakers who would switch to screw caps in a heartbeat, but are afraid of hurting their sales . . . but the more wineries switch, the less of an image problem there is.
For the most part, jug wines in the US are a diminishing (if not disappearing) category. And with time, the image of screw caps being associated with “rot gut” and jug wines will disappear, and screw caps will gain an ever-increasing percentage of the marketplace (IMHO).