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TODAY

Monday, April 22

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Airbags

You heard right. More and more fancy wines are moving toward screwcap closures on their bottles. Here's why it's a good thing.

About 10 percent of wines I open are "corked." This means that due to bacteria present in the faulty cork, they smell like a moldy basement and the wine is essentially flawed or ruined. Now don't freak out. This bacteria produces a compound, called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), that isn't harmful to humans but makes your wine smell and taste icky. Sometimes it's just a faint aroma of wet cardboard, other times the bottle reeks like a hazardous mold removal project. As far as taste, I generally experience corked wines as tasting sort of muted or dead in the middle. In the mouth, the wine might taste OK on the tip of the tongue and then sort of dead or no taste at all in the center of the tongue and just overly earthy in general. The cork industry reports that only 3 percent of wines are corked. I think this is grossly underestimated on their part — probably because they make a living selling corks. As I stated above, I experience about a 10 percent failure rate, and folks at the Wine Spectator have reported up to 12 percent of their samples are corked. So it's a big deal.

(A note of clarification — corked wine does not refer to pieces of cork floating in a glass. That's just unpleasant and a little tacky. Pick the cork chunks out and you'll be fine.)

When you suspect a wine to be corked at a restaurant, simply tell the waiter or bartender, and you should get a new glass from a new bottle. Servers in Chicago are generally hip to what "corked" wine means. If you're at Chili's in a suburban mall, it's probably better to ask that the bartender open a new bottle — or order something else. Good retailers should accept returns/exchanges on corked bottles as well.

Given that this is a huge problem in the world of wine, many producers have looked to other types of closures to seal the bottle. Screwcaps have been around since the '70s, but they carry a certain "cheap wine" stigma. Plastic corks, in fashion colors no less, are quite common and eliminate the cork issue, but don't seem to please many winemakers in their ability to let a wine age. Screwcaps do seem to allow wine to age, according to several winemakers I have chatted with, including Kim Crawford and Chris Hatcher, head winemaker at Wolf Blass. In fact, many of these winemakers claim that the wines age better under screwcap and preserve the bright fruit flavors longer than traditional corks. Peter Gago, head winemaker for Penfolds, likes screwcaps but doesn't believe they are the perfect solution. Ideally, he'd like to see a completely sealed glass vessel for wine and some kind of Dr. Evil-esque laser to make a clean and safe cut through the glass neck of the bottle. Sadly, no one has yet invented a light saber/corkscrew combo, but I invite all you enterprising designers to try.

In the meantime, it's my mission to get folks educated on the high quality wines that come with screwcaps and encourage a guerilla mission for my savvy readers to bring these wines to parties. Get people talking about these fancy wines with low rent closures and never worry again about bringing a vino that reeks like your Grandma's basement. Here are some opening lines that will make you look like a wine smarty to your pals:

"You know Charlie Trotter has some screwcapped wines on his list now?" (He's a fan of New Zealand's Seresin winery.)

"The Master Court of Sommeliers actually has an official presentation procedure for wine bottles with screw caps." (Yep, heard it from a certified Master Sommelier.)

"Plumpjack (a fancy winery in Napa) is using a screwcap for their $100 Cabernet Sauvignon." (They've been doing it for years actually. Not just a brilliant publicity stunt as many folks in the industry speculated.)

There. Now you can talk smack at your next networking event. While the dear folks in New Zealand are the industry leaders in adopting screwcaps, plenty of Aussies, California and Washington producers are following the kiwis' lead.

Here are some specific tasty screwcapped wines to try — no corkscrew required:

• Geisen Sauvignon Blanc
• Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay
• Wolf Blass Gold Label Riesling
• Kim Crawford Marlborough Pinot Noir
• Laurel Glen Terra Rosa Cabernet Sauvignon
• Two Tone Farms Cabernet Sauvignon

And some good winery websites to learn more about all things non-corked:

Hogue Cellars
RH Phillips
Bonny Doon

So get out there, drink some of these wines and spread the word. No more scoffing at screwcaps. Sadly, no more making fun of box wines either. The Australians are releasing some decent wines in nifty little boxes that fit neatly in the fridge and never go bad. If you have a burning desire to mock someone's beverage, Boone's Farm, Mad Dog, and "flavored wines" like Arbour Mist are still fair game in my book. And Zima. Anyone drinking Zima still cracks me up.

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About the Author(s)

Christine Blumer is the owner of Winediva Enterprises, a private wine education and events company. She writes for several culinary and wine magazines and produces a monthly e-newsletter, Diva Dish. Subscribe via email to winedivaentmsncom or visit www.winedivaent.com.

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