Wineries and connoisseurs once shunned screw caps, but now use them to ensure
taste and quality
By Kathy Stephenson
The Salt Lake Tribune
For many people, a screw cap is the ultimate sign of a sweet, cheap wine. The image is imbedded in our
human hard drives. Blame the stereotype on those brown-bagging Hollywood hobos and a few college-age
parties where a jug of Annie Green Springs was the honored guest.
Times are changing, though, and the screw cap closure is quickly turning into the seal of the future,
namely because it eliminates the taint that often comes with traditional cork.
Experts estimate that one in every 12 bottles of wine sealed with a cork becomes tainted with the
naturally occurring compound trichloroanisole, or TCA.
In high levels, TCA can make wine smell musty, like wet newspaper or cardboard. With lower amounts of
TCA, a wine will simply taste dull or flat. Average wine drinkers have probably consumed "corked" wine
unaware that the odd taste - which ultimately keeps them from repurchasing the wine - is probably from
That can spell disaster for wine producers.
"I don't know another industry that would allow that kind of failure rate," explains Jon Engen, an
international wine judge who lives in Salt Lake City. "Allowing all the efforts that go into wine making
- from grape growing to aging - to be ruined by a little block of wood is ridiculous."
Cork alternatives: That is why a growing number of wineries around the world are looking for alternatives
to cork. Synthetic or plastic corks have been adopted by many wineries because they eliminate the
possibility of TCA contamination. But Engen says they are not perfect. They can leak and are "buggers to
get out of the bottle."
Brett Clifford, the premium wine buyer for the state, said that during the past five years he has seen the
number of screw cap wines increase between 20 percent and 30 percent. And they come in all price
ranges - some premium screw-cap wines sell for more than $100 each.
New World wineries in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are leading the screw-cap revolution. It
started in 2000, when Riesling producers in Australia's Clare Valley decided to bottle all or part of their
wines using screw caps. Not long after, producers from New Zealand's Marlborough region joined in by
bottling their sauvignon blanc with screw caps.
Ultimately, that led to the formation of the New Zealand Screw Cap Wine Seal Initiative, designed to
promote the use of screw caps and educate consumers and industry
Screw caps, once a symbol of cheap wines, are making gains on corks, the traditional wine closures. Not
only are they easy to open, screw caps don't allow wine to become contaminated by TCA. The naturally
occurring compound can affect the taste and smell of wine in corked bottles. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake
officials about the benefits of screw caps. Today, according to the Web site http://www.screwcap.co.nz,
the New Zealand group is hoping to launch an international screw-cap initiative.
In the United States there already are a handful of California and Oregon wineries bottling with screw
caps. Bonny Doon, a Santa Cruz, Calif., winery, is one of the more notable users. The winery's Ca' del
Solo Big House Red and Big House White blends have received top tasting scores.
Not surprisingly, the Old World wine countries of France, Italy and Spain have held fast to cork. In fact, a
stroll around the State Wine Store in downtown Salt Lake City uncovered just one European maverick:
France's Tortoise Creek winery, which bottles its rosé, syrah and merlot wines, among others, with screw
caps. The bottles cost between $7.95 and $8.95 each.
The majority of wineries that have jumped into the arena of screw caps (often referred to in the industry
as Stelvin caps or closures) are varietials that do not require long aging periods such as Riesling and
But advocates say screw caps may offer more benefits for wines that require long-term aging, because
they can prevent premature oxidation. Supporters also insist that a cork is not necessary to the aging
process. Aging, they say, is a function of the natural chemical characters in the wine and will occur no
matter the bottle closure.
Engen is skeptical of that claim. "We need to have about 20 years before we know for sure," he said.
Public perception seems to be the biggest obstacle facing screw-cap wines.
Wineries, distributors and even restaurants are reluctant to go too fast, afraid of scaring consumers. But
many say all it will take is time, similar to what was needed in the music industry when CDs began
replacing cassette tapes.
Scott Giles, a Park City resident, took the screw-cap plunge several years ago.
"Every single wine I've purchased [with a screw top] has been great," he said during a recent trip to the
downtown Salt Lake City wine store, where he purchased one of his favorite screw-cap wines: Villa Maria
Sauvignon Blanc, a New Zealand wine. It sells for $13.95 a bottle.
But stereotypes run deep, said Fred Boutwell, the general manager at Market Street Grill in Cottonwood
Boutwell and a colleague recently conducted their own unscientific experiment at a recent fundraising
event to see how open wine drinkers were to screw-cap wines.
To start off the evening, Boutwell secretly served a New Zealand sauvignon blanc with a screw cap.
"And 100 percent loved it," he said.
Later, when he decided to open the bottles in front of patrons, "100 percent wanted something else," said
Consumers aren't the only ones resisting. Some higher-end restaurants are hesitant to give up the pomp
and circumstance that comes when their customers order a bottle of wine.
"With the screw top, the mystique is gone," explained Boutwell.
But that may not be a bad thing, said Clifford.
"I've always felt like corks are an unnecessary complication," said Clifford. "It's something that prohibits
people from enjoying wine on an everyday basis."
It does seem rather elitist, considering that consumers are fine with screw caps for premium items such
as vodka, scotch and extra-virgin olive oil. Why should an extra tool be needed to enjoy a bottle of wine?
It is just another "intimidation factor" Clifford said, "that keeps people from experiencing the pleasure and
enjoyment of wine."