Cork vs. Screw Top — An Actual Tasting (Finally)
By Monty and Sara Preiser
As we look back, it seems that it was about 1999 when the American wine industry began to discuss in earnest the question of whether screw top enclosures could match corks in terms of a wine’s desired aging. Perhaps the issue had gained credibility at that time because by the end of the century Australian and New Zealand producers were reporting some encouraging results in favor of the screw cap enclosures. Up to then, however, consumers had not warmed to the idea, but more and more such bottles on the shelves naturally led to more and more discussions and inquiries.
By good fortune we happened to make an unscheduled stop at PlumpJack during that pivotal summer. While this property and its then sole winemaker Nils Venge are both in the industry’s forefront today, the winery was only two years old in 1999. Though it boasted some famous owners, it was not yet a major player. What put PlumpJack on the radar was its brilliant idea to bottle half its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon under screw top, and half under cork (150 cases total). For some reason the cost was a bit more for the latter if purchased separately, but the price was $260 for both wines – in those days a pretty costly pair. Nevertheless, we readily ponied up the money for a duo signed by Nils, and decided to let them age until a special moment occurred that was ripe for an evaluation and comparison of the two.
Fast forwarding to 2012, a couple of weeks ago the perfect opportunity indeed presented itself. Visiting Florida for a wine event were three of our favorite Napa couples – all skilled in most aspects surrounding wine. They were Clark and Elizabeth Swanson, owners of the famed Swanson Vineyards in the Oakville Appellation of Napa; Anthony and Suzanne Truchard, owners of the equally notable Truchard Vineyards in the Napa Carneros Appellation; and Chef Ken and Sheryelle Frank, owners of the oft awarded Michelin starred La Toque restaurant in downtown Napa. What a group.
We dined at one of Boca Raton’s best restaurants, Arturo’s, and owner Vincent Gismondi arranged to have both bottles at the correct temperature, properly decanted, and served blindly to us after an appropriate time for opening. Sara and I were anxious that the wines be without flaws after 13 years of storage and a change in residence, and it was immediately obvious (thank goodness) that the wines were in excellent shape. All of us then spent some time tasting both of these gems on their own, and then with the entrée of our individual choice.
If you have watched the movie Bottle Shock, a semi-historical picture about the 1976 Paris wine tasting where American wines made their international mark, you may recall a marvelously moving scene that takes place after the panel of solely French judges begins to blindly taste the American Chardonnays and French Burgundies. Beautifully depicted is the increasing confusion among the judges – confusion about which wines came from which nation. In effect, that alone was really a victory for the fledgling American wine industry no matter which wine was ultimately selected as the best that day.
At our own Boca tasting, while “perhaps” not as historically significant as the Paris event, there was, however, a similar initial response. The wines were excellent — that no one denied. But they were also so close in flavors that at first blush no one was willing to venture a definitive statement as to which glass came from which bottle. And truth be told, wasn’t that, in and of itself, a victory for the wine under screw cap? Further, if these were ever proved to be the usual results, would that not be a victory for an entire industry that loses incalculable dollars to tainted corks every year? No, at least not yet. The wines still had some time to spend in glass before any conclusions could be drawn with certainty.
It is interesting to note that since 2004 PlumpJack has been producing Cabs under both enclosures. It is also interesting to revisit the reality that even though screw tops have been out there for a while, there are still no properly controlled studies by wineries, writers, or institutions of repute finding that screw tops allow the same great aging characteristics of corks. Once our wines were allowed to open up even more, would our little experiment find any differently?
As we sat and sipped, it was not surprising that we all perceived a constant changing of characteristics in both glasses. This happens with fine wines as they become more oxygenated. For a while most of us preferred one glass, and then the other. However, and most importantly for this exercise, everyone liked both wines very much for the entire time we were there, and few were certain which was which. Ultimately, much like the upset in 1976, the majority of the table felt that the glass of wine that came from the screw top bottle was, on balance, better. Those who felt the opposite all conceded that the call was close.
As we sat down to write this article we could not help but wonder what happened to those other 149 sets of 1997 wine that were sold by PlumpJack in 1999. Well, courtesy of Ken Frank we did discover the destiny of one pair. Ken and Sheryelle, themselves, along with famed vintners and philanthropists Garen and Shari Staglin, did in fact enjoy a side by side of the subject wines about five years ago. Their conclusion? Interestingly, the same as ours, though they somewhat discounted their results because, they felt, it was too close to bottling to make any valid pronouncement, and certainly not one prognosticating anything long term.
That is not the case any longer. Plenty of time has passed and in all these years we can find no evidence that any independent wine writers or qualified panel of tasters have taken the time and effort to make a comparison of these two bottles, or any other similarly situated wines. It is true that PlumpJack itself ran a test about five years ago and announced there was little difference, but the bias here (or clear potential thereof) is too obvious to even require comment.
It is hard to accept that we are the only writers to have taken the issue seriously enough to do something about it (the specter of Paris is again raised in our minds as we think of George Taber, the only journalist who felt it worthwhile to cover that august European event). However, as far as we can discover, what we and our Napa friends did in Florida has not been undertaken, or at least covered in some broad manner, by any other independent writer.
We feel lucky that we had such unassailable palates tasting with us, as that certainly adds great credibility to what we report today. Lest one think, by the way, that our panel’s judgment as to the quality of the wine under screw top was based only on some simplistic reason like retaining fruit flavors comparable to a five year old wine, that is far from accurate. Both wines had aged beautifully, and both probably will easily live another 5 to 8 years. But on this day, to these particular tasters, and with these particular wines, the screw cap enclosure made a significant name for itself and, at least for these two writers, opened another chapter for research.
It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.
Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com. Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.