Table 22, a two-top in a quiet corner of the dining room, is encircled by a halo of light. A candle illuminates the faces of the diners, here on their anniversary, holding hands across the white tablecloth. The sommelier approaches the table, inserting herself into the sacred space. She waits to be noticed by the gentleman, who ordered the wine.
The man suddenly transforms into discerning connoisseur. He examines the label and the impressive, heavy bottle and nods approvingly. The sommelier commences the ceremony of opening the wine. Label facing the guest, she cuts the foil seamlessly under the second lip, smoothly twists the corkscrew in the center, and removes the cork without a sound. (Applause, please.)
She places the cork on a small sterling plate. It’s large, with chunks of crystalized sediment on the bottom. The man picks it up and examines it, then hands it to his wife, who keeps corks as mementos of their special dinners. He’s feeling good about having chosen this wine; it has met his expectations given its $200 price tag and 93-point score. He’s decided they’ll enjoy this bottle even before taking the first sip.
Wine Quality Over Wine Closure?
Now imagine if that expensive wine had arrived at the table with less-impressive packaging, perhaps a lightweight bottle closed with a screw cap. Lulu Macallister, the wine director at NOPA, in San Francisco, says that scenario can provoke self-conscious laughter and mild embarrassment.
“Sometimes guests are surprised to learn it’s a screw cap on a more expensive bottle,” she said, but added quickly that “no one ever really fusses too much about it.” She’s found that a bit of playfulness will put her guests at ease. “I might give it a real hardy twist to emphasize the pomp and circumstance of the procedure.”
Pascaline Lepeltier, a Master Sommelier and the wine director at Rouge Tomate in New York City, said that her guests likewise tend to expect expensive wines to have natural corks. But she believes that real wine connoisseurs, who recognize that high quality is not necessarily linked to high price, “understand the choice of the winemaker to pick the best closure for his or her wines.” Rouge Tomate has several wines on its list closed with Nomacorcs.
As a wine buyer, Amy Racine of Sons and Daughters in San Francisco agrees that closure doesn’t matter; it’s what is inside that counts. “I am proud of the bottles on our list that have screw caps—certainly not ashamed—and I would never not recommend a bottle because it is Stelvin instead of cork,” she said. “If guests inquire about it, I’ll briefly explain the benefits of screw caps and their place in that region, which typically sets them at ease.”
The benefits of cork alternatives are inarguable. Adam Lee, winemaker and founder of Siduri, a Pinot Noir producer in Sonoma County, has been experimenting for the last eight years with bottling some wines with screw cap and some with natural cork. After four years of aging, he was convinced about the benefits of screw caps and began transitioning his wines to Stelvin before “going all in” with his 2012 vintage.
“We’ve now had the opportunity to open some of those older wines side-by-side,” said Lee, “and have found that not only do the screw caps help us avoid TCA, the wine has aged in a much more consistent manner. The bottles sealed under cork seemingly have varying levels of dry cork, oxygen ingress, etc., all of which makes the bottles far more variable.”
But the couple at Table 22 isn’t thinking about oxygen ingress. And were they at home in their pajamas eating tacos and watching Netflix, a screw cap probably wouldn’t phase them. In fact, they’d likely appreciate the convenience. But eating in a fine dining restaurant is not about feeding oneself; here, the ceremony, the ritual of service, is part of the experience. It’s theater.
Romancing the Closure
Which is why the words romance and tradition come up again and again when we talk about corks. Winemakers who favor cork alternatives are keen to de-romanticize this notion, quipping that the cork is just a hunk of tree bark. I talked with one distributor who favors screw cap because of the number of corked bottles he sees returned to him every year. He said, sarcastically, “If you want romance, light a candle.”
And yet, “Guests are still very attached to the cork,” said Lepeltier. She says she has actually seen the interest in the cork increase in the last few years, especially since she has started working with older bottles. The service standards for the Court of Master Sommeliers require a sommelier to ask the guest if she may take away the cork once the wine has been served. The capsule for screw caps, however, is never even presented, and instead is discretely put into the sommelier’s pocket.
“Not everyone who elects to keep the cork offers an explanation as to why they are keeping it,” said Macallister, “but some of the reasons have included, ‘I have a cork collection,’ ‘I want to remember this wine or this occasion,’ ‘We may not finish the wine,’ and ‘I am working on a cork board.’” Macallister observed, “Many people who elect to keep the corks seem a bit sheepish about it.”
When it comes to synthetic or composite corks, most guests don’t even notice the difference. “I can count on one hand the number of times a guest has inquired about synthetic vs. natural corks,” said Racine, of Sons and Daughters, “and I believe those were all because of glass capsules, which act as a showpiece. Compared to screw caps, it really seems like synthetic vs. natural isn’t something they care about.”
Like most somms, I’m thrilled to see guests engaging with the wine—whether they’re discussing its flavor or just the picture on the label. Racine said the variety of bottle shapes, sizes, and enclosures does, however, “add some level of excitement to the presentation.” Closures decorated with printed quotes or pictures fuel this interest: “Wish Big” (Belden Barns), “I grow it, I make it” (Mathis rosé), lightning bolts (Iconic Wines), pruning shears (Matthiasson), and deer antlers (Pearl Morissette) are a few I’ve seen recently inspiring Instagrams at the table.
The sommelier either uses a corkscrew or she doesn’t. Either there is something interesting to look at, play with, and save, or there isn’t. As alternative closures find their way into more and more high-end bottles of wine, it seems that sommeliers and consumers alike are becoming increasingly open-minded.
After conversing with a guest recently about the pros and cons of synthetic vs. natural vs. screw cap, he concluded, “If the wine is good, I trust the winemaker to choose the right one for his wine. That’s what they do, after all. My job is just to drink it.”