Screwed not Corked

“The rumors of my death” Mark Twain wrote, “are exaggerated.”  I wonder if the same is true about wine bottles and the corks that seal them?


Fine wine comes in a bottle and is sealed with a cork – this long been a given of the world of wine, but things are changing very rapidly.  I wonder what the Wine Wall at your supermarket will look like in ten or fifteen years? Will there still be bottles and corks?  Or is the death of wine tradition over-stated.

Corks seem headed for the endangered species list for all but the most precious age-worthy wines.  Non-cork closures including screwcaps were nearly invisible just 10 years ago (with perhaps 1 percent of the bottled wine market), but this is changing quickly.  A report in Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly suggests that about 35 percent of wine bottles–  over 2.5 billion units — had non-cork closures in 2007, including about 90 percent of New Zealand’s wine production.

Screwcaps have long been associated with inexpensive wine, but this too is changing.  The August 2008 issue of Decanter magazine features an article titled “50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps.”  Ten wine critics including Steven Spurrier and Linda Murphy recommend wines for summer drinking and comment on both the products and their screw tops.  “The screwcap closure is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime,” according to Spurrier (the organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting.

“Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or a cork, I’d choose the screwcap every time,” writes Joanna Simon, The Sunday Times wine writer. It’s a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, especially coming from Decanter. Economics is behind the move away from cork. Screwcaps are not remarkably cheaper than cork, but they avoid the loss of good wine to cork taint, generally estimated to affect about three percent of cork-closed wines. That’s a cost that winemakers would like to avoid.  But it can get much worse than three percent in individual cases George Taber wrote about a much worse situation in his great book To Cork or Not to Cork. A shipment of tainted cork almost ruined the David Bruce winery some years ago and destroyed forever the reputation of its Chardonnay wines. It had to rebuild (successfully) as a Pinot Noir maker.

Big Bag, Big Box

Don’t throw away your corkscrews yet – bottle and cork won’t disappear over night.  But the screwcap is replacing cork and the familiar glass bottle, well it’s under attack, too. As much as 30 percent of the 20 billion liters of wine sold this year will come in a non-bottle package – a bag-in-box “cask,” TetraPak “juice box” or something else. Economics is driving this change, as well.

Bag-in-box casks are cheap and efficient, and so we have come to expect very inexpesive wines to be sold this way, in 3-liter or 5-liter containers.  Think Franzia and Peter Vella.  The bag-in-box system is even used in international wine trade, but on a bigger scale.  Bulk wine shipments increasingly arrive in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 24,000 liters of wine in a single seamless bladder called a Flexitank. Wow, that’s really bag in box!

But it’s not just the cost of the container itself that is at work here.  Bottles are heavy to ship and costly to recycle. Rising transportation costs and increasing concern about carbon footprint are pushing the industry to look very closely at alternative packaging systems.

A French company is leading the way on this front, and I am not sure whether to be surprised or not. France is generally associated with resistance to innovation and change – picture the rebel José Bové torching a McDonalds in protest of its encroachment on French life and cuisine. On the other hand the France is home to many of the most dynamic multinational corporations – including two of the world’s five largest wine companies – and the country has a huge interest in the wine business, given that it is still the largest producer. So perhaps it just makes sense that they are innovators in this field.

What’s French for Entrepreneur?

The producer I’m talking about is Boisset Family Estates, which makes fine wines such as Louis Bernard in France and DeLoach here in the United States. Boisset seems to be pushing the envelope, selling a €150 screwcapped Chambertin as well as affordable TetraPak French Rabbit wines.  I wrote about French Rabbit in my earlier post, Red, White and Green All Over.

I think we will be seeing more and more wine in non-traditional packages — screwcaps, casks, plastic bottles and so forth.  Cost, quality and environmental concerns are all pointing in the same direction for  wines that are sold for everyday consumption.  Hmmm.  Maybe the days of the wine cork really are numbered.  Great — my cork collection may finally be worth something!

5 responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    people who talk of the “romance of popping a cork” as opposed to unscrewing a cap often get dismissed as sentimental traditionalists who will eventually be swept aside in the unstopable march of progress. However there is quite possibly a good econmic reason to this rather than just sentiment: wine, partly because of it’s whole mystique,generates far higher prices than other drinks, such as beer, vodka, fruit juice, tea, coffee. Strip away at these layers of mystique and tradition and who knows when we may reach a tipping point (or poossibly tippling point)and prices are forever driven downwards, with wine becoming just another beverage. Once the magic of wine is gone, the producers may find it very hard to get back. Just a thought.

  2. PS For your info, love this site, read it regularly from South Africa, would love to see a piece on our place in the global wine game ?

  3. Great writeup thanks. I find it very interesting and insightful to read your articles.

    But one thing which struck me when thinking about this aspect of the wine industry. I think that when we think of certain things, we have certain visualizations in our mind, for example when we think of the police or a paramedic, we have a certain image of an uniformed person who looks like he or she should. And i would like to bring that analogy into the consumption of wine. When we go to a fancy restaurant and order food and drinks, we know that we are being charged for just being at a fancy restaurant and not the cost of the ingredients and and labour.
    So we tend to put a premium on things with respect to certain parameters. And i think a similar thing applies to wine drinking. When we tihnk of drinking a nice wine, we think of it being poured from a bottle and into a ‘glass’, not a plastic cup with a cap we get at mcdonalds. I tihnk thats where the premium image of wine in general comes from.

    Also instead of trying to do a blindfold test about whether people can discern between wine stored in plastic bags or bottles, i would like to see who prefers drinking from plastic cups and glass, for me there is a distinct difference between the two but maybe its just me.

    I think where plastic bags will come in handy is the lower priced casual drinking wine market where people are looking for discounted prices and volume purchases.

    Just my two cents!


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