Wine dilemma: Popping the cork versus pulling the plug |

Wine dilemma: Popping the cork versus pulling the plug

For any changes in the wine industry, there is no need to look further than California. They don’t just happen – they creep up on the consumer, oftentimes before we realize what’s happening.

For a number of years a change has been going on right in front of our nose – the doing away with the cork, a natural bottle closure replaced with a synthetic, look-alike cork.

Cost is the main attraction for the change, because of the rare occasions when wine may have a “corky” taste and discourage the consumer.

Wine is “corked” when it’s tainted with TCA, (trichloro anisole) which is chlorine, used to bleach cork bark. If it occurs in a cork, the wine is a goner.

The most troublesome part is there’s no way to tell of this defect until you uncork the bottle. And there’s nothing you can do with the wine except curse and pour it down the sink.

Knowledgeable wine drinkers expect a bad cork once in a while. As for myself, when I do encounter a corky wine, it is forgivable. I don’t blame the winemaker, but less-savvy wine drinkers may only recognize the wine as “bad.”

They probably won’t buy that brand of wine any more and might not even bother with wine again, and that would be a shame.

Other changes in the past have been attempted with wine concentrates and canned wine. Coming back faster than a bad dream are the screw-type bottle tops that conjure up images most old-time wine people would like to forget of cheap jug wine, the kind of stuff that built the E&J Gallo empire. Some may remember Thunderbird and Night Train!

I’m old-fashioned in the belief wine breathes a small amount through the cork, even if it has been proven otherwise years ago.

Because wine lives, ages and changes in the bottle, it lends itself to personalization. It is attributed a soul, a temperament and qualities of wit and wisdom which are the fluid refinement of a superior way of life that can be sampled by uncorking a bottle.

Recently one of those synthetic cork bottles came my way. My old reliable corkscrew couldn’t budge the damn thing.

My first thoughts were … “Old boy, make use of your civil engineering experience – if you can’t lift it, push it, pull it or blast it – use a jackhammer!”

No one should belittle the importance of wine service in a restaurant, and the person whose job it is to uncork wine bottles fairly often every day.

It’s hard not to be aware of the difficulty the wine waiter encounters when wrestling with the removal of a hard piece of plastic from the neck of the bottle. It doesn’t enhance the restaurant’s image one bit to observe this tug of war… the “pulling of the plug struggle,” in front of the dining public.

I’ve long been convinced that the all-around waiter’s corkscrew is the best. One that feels at home in your hand, with a “worm” (the screw in part) that is thin. The part that grips the lip of the bottle should be double-hinged for leverage when encountering longer corks.

The types with the needle that inserts into the cork and forces it out scare the hell out of me. The lever-pull models, although expensive, are not always good at extracting plastic corks. Because of that, I revert back to the old standby – the old faithful wine waiter’s corkscrew.

The most important thing standing between a magnificent bottle of wine and something less noble is the quality of a small round portion of bark from a cork tree. Corks, like grapes, are natural products.

The basic American belief in our wines is not because they are so good, but because our cork-finished wines are of the highest quality which set an image standard, the envy of the world.

This standard of excellence should never be scaled down one iota in favor of seeking higher profits through saved dollars and cents.

Any change from natural cork to synthetic could lead, in the future, to an awkward goodbye to the romance attached to the ritualistic removal and smelling of the cork.

And the first step is to complain … to all whom will listen … tell them to stop screwing around with the cork!

Norman E. Gates is a Lake of the Pines wine connoisseur. He can be reached at

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