Lonely cluster

Lonely cluster

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wine drinkers are really getting screwed.


When it comes to marketing wines, producers need to consider which details are important to the ultimate consumer.  While I often poke fun at the “prettiest label” phenomenon, it is clearly an effective motivator.  

Surely, if the bottle’s label is appealing to the eyes, its contents should also be pleasing to the palate.  Several years ago I spoke with a young woman who beamed proudly about having just completed a wine appreciation course.  Her final exam was to buy any wine of her choice and then make a written assessment of its qualities and attributes.  I was curious as to how she selected the wine—what criteria she used to make her purchase.  Her favorite varietal?   Well-known producer?  Affordable price?  Her response:  “I picked the prettiest label.”  She was serious.

Also, the debate still inches along on how “wine bottle closures” affect the consumer’s perception of a wine’s quality.  I’m speaking of corks (real or imitation) versus metal screw top caps.  (Stelvin caps or Stelvin closures seem to have become the generic term for metal screw caps.) Recent market research reveals, what everyone has known or at least suspected.  That is, if a wine has a screw top cap, then consumers perceive its quality as not any better than those inexpensive, supermarket, faux-appellation jug wines of yesteryear that were topped with metal screw caps.  As such, wines with cork stoppers are still perceived as being higher in quality, even though when opened and poured, some can turn out to be outright crappy. 

However, I do believe that the worm is turning.  (That pun is for corkscrew-knowledgeable types.)  Based on my unscientific, visual sampling of the shelves at the local Safeway supermarket, I can report the following:  Over 90 % of red varietals wines had cork stoppers.  (Cabs, Zins, Merlots, Pinots, etc) For whites, corks were the stopper of choice for Chardonnays (over 90 %), while the ugly duckling Sauvignon Blanc and other oak-free whites, the statistics were nearly reversed.  Screw caps topped at least three quarters of them. 

But the real surprise, of the twenty or so 1½ liter magnum, super-value wines in the $10 to $15 range, all had cork stoppers.  (As you likely know, this movement to metal screw caps and variations thereon was, in part, triggered by the many wines terminally tainted by TCA, that unpronounceable chemical that emanates, for the most part, from tainted corks.) 

Wine drinkers, of course, have been getting screwed for years.  Many Australian and New Zealand wineries moved to screw caps over a decade ago, as have many other New World wineries.  In 2004 it was estimated that barely five percent of North American wineries used screw caps “on at least some bottles,” whereas currently that number has surged to 38%.  Corbett Canyon, a three million case producer, switched totally to screw caps over many years ago, as have Pepe, Bonny Doon and Hogue wineries.  I recently encountered an artisan, high-end Pinot Noir producer who only uses Stelvin. 

I must admit that I rather enjoy pulling corks and hearing that “pop” which preludes forthcoming pleasures.  However, having said that, I have also purchased many wines, both New and Old World, which were topped with Stelvins, and they were flavorsome and well structured.  Also, there was no issue of struggling to re-cork an unfinished bottle.  (My wife finds that aspect particularly appealing.)

To be sure, as one testy, retail wine clerk recently shouted, “Who cares if it has a cork or not, as long as the wine tastes good!”  That, of course, is the real question.  If it is to be consumed in the near term—say no later than five years—then Stelvins can surely deliver attractive aromas and flavors.  And since over 90% of wines are consumed within that time frame, some writers are urging consumers to “Screw the cork, choose the cap!” 

However, those who age their wines are unsure about longer terms under Stelvin capsules. With that in mind, high quality wineries, here and abroad, have been conducting their own long term aroma and flavor tests on Stelvins versus corks. (The jury is still out.) 

However, barring sensational and unexpected findings, I don’t anticipate Stelvins making significant inroads into time-tested, world class appellations.  With a few centuries of tradition on their side, and cork manufacturers continuing to improve their product, that trusty, waiter’s corkscrew will not become an ancient relic just yet.