Screw caps gain acceptance, and even keep some wines fresher — but service can suffer

It’s been nearly a decade since the arrival of screw caps on “better” wine. Back then, the concept created a fair amount of Sturm und Drang.

Would the romance of pulling a cork die? Would consumers accept screw caps? After all, the only wines under screw caps a decade ago were cheap flasks of Night Train and other favorites of the gentlemen-of-the-grape.

It seems that about a third of wines today come with a screw cap; two-thirds use corks made from plastic, composite, or old-fashioned, tree-bark cork.

Many wineries report that white wines seem to stay fresher longer with screw caps, but when it comes to certain reds, corks do better. I think that pinot noir holds very well under screw caps. Several middle-aged New Zealand reds come across as remarkably vibrant and fresh, even after a few years down the road, as did a Two Lads Pinot Noir from Michigan I tasted this summer.

Most wineries that swore by corks a decade ago still use them. More expensive red wines have kept using corks, while makers of younger, vibrant reds love screw caps.

One place that the screw cap won instant converts was in restaurants. It’s quick and easy, requires no wine key, and certainly no skill in using one.

The fallout, however, seems to be that some young servers look at a corkscrew the way they look at a typewriter: What do I do with it? At a local restaurant recently, a server struggled with a foldable wine key, unable to get the screw part to pierce the cork. She confessed to never having been asked to open a corked bottle, although she had seen it done. One of the people at our table obliged.

A second influence of the screw cap has been positive, expanding our understanding of cork taint by both consumers and professionals.

Cork-tainted wine — or TCA (short for trichloroanisole) — is the musty, moldy cardboard smell that randomly occurs in certain bottles. It had long been blamed on decomposing corks and happens in between roughly 1 to 3 percent of wines. So when screw caps came along, some wines without corks were still “corked.” How could this be?

The fact is, TCA doesn’t just come from corks. It’s more openly referred to now as “environmental” TCA, as opposed to “bottle” or “cork” TCA. It’s pretty insidious because it can grow in tanks, wood barrels, and plastic and metal fittings.

Ask a winemaker about headaches, and at the top of the list will likely be having to scrub down an entire winery for TCA — from the front door to the delivery trucks.

The next time you unscrew a wine bottle and your nose tells you it’s “corked,” you might not be imagining it at all.


Here are three super Michigan wines, two of which have screw caps:

2011 Two Lads Pinot Noir, Old Mission Peninsula ($26) (Screw cap) Fresh, vibrant floral, cherry, and raspberry notes on the nose and palate. Great structure and balance. A gem.

2012 Lot 49 Riesling, Old Mission Peninsula ($21) (Cork) Vibrant fruit, basically dry, delicious, and pure. Exemplifies why Michigan is renowned for rieslings.

2011 Bluestone Rose of Pinot Noir, Lake Leelanau ($12) (Screw cap) Brisk, fresh strawberry and watermelon characteristics. Simple and clean.