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New trends in the industry seek alternative methods of packaging and sealing fine wines.

Un-Corked!

You've planned a very special night. The reservations are made. The evening attire is ready to slip into. The preparations complete, you arrive at the desired restaurant and take your seats at your favorite table, primed for an enchanted evening. Your sommelier comes over, greets you and submits the wine list.

You select a very special bottle, and your sommelier begins to open your selection. 'A great choice,' he (or she) says admiringly. The ritual of uncorking the prized bottle begins. The anticipation builds. The job done, you receive the cork.

'Eww, never mind!' you mutter. The dreaded cork taint, commonly known as TCA, has struck again! Another lovely bottle ruined by the cursed chemical interplay between mold living inside the cork and bleach used in the bottle-cleaning process.

Varying estimates indicate that between 10 and 15 percent of all wines worldwide sealed with the traditional cork are affected by the soggy cardboard stench identified as cork taint, or just called 'corked.' With the increased production in today's wine market and fewer top-quality corks available, the demand for corks (actually made from the bark of cork trees) is at an all-time high. But other methods of packaging and sealing are gaining ground, many of which have been used in Europe, Australia and other countries for years.

Enter the screw cap -- not the usual screw top like one would find on a bottle of salad dressing, but a modern, scientifically engineered metallic closure with a neutral mylar liner to protect the quality of the wine. Other cork alternatives include synthetic corks, canned and boxed wines, and other techniques to seal in the freshness, maintain the purity of the product and, above all, alleviate the contamination that causes cork taint.

Although synthetic corks have been used to some extent, they get poor grades as effective long-term wine seals and some consumers report an unpleasant 'plastic taint.' This year, a four-year scientific study -- the first in the industry -- was completed at Washington's Hogue Cellars in Columbia Valley to analyze how well the different closures performed. The testing involved five different closures, including natural cork, synthetic Neocork, synthetic Supreme Corq and two Stelvin screw caps, one with an Etain liner and the other a Saranex liner.

The results were conclusive. For both red and white wines, the screw caps won hands down. The metal closures retained the fruit character and maintained the freshness in a fashion far superior to the natural and synthetic corks. After interval testing and analysis throughout the test period, a panel of winemakers and trade professionals found that the wines with natural corks exhibited low to medium levels of cork taint. Although the synthetic corks showed no corkiness, over time oxidation characteristics became apparent, leading to lower levels of fruit aromas and flavors as well as browning.

The testing panel also found that the screw-capped bottles not only maintained freshness and quality for both red and white wines, but yielded wines with consistent and appropriate aging. What was really amazing in the Hogue study was that a whopping 17 percent of all wines with traditional closures were corked.

Even before the Hogue study was completed, Napa's trendy and prestigious PlumpJack Winery began an 'un-corked' revolution, putting screw caps on the map as well as on the bottle with the 2000 release of its highly valued 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Released in a two-bottle set at $100-plus for each bottle, one was sealed with a traditional cork and the other with a Spelvin screw cap. Although pricey, the limited quantity offered (400 cases) sold out in a heartbeat. The PlumpJack phenomenon no doubt paved the way for many wine enthusiasts who previously might have outright rejected the notion of screw caps. A premium winery with the esteem and following of PlumpJack must know what they're doing, right?

'It was a risky move at the time,' says Ryan Keith, a PlumpJack Winery representative. 'As an industry leader we were looking to break down barriers. We knew people would want the best wine and would respect, however tentatively, our dramatic change in closures, at least for half of the bottling. It was a brave move forward, and at the time, no one else at that level was doing it.

'We recommended buyers open both bottles at the same time and see if they could determine a difference in quality,' he says. 'We knew they would find enjoyment in the screw-top bottle.' The PlumpJack screw top may have seemed a little gimmicky to some at the time, but it made for great table-talk and the wine world took notice.

Keith says that most people don't know how to recognize 'corked' wine and that he has seen winery reps pouring corked wine and people drinking it like there was nothing wrong with it. 'It positively amazes me that some people don't pick up on it immediately,' he says.

Customers' initial reaction, before the PlumpJack bombshell, was that only cheap or jug wine came with screw caps. Less expensive does not always equal 'cheap,' however. Many fine Australian and New Zealand wine producers are leading the way with screw-top closures on many quality wines. Some wineries are even offering 10-year guarantees on wines with the seals.

Restaurants, especially high-end establishments, are quite frankly not amused. Part of the dining-out magic, and the service which arguably justifies wine's mark-up, will be lost. While many serious collectors are still pointing their upturned noses away from the new closures, just imagine their reactions to the new wine-in-a-box, or canned wine, for that matter.

California's Black Box wines, as well as similar products, actually contain a bladder-like bag in a cardboard box with a dispenser. The bag collapses inside the box as it is emptied, preventing air from intruding and causing oxidation. Vintage-dated and varietal- and AVA-specific, most boxes contain 3 liters, the equivalent of four 750-mm bottles. Considered premium wines, the wines are a definite upgrade from the stuff on the market years ago that most thought of as swill.

Other producers are jumping on the bandwagon as the advantages to the consumer become more obvious. Besides the fact that they're less expensive, the wines will keep four to six weeks in the refrigerator even after opening. They're portable and lighter in weight, and there's no need for corkscrews and no possible chance of cork taint. In fact, the new box wines represent one of the fastest growing segments of the wine market.

And if that's not revolutionary enough, try wine in a can. Napa's Neibaum-Coppola is producing the Sofia Mini, Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine that comes in a bright pink can and is named after Francis Ford Coppola's daughter. Like France's Pommery Pop and Piper-Heidsieck's Baby Piper (which are encased in glass bottles), the 187-millimeter portions are an individual, portable serving, complete with a straw, and geared to the young nightclub set.

Other new and exciting wine packaging includes glass wine stoppers used by an Italian wine producer. Designed by the German firm, Alcoa, the stoppers call for a modified, larger bottle neck. The new glass closures use silicone to provide an airtight fit and re topped by an aluminum cap.

The latest wine world news, in addition to the U.S. Supreme Court passage of direct shipping, is a French biochemist's invention of a kit that promises to remove cork taint from a contaminated bottle.

Called Dream Taste, the kit should sell for about $55 (refills available in the $6 range) in the United States, where it is hoped to reach wine store shelves in a month or less. The process involves decanting the wine and placing a grape-shaped copolymer into the liquid to absorb the TCA molecules in the wine. Independent tests have shown the technique works equally well on red and white wines and Champagne. Wine connoisseurs can hardly wait.

But they'll have to. Imagine sitting around a restaurant or a dinner with friends for the one-to-two hours suggested to 'clear' the cork taint from your Chateau Margaux. Talk about taking the romance out of wine Š but maybe for a Chateau Margaux, or that bottle of Krug you've been saving, the wait and the cost will be worth it.

Although long-term testing of screw caps has not been completed, screw tops are here to stay. Wine industry statisticians estimate that at least 94 percent of all store-purchased wine should be consumed within three to four years of its purchase, and 85 percent of wine purchased is being consumed within 24 hours.

Hogue is bottling its entire line in the closures. In addition to PlumpJack, other California wineries using screw caps include Murphy Goode, R.H. Phillips, Bonny Doon, Sebastiani and Pepi. The first three Bordeaux producers -- Chateau La Louviere, Chateau Couhins-Lurton and Chateau Bonnet -- are releasing their 2004 Bordeaux Blanc wines with screw caps. In other parts of France, screw caps are already in use. All that said and done, wine lovers continue to be enraptured with the 300-year history and the sensual uncorking ritual of a great bottle, the anticipation as the traditional corkscrew enters the cork and is turned slowly, going deeper and deeper, complete with sound effects, including the gasp of air as the cork is pulled out. In vino veritas -- but keep those back-up bottles handy.

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