by Laura Holmes
When Randall Grahm, founder and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards in California, staged a funeral for “The Death of the Cork” in New York City in 2002, screw cap closures were still a limited phenomenon in the U.S. market. But the closures are catching on with major wine producers, both large and small: R.H. Phillips, Hogue Cellars, Gallo, Whitehall Lane, Willakenzie, Silverado Winery, Icon Estates, Beringer, Don Sebastiani & Sons and Cuvaison are just a few of the American wineries making a commitment to screw caps.
According to a 1999 survey by The Economist, 80 percent of American households don’t have a corkscrew. And winemakers are taking note: R.H. Phillips switched to screw caps for its 300,000 cases of Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, and Chardonnay, and Bonny Doon uses screw caps on 98 percent of its wines, about 450,000 cases. Plumpjack Winery was the first American winery to release a high-end screw cap wine with their 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that retailed for $135, and the screw cap version continues to sell out every year.
Don Sebastiani Jr., marketing director of Don Sebastiani & Sons and producer of Three Loose Screws wines: Screw Kappa Napa, Fusée and Mia’s Playground, says, “The overwhelming consumer response to Screw Kappa Napa and the soaring demand for wines bottled in the twist-off closures prove that there is life after cork.”
Even the most reluctant winegrowing regions are trying out the closures: Burgundian negociant Jean-Claude Boisset is using screw caps for three of his 2003 red wines and they are even coming to Bordeaux. Producer André Lurton will bottle three of his Bordeaux Blanc whites from the 2003 vintage under screw cap Chateaus Couhins Lurton, La Louviere, and Bonnet.
Proponents of screw caps point to the obvious: between 3 and 7 percent of all wines are corked, and screw caps eliminate the risk of cork taint. It’s not a question of money for the wineries (bottling under screw cap can actually add to the production cost), but a question of quality. Don Sebastiani, CEO of Don Sebastiani & Sons, affirms, “We think that screw caps are the way to go from every aspect of brand marketing: wine quality, image, and ease of use."
As Jeff Meier, VP of winemaking for J. Lohr Winery in California, which bottles the 100,000 case Cypress brand in screw cap, agrees. “It’s absolutely about maintaining the flavor profile of the wine. It’s not about saving money.” Despite significant research by Hogue Cellars and the Australian Wine Research Institute, there is still debate about whether wines can age properly under screw cap, so most wineries are trying out the closure with younger wines.
Riccardo Mora, estate director for Veramonte, of the Icon Estates portfolio of wines, has no regrets about switching to screw caps. "Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc is the first wine released from Chile with a screw cap closure. We did not hesitate to invest in screw cap when we concluded that this was the absolute best way to protect the vibrant fruit intensity of our Sauvignon Blanc,” says Mora. “The product is perhaps the fastest growing SKU in the entire Chilean category, of any varietal type, and as we continue to enjoy +60% growth year upon year, consumers demonstrate that quality matters most and that negative perceptions of screw cap are just not founded.”
Types of Closures
As more wineries switch to screw caps, more types of closures are entering the market. The most popular type of closure is the Stelvin closure, made by Pechiney Cork & Seal, a French manufacturer, which is designed to allow a small amount of oxygen in the bottle. Pechiney worldwide sales reached 200 million caps in 2003. Even more exciting for the category, Michel Laroche, the famed French producer, started using Stelvin screw cap closures on his Grands Crus Chablis beginning with the 2002 vintage. And it’s no small commitment: Laroche invested in its own screwcap bottling line in both the Chablis and South of France wineries. Currently the U.S. is taking 100 percent of Domaine Laroche wines in screwcap.
R.H. Phillips adopted the SheathCap closure, made by APM/Global Cap, which is similar to those used in liquor bottles and shows no threads or ridges.
Do Closures Impact Quality?
But despite the advantages for the wine, most consumers associate screw caps with a low-quality product. Mixed opinions among consumers, retailers, and restaurateurs are making it difficult to see just how quickly the closure will take off in the American wine market.
Chuck Hayward, wine buyer for The Jug Shop in San Francisco, was one of the first U.S. retailers to carry screw cap wines and sees no resistance to the closures from his customers. “We gave our customers a choice of cork or screw cap with the 2000 Grosset Riesling, and 75 percent picked the screw cap,” he says. The resistance Hayward does see is on the import side. “Some importers won’t let the wineries that bottle with screw caps in their home markets do it for the U.S. market,” he says.
Keith Lofton, manager of The Wine Store in Atlanta, Georgia, has also seen positive reactions. “Customers have been very open to buying screw cap wines,” says Lofton. “For customers, it’s not a question of quality but a question of ageability. Overall, they’ve been accepted very positively.”
Many of the wines under screw cap retail for $20 and $40 but there seems to be little evidence of price resistance. “We carry many screw cap bottles that retail for $40 and no one complains that they’re screw caps,” says Lofton. Stephen Savina, a partner of Grape Vine Market in Austin, believes the closures are good for both the retailer and the customer. “Most of the screw caps we’re getting are in the $30 and under price range. We’re seeing a great response; our customers are very receptive,” he says. “Screw caps are eliminating a lot of anxiety for us because we know the customers are going home with a good bottle of wine without cork taint.”
For other retailers, however, the closures bring a new set of problems. “As far as gift-giving, a lot of people object to screw caps,” says Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry Lehmann Wine & Spirits in New York City, whose customers have a more negative view of screw caps. “We’re busy enough educating our customers about the thousands of new wines every year – we don’t need to add to that,” says Aaron. In Chicago, Sterling Pratt, wine director at Schaefer’s Wine Store in Chicago sees a similar trend in his gift sales. “When it’s a gift they don’t want screw caps. We see a lot of people who want to purchase wine as gifts and they say ‘I accept that screw cap wines are good but this other person won’t accept it.’ If it’s someone really important they don’t want a screw cap,” he says.
Another factor retailers have to contend with is that distributors don’t always tell them that the wine is a screw cap. “Sometimes they mention it and sometimes they don’t,” says Pratt. But that can create inventory problems. “It’s a problem with a store like ours, with 7,000 SKUS and a 67,000 square foot warehouse where we don’t actually see every bottle, and we discover the winery has switched to screw cap and we don’t know,” says Aaron. “We just started adding ‘SC’ to screw cap wines in our catalog to denote the screw cap and we noticed sales did drop off. And I just met with a supplier yesterday about our house red and we turned down 3,500 cases in screw caps.”
Josh Wesson, chairman of Best Cellars, an eight store wine retail chain, has seen nothing but enthusiastic customers. “We embraced screw caps when they first appeared in quality wines,” he says. “Ten percent of our inventory is screw cap and it would be more if more wineries adopted screw caps.” Wesson sees a small group of consumers standing in the way: “The only people reluctant to join this revolution are people who are collectors, traditionalists, or snobs,” says Wesson.
Wine buyers and restaurateurs are seeing mixed reactions from consumers.
“We’re in San Francisco so we tend to have savvy wine consumers, but we do get a lot of conventioners and they want ceremony, and for a nice $50 bottle they don’t want a screw cap. People like the ceremony,” says assistant sommelier Walter Muldrow at Bacar Restaurant in San Francisco. For Juliette Pope, beverage director of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, screw caps are a non-issue. “We’ve had absolutely no reaction to screw caps whatsoever,” says Pope, who currently offers Australian and New Zealand screw cap selections. “If classic producers went to screw cap that would be a whole other story. For me it’s not an issue at all when buying wine for the restaurant,” she says.
Educating customers and staff about why the wineries have turned to screw caps has worked for Jenny Holcomb, general manager at London Grill in Philadelphia, who offers three screw cap wines on her list. “It’s taken us being the front-line PR people in helping wineries educate consumers about screw caps,” says Holcomb. But the efforts seem to be working. “Initially I was always prepared for comments about screw caps but now fewer people are asking about it before they order,” she says. Holcomb also senses that the screw caps are changing consumers’ feelings about wine overall. “For the most part I think some of our customers may be more comfortable ordering screw cap wines because it takes away the pretension that some people feel comes with wine. The more approachable and fun you make the wine the more people want to drink it,” Holcomb notes. And most sommeliers are simply happy to know that the wine they open won’t be corked. “Anything that prevents the wine experience from going bad, I’m all for it,” says Muldrow.
Restaurateurs often point to the unorthodox presentation of opening a screw cap wine at the table. Kurt Hoff, manager at Neruda Restaurant in Edwardsville, Illinois, offers one screw cap on his wine list. “We just served one last week, and it was a little weird with wine etiquette; it deformalizes the presentation,” says Hoff.
And again, price isn’t the deciding factor for many restaurant customers. “There isn’t any price resistance. Off and on I carry the Bonny Doon “Old Telegram,” which we sell for $70, and I’ve never had a problem selling it,” says Holcomb.
While screw caps won’t be replacing cork in most American wines anytime soon, they are no longer just a quirky trend enthused by a few pioneers. As frustration with corked wine grows, retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers seem poised to unscrew rather than uncork their favorite bottle.
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