Much too much has been written about wine bottle closures. Well, who am I to fight such a trend. So, here are my two cents.

Personally, a wine bottle could be stopped by a rag (preferably a clean one) and I'd be fine with it. As long as it didn't leak, that is. So, I think my two cents on this subject actually might have some perspective; I'm simply not vested in the way bottles are topped. (As an aside, I was twice offered trips to Portugal to visit a cork-making facility. Twice I demurred. I love Portugal, the wines, food, people, scenery, etc., so it should give you some sense of how little vested in the closure wars I am.)

Surprisingly, many people, including lots not tied to the bottle-closure industry, care about what's on top of that bottle. The reasons vary. Some think of it as an eco issue: Corks are natural products, screwcaps are not.  Growing wine demand is putting cork trees under pressure, etc.

Others think it's a matter of style: How can a sommelier elegantly present a screwcap, after all? Still others are certain that screwcapped wines can't possibly age as well as cork-closed wines, therefore only cheap wine belongs in bottles thusly stopped.

Most consumers make the assumption that screwcaps belong on cheap wine or beer (in the guise of a bottle cap).There may be others, but these are probably the main ones. And of them, thankfully, I only have an opinion about the last one. What is most interesting about the question of whether only super-cheap wine should be closed with screwcaps isn't so much whether that's true or not, but whether American consumers can handle the truth about the answer.

Let’s face it, Americans really have developed quite a thirst for wine in the last 20 years or so. But with that hankering comes the fear of being handed the wine list, a fear that seems to be part of our collective unconscious. In fairness to us, we don’t have the long history of wine on our tables that drinkers raised in the Old World do. There, wine is considered food, rather than an inebriant.

Domaine Chapelle's Jean-François Chapelle opens his wines the traditional way. Screwcaps eliminate the need for elbow grease.It’s true that European consumption per capita is in the midst of a long decline, and that ours is going the opposite direction. But despite – or perhaps because of – the huge number of wine magazines, books, websites, “experts” conducting how-to seminars, etc., most consumers couldn’t tell the difference between a pinot noir and a pinot grigio. OK, that’s not quite true (hint just in case: one’s a red, the other’s not), but think about how otherwise fully functioning people are willing to rely on the advice of strangers when it comes to something they’re literally putting in their mouths.

I’m not even suggesting that people should know a lot about wine. I need to because I buy it and re-sell it to stores and restaurants. But most of you needn’t and shouldn’t be bothered. Not that there’s anything wrong with boning up so the next time you’re faced with hundreds of choices on a bunch of shelves, you can do more than pick a bottle according to label design or whether the wine name has one of the seven dirty words in it.

Back to the question of whether only bottom-shelf stuff belongs under screwcap. Did you know that the Aussies routinely close $100+ bottles in screwcaps? How could you, when most of those producers keep that stuff in Oz, choosing instead to send us “proper” cork-closed bottles? That’s changing – Wolf Blass was one of the first important producers to say enough already, when it began sending the big and bold (and expensive) Platinum and Black labels to us in screwcap a few years ago.

Domaine Pouillon, located in Washington's Columbia River Gorge, uses screwcaps to close all its wines, an unusual move for a producer outside of Oceania.If screwcaps are good enough for WB (part of the mega-wine company Fosters; or did the name change again? I can’t – and won’t – keep track), then they should be good enough for you. While the jury may still be out on the long-term affect of screwcap versus cork in the aging process of a wine, the vast majority of bottles bought are going to be consumed that day anyway. And of the ones that won’t be, few are going to be left unopened for very long afterward.

Our screwcap aversion (I know there are more and more consumers who are not adverse any longer, but I’d bet the house that they are still in the minority of those who have a preference one way or the other) will continue for at least another generation.

I know I’m right, because the only way screwcap haters will stop the insanity is by losing their latent wine insecurity. And the only way wine list and retail shelf insecurity can be overcome is, as is the case in every field of insecurity, through education (or meds). So, some will twist open enough screwcapped bottles at various price points and realize that there is no noticeable difference (in fact, Chris Hatcher, a winemaker I respect a great deal, argues that whites will always be fresher, and therefore better, under screwcap) between their cork-stopped cousins. But most screwcap phobics will just continue on, oblivious to the truth.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it doesn’t taste as good.


What I Learned About Wine By Blowing My Nose

Today's as a good a day as any to get this thing going. To my credit, however, I'm not doing so because I made a vow; although I guess by not making one, I in a sense did, and at the same time have already broken that "resolution." That's a hard thing to wrap one's mind around on the day after the Night of the Bubbles.

In any event, here we go. Last September, when I was in the middle of a seemingly endless bout with head-clogging nasal muck, it became apparent to me that I could clear much more of that stuff out of my nose by blowing into a tissue (or onto the path adjacent to the Hudson River where I run) with my head in its regular position rather than angled downward.

Most of us probably tilt down before we clear because we think it allows us to push harder. That may be true. Or maybe it's not; doesn't really matter. At some point it occurred to me that this radical change in my nose-blowing MO must have other equally useful applications in my life.

Because I've been in the wine business for about ten years, perhaps I should have known that if you can get more out of your nose with your head up, it stands to reason that you can get more IN your nose with your head up. I tried sniffing in my usual head-down manner and then compared it to my head-up hypothesis. Eureka! It was very clear to me that keeping your head down makes sense in some contexts -- combat, sneaking in late, etc. -- but not when you're trying to get a sense of what that glass of wine has to offer.

It must be that when your head is down, you are somehow constricting your nasal passages or some other part of your respiratory plumbing. When your head is up, you aren't. I'm no ENT, I don't know any ENTs (though my sister dated one once) and I have never been willing to contact one to confirm or disprove my theory, but this makes sense to me.

It's not my fault that this didn't occur to me until I had already swirled, sniffed and sometimes drunk literally thousands upon thousands of wines. I blame the so-called experts. Aside from the fact that our society seems very content foisting blame upon others -- so I'm at least not much different than the rest of you -- it's really not my fault that it's only because of a season-long nasal drip-fest that I'm NOW a good taster.

Like many of you wine drinkers, whether you're of the out-of-control-need-to-know-everything-and-then-some variety, or just someone who likes a tipple on a regular basis, I took advice from the established pantheon of wine writer experts, most of whom were British, when I started my transition from sucking down cans of Old Milwaukee and bottles of Ballantine (when I could find it) while wearing a baseball hat backward to giving the wine thing a try. (I still wear hats -- my five-year-old son got me back into the swing of that affectation -- but just as my beer taste has evolved upward -- Belgians are my tippy top now -- I have turned my hats around and improved my appearance.)

Those heavy how-to tomes instructed us to do many things prior to allowing even a drop of that nectar of the gods to touch our thirsty tongues. One of them was to get our noses into that glass and take a deepish sniff. Not too fast, we were warned, or we'd miss what went flying past our receptors straight into our lungs. But really get your nose in there. And to do that, it just seemed natural to bend at the neck.

It certainly works to do it thusly, but it doesn't work as well as it might. It's like many "rules" we are taught in all sorts of areas of life. The more they are regurgitated by teacher to student and from upperclassman to freshman, the more ingrained they become in our collective unconscious. (As an aside, two upperclassmen wine buddies I relied on a great deal for free, well-kept, well-chosen wine "taught" me to mispronounce scores of French place names, and this despite the fact that unlike both of them, I had actually taken years of French in high school and college.)

It never ceases to amaze me how little confidence people have in their own noses. It may be true, as research has strongly suggested, that some people are simply better at pegging smells to things. These "super tasters" are able to take what is little more than amorphous winey smells and equate them to discernable aromas. This doesn't mean that they're "right," just that they have an opinion about what's in their mouths, which is something, at the very least, we all should have given how intimate it is to have anything in one's mouth.

Those of us in the business like to sound very egalitarian. We repeat over and over that there are no wrong opinions, that if I say raspberry, and you say cherry, we're both "right." And it's true. But at the same time, we experts also revel in our ability to capture the "real" essence of what a wine smells and tastes like. And the truth is that it's impossible to do so. There are so many variables involved in tasting anything (even putting aside bottle variation, something that no one in the business likes to talk about much because it undercuts our authority, or worse, makes us totally irrelevant) that other than getting some sense of a wine's weight, texture and mouth-feel, there's not much to be gained rendering, much less relying on, tasting notes.

This doesn't make my initial point about keeping your head up when you sniff equally pointless. Rather, it makes it THE point. By smelling in a more physiologically sensible way, whatever you end up conjuring in that glass is actually more honest. We may never smell the same thing in that first whiff of a racy Vouvray, and we don't need to.

Ditch the tasting notes. Put your head up. Clear out your nasal passages. And really smell that wine. You're the only person who knows what it offers you.

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