Screwing around with caps

2007-10-12T00:00:00Z Screwing around with capsBy JACK HEEGER
Register Staff Writer
Napa Valley Register
October 12, 2007 12:00 am  • 

About seven years ago PlumpJack Winery made an announcement that raised eyebrows throughout the wine world — half of its 1997 reserve cabernet sauvignon reserve was bottled with a traditional cork closure, the other half with … screw caps.

Screw-capped wines had been around for a while, particularly white wines, and even a few reds, but those were the kind that were meant to be consumed quickly. But red wines that were expected to age? — the thinking then was “no way.”

PlumpJack’s reserve cab was the first premium red wine to be closed with a screw cap, and a few years later a second high-end red wine followed when Downing Family Vineyards bottled part of its 2000 Fly-By-Night zinfandel with the screw cap closure.

So, now with eight vintages under its cap (pardon the pun), what’s happening with the PlumpJack cab?

Winemaker Tony Biagi said the ’97 screw capped wine seems to be a little fresher and fruitier compared to that under cork, but added that it’s still too soon to tell.

“This was set up as a 10-year program, and in a couple years they (at UC Davis) will do a chemical analysis to see how both wines have aged.”

PlumpJack has given bottles of each vintage to scientists at UC Davis, and each year the scientists have analyzed the wines, but those analyses are not as sophisticated as the 10-year one will be, Biagi said.

Right now he doesn’t think there is much of a statistical difference, because “the best screw caps and the best corks are similar” as closures. But he said that all screw caps are the same, while corks can vary in the amount of air they allow into the wine.

John Downing, of Downing Family Vineyards, hasn’t conducted a scientific study on his wines, but has found that his zinfandel seems to be aging more slowly in screw cap and, like Biagi, finds the wine under screw cap is brighter and fresher.

“The first six months (after bottling) you can’t tell the difference,” he said. “In the second six months you can start to tell. It’s brighter, fresher, cleaner fruit. In a wine where you want to show the fruit, rather than complexity, like zin, it’s (screw cap) the right one.”

He held a customer forum where he poured both wines, and “80 to 90 percent preferred the screw cap. The brightness and freshness (is what) people find appealing.”

Alternate to cork

“Personally, I think it (screw cap) is a viable choice,” Biagi said. “The idea is to find an alternate closure to cork. It’s not fair that a piece of packaging material can destroy wine.”

PlumpJack made 500 cases of its 2004 reserve cabernet sauvignon, half with each type of closure, said John Conover, general manager. The idea of screw capped cabernet apparently has gained acceptance — “When we released the first one, our distributor in New York requested only cork. This year he requested only screw cap,” he said.

Customers have requested other wines with screw caps as well, he added. The PlumpJack reserve chardonnay is bottled 50-50 and the sauvignon blanc is 100 percent screw cap. Merlot and syrah are finished entirely with cork.

Downing made some of his 2000 and 2001 Fly by Night zinfandel with screw caps, and bottled about half his 2003 production with the closure. He said he might have done more with the earlier vintages, but there was no equipment available at the time “and we had to do all of them by hand.” But he didn’t bottle any with screw caps in 2004 because case production was low “and it didn’t make sense to do both that year,” he said.

Consumer acceptance

Patty Hsu, who works in the PlumpJack tasting room, said she finds that people are more open to the screw capped wines. “We explain to them the UC Davis study and explain the corked rate (PlumpJack estimates it as high as 5 percent) and people understand. (But) traditionalists still like the romance of the cork,” she said.

She related a story of a woman who opened a 1999 cabernet reserve and found it spoiled. “She was disappointed,” Hsu said. “Years later people will remember the good wine, not whether it was (topped) with a screw cap, but they’ll always remember a bad wine.”

Downing said customers initially fell into two categories — “Not a chance” and “This is terrific.”

“There was no middle ground,” he added. One major distributor didn’t want any screw-capped bottles the first year, but “their view has changed, and they have moderated to ‘don’t care.’”

A quarter of his mailing list requested cork only, a quarter wanted screw cap only, and half ordered both. “I guess you could say that three-quarters of my mailing list have at least one screw cap,” he laughed.

“The feeling four or five years ago was that (screw caps) were a big deal, … now people are getting used to them.”

“We’re sold on it (screw caps),” he said. “For zin, at least, it’s a better closure. I wouldn’t say the same for cab, because I have no experience with it.”

He did bottle two cases of his 2000 cabernet sauvignon with screw caps for his own use but acknowledged that it’s too early to tell anything about it. “I suspect that someday I’ll bottle both (zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon) with screw caps,” he said.

He won’t have any screw-capped Fly by Night zin for 2005, though. When he originally started bottling, the glass he used had to be specially made. “Now you can buy it (glass) off the shelf, but then we had to pay to have a mold made.” Those bottles had a 31.5 millimeter opening, so, to save costs, he had several year’s supply made.

“Then Australia and New Zealand went to 30 millimeters, and so the world standard became 30 millimeters,” he said. “That was a risk we took for being first.” Although he still has some bottles left, the equipment where his wine is bottled is designed for 30 millimeter bottles.

“We weren’t ready for the switchover (to the new bottles) for the 2005,” he said. “But for the next bottling we’re lining up the bottles and caps.”

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