Aren't screwcaps mahvellous...?

9 Feb 2011 by Guest contributor

10 Feb - And now Paul White sends a long riposte to Bob Campbell's yesterday.  I am adding them both in separate comments boxes below, continuing stoppers' inflammatory tradition.

9 Feb - We are republishing this to draw to your attention all the comments it has engendered. I heard from New Zealand's best-known wine writer Bob Campbell MW this morning.  I have added his words in a comment box below.

4 Feb
- The tendentious statement below was published here in rather unusual circumstances. As I explained in our Members' forum here, I was about to spend an entire day in a plane after 12 days on the road so had no time to add anything of my own, and I thought this offered a pretty interesting overview of screwcap-related issues as seen at present. I thought the headline and introduction might signal the fact that not all of these views are my own, but clearly should have spelt it out more clearly - JR

The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Iniatitive, the world's first national pro-screwcap movement, is celebrating its tenth anniversary with the following announcement. I can feel the vibrations from Portugal already…. JR

As we peruse today's crowded wine shelves, it is difficult to ignore the proliferation of screwcaps. With over 90% of New Zealand wine now sealed this way, the eradication of cork and other closures in the local wine industry is on the horizon. The impetus for change arose from the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative established in early 2001.

New Zealand isn't alone, with global interest in screwcaps also expanding rapidly in the last ten years with wine producers, wine trade and wine consumers unable to disregard the compelling research confirming them as the superior wine closure. Of the seven billion wine bottles sealed worldwide each year, it is suggested the number using screwcaps has grown from an estimated 100 million ten years ago to almost three billion this year. While traditionalists may still be reluctant to embrace them, there is now plenty of scientific evidence that indicates money spent on wine sealed with anything but a screwcap is a game of risk.

The winds of change began in Australia in 2000 when a group of Clare Valley winemakers, exasperated with the inconsistency of cork and how it was affecting their outstanding Rieslings, decided to make the significant move to screwcaps. This was particularly challenging as there was no supplier in Australia for the caps or the right bottles so the group had to commit to 250,000 from Pechiney in France.

Inspired by this bold decision, producers in Marlborough, New Zealand, namely Dave Pearce of Grove Mill and Dr John Forrest and Dave Knappstein of Forrest Estate, undertook scientific research, the results of which confirmed screwcaps as the only viable alternative and in fact far superior to cork, for sealing wine bottles. The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative was formed. The first meeting called by the late Ross Lawson of Lawson's Dry Hills, brought together Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate, John Stichbury of Jackson Estate and John Belsham of Foxes Island. The group co-opted the late Dave Williams as their facilitator and Rose Prendeville as secretary, followed by Michael Brajkovich MW of Kumeu River as Chair.

At the same time, a study on wine closures by scientists from the Australian Wine Research Institute also proved screwcaps to be the superior wine seal and that cork was inconsistent as regards oxygen ingress. In addition, it was found synthetic closures had the highest permeability and were only suitable for wines destined to be drunk almost immediately. Peter Godden, AWRI's Group Manager said, 'The biggest issue for any form of cork closure is variability - the wines sealed with screwcaps were extremely consistent bottle to bottle and no other closure achieved results even similar.' He concluded, 'Most of the wines sealed with closures other than screwcap were completely undrinkable; some synthetic corks didn't even last 28 months'.

With such a strong, scientific base to work from, the newly formed New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative established a number of objectives:

  • To encourage and facilitate the use of screwcap wine seals by New Zealand wineries
  • To undertake research into screwcap wine seals, for the benefit of the group's member wineries
  • To enable members to individually use and develop screwcap wine seals using the research developed by the group
  • To provide a forum for facilitating the exchange of ideas, opinions and contributions regarding screwcap wine seals
  • To identify and develop project methodologies and best practice in the use, promotion and education of screwcap wine seals

One of the committee's first decisions was to introduce a generic name for this type of closure i.e. 'screwcap' to prevent any potential confusion through the use of individual brand names.

It was at this time that one of the country's largest wine producers, Villa Maria, moved to screwcaps following the lead of a number of smaller producers including Forrest Estate, Lawsons Dry Hills, Jackson Estate, Kim Crawford and Kumeu River all of whom switched to screwcaps to ensure the quality of their wines for the consumer. As Michael Brajkovich explains, 'At Kumeu River we were considering doing a proportion in screwcap and still having cork available for customers who wanted it. But then my brother Paul asked me if I was confident that the screwcap was significantly better. I said yes, and based on extensive tastings of aged Rieslings from Australia, I had no doubt that our wines would benefit over the long term as well. As a result, we decided to put everything under screwcap and communicate with our customers that we were doing it because we knew that the wines would be better - and that has certainly proven to be the case.'

Funded by the original 25 members, the first significant promotion of screwcap closures was undertaken in 2002 at the London Wine Trade Fair. As John Belsham of Foxes Island explains, 'We ran a very simple trial of putting corks into glasses of acidified water. There was a varying degree of colour and flavour taint in all of them, except one - the glass containing no cork.' This simple yet very graphic experiment clearly demonstrated cork's unsuitability as a consistent and neutral wine closure.

Tyson Stelzer - an Australian wine writer and author of two books on screwcaps and their correct application, claims, 'The rate of uptake of screwcaps in recent years has greatly exceeded that of any other development in wine closure technology in any period of wine history. No other country has embraced this development as comprehensively as New Zealand. With Australia, these two countries have been the world leaders in what can only be described as the most important advancement in wine quality and consistency in the modern era'.

Randall Grahm, winemaker and founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard, California, was also impressed with New Zealand's lead. 'The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative has, for some of us, been a sign of intelligent life in lands so very far away. The primary job of the winemaker is to preserve the integrity of the wine and to allow the wine to achieve its greatest potential. For me, screwcaps are the very best technology currently in existence to advance this end'.

One of the main challenges faced with promoting the acceptance of screwcaps was the contentious issue of maturation in bottle. The idea that wine needs to 'breathe' in order to mature (and that cork allows a certain amount of oxygen to pass though to facilitate this) was dispelled by Professor Emile Peynaud, a French oenologist and researcher credited with revolutionising winemaking in the latter half of the 20th century. He explained, 'It is the opposite of oxidation, a process of reduction, or asphyxia by which wine develops in the bottle.' This was echoed by Professor Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, author of the 'Handbook of Enology', 'Reactions that take place in bottled wine do not require oxygen'.

Jeffrey Grosset of Grosset Wines, one of the Clare Valley winemakers who made the commitment to screwcaps early on, is concerned that there is still a question mark over using screwcaps for some red wines. 'Screwcaps have made it possible for us to enjoy great wine (rather than just great bottles). This is unprecedented in our history. For many consumers, confusion remains about the real role of a closure, in particular the relevance (if any) of oxygen in the ageing of bottled wine.' John Forrest clarifies, 'Various tastings of red wines ten years and older sealed with screwcaps have proved them to be ageing gracefully and exactly as expected. These results should allay any fears of using screwcap closures for wines destined for the cellar.'

James Halliday, one of Australia's leading wine commentators, concurs. 'Looking back over the last decade of the NZSCWSI (and the similarly timed all-important move to screwcaps by the Riesling makers of the Clare Valley) my only regret is that the migration to screwcaps did not occur ten years earlier. Many of the wines in my cellar would be in far better condition had this occurred then'.

Another hurdle was the perception that screwcaps were exacerbating sulphide issues though as Michael Brajkovich explains, 'Sulphide problems did not suddenly appear with the use of screwcaps, but have occurred for years in winemaking. Any closure that seals well and precludes air will exacerbate sulphide-like odours where the precursors exist.'

A significant milestone was the International Screwcap Symposium hosted by the NZSCWSI in Marlborough in 2004. 180 delegates attended from a number of countries to listen to a raft of renowned speakers including pioneer Jeff Grosset from Australia and Chuck Hayward, specialist wine retailer from the USA, George Fistonich of Villa Maria, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche, France, plus wine writers Bob Campbell MW, the UK's Robert Joseph, Ronn Wiegand MW, MS, from the USA and Tyson Stelzer and Marketing Consultant Zar Brooks from Australia. Michael Brajkovich and Peter Godden of the AWRI presented their extensive research while a number of technicians including Jacques Granger of Pechiney presented on operational aspects.

Inspired by the NZSCWSI and further convinced by the symposium, the vast majority of New Zealand winemakers made the commitment to screwcaps. One of France's leading producers, Michel Laroche, also moved away from cork, bottling his Chablis under screwcap. Michel explains, 'I just regret that I didn't start earlier! Over the last ten years I do not remember one of the tastings when the wine with a cork was better than the wine with a screwcap'. This was a bold and pioneering move that sparked much debate among the more traditional wine-producing countries of Europe. However, other renowned French producers are following Laroche's lead with Jean-Claude Boisset releasing wines under screwcap and even Château Margaux conducting trials. Alsace's Albert Mann, Paul Blanck and Gustave Lorentz also recognise the benefits and are now using screwcaps.

With the industry now convinced, the major challenge ahead was convincing the market. Many key wine influencers, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, took up the cause and much was written in an effort to explain to trade and consumers how wines sealed with a screwcap were risk-free. One of the UK's strongest proponents was leading wine writer Robert Joseph, who comments, 'Among the more memorable moments of the last decade for me, was blind tasting wines under both cork and Stelvin [screwcap] at Kumeu River and Felton Road in the early days. Those experiences - along with some of the old Australian screwcap-sealed wines I tasted, convinced me that there was a valid alternative to corks. The blind tasting I ran for Wine International Magazine in 2003 at Vinexpo in Bordeaux at which we sampled wines of various ages and origins under corks, screwcaps and other closures, simply confirmed it - and I believe helped to nudge a few people into experimenting with other closures. The dishonesty of the cork lobby over the years has been breathtaking on occasion, but honesty is now prevailing across the globe...'

Matthew Jukes, author and wine writer for the UK's Daily Mail is confident that acceptance is now a given. 'People no longer, thankfully, have that quizzical look on their face when presented with a screwcap-sealed bottle of wine. Even my parents' generation has embraced them and they thought that we'd all gone mad.' He continues, 'Nobody blinks these days in restaurants, even smart ones, when a sommelier unscrews a bottle - and the sommelier is delighted too, because he knows that he won't have to run back to the cellar to get another because the first one's corked!'

Bob Campbell MW, New Zealand's leading wine writer and wine critic, also acknowledges the way in which screwcaps were accepted as well as those producers who were not so enthusiastic. 'The first thing that comes to mind is the incredibly rapid acceptance of what is a radically new closure on a very traditional product. The winemakers who were first to embrace screwcaps were very bold indeed and deserve credit for putting the quality of their wine ahead of potential market reluctance'. He continues, 'However, an issue that rather saddened me was the divisiveness that the new closure created between those who were quick to accept it and those who were not. I recall the unpleasant experience of being shouted at and poked in the chest by a winemaker who thought that my support of screwcaps would imperil the industry. I've also been criticised by one or two wine writers who were opposed to the use of screwcaps. At the end of the day screwcaps have given winemakers more closure options which must be a good thing. The closure revolution promises to make a greater contribution to wine quality than any innovation since bottles and corks were first used'.

However, Chuck Hayward, Australian and New Zealand Wine Buyer for US wine retailer JJ Buckley, is concerned that the uptake of screwcaps in the US is not quick enough. 'Until wine drinkers understand that the move to screwcaps is really an effort to improve and secure the quality of wine in the bottle, the wine industry in the US will not be motivated to change. Only when consumers fully comprehend that the wine business in America has been knowingly selling tainted wines at acknowledged rates of between 2-8% will there be change. In no other industry is such a rate of producing defective product considered acceptable. Unfortunately, for change to happen, it will probably take a class action lawsuit from a consumer rights advocate that accuses the wine industry of acting in collusion while knowingly selling defective product.' He concludes, 'The American consumer deserves better from the wine industry. The wineries, journalists and sommeliers that have not been proactive in their efforts to ensure that wine drinkers get the best wine possible should be ashamed. In the US, I am afraid to say, the list is long'.

On a lighter note but nevertheless an important one, the NZSCWSI were keen to promote that the opening of a screwcap bottle can have as much flair as removing a cork. The committee created a leaflet for insertion into cases of screwcap-sealed wines with a diagram explaining the best way to open the bottle. This method is not only the easiest, but also the most aesthetic for those worried about the lack of 'romance'. Hold the bottle in your right hand at a slight angle across your body. With your left hand, grip the neck/collar of the screwcap with your hand underneath, thumb on top. Next, simply twist the bottle towards you and you will hear the 'click' as the seal easily breaks. Finally, a swift turn of the cap will remove it.

Another benefit of the screwcap closure is of course convenience - no longer requiring a special tool in order to enjoy the contents, no more broken corks, bits in the wine, or having to donate one's favourite corkscrews to the security personnel at various airports.

In the ten years since the establishment of the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, the number of screwcaps being used by wine producers on a global basis has increased dramatically. With wine producers dropping cork and other closures in favour of screwcaps, this is undoubtedly the strongest proof that these closures are indeed the most suitable. Eradicating cork taint, having no effect on the wine and forming a perfect seal, this is an incredible achievement for the wine industry, particularly given the resistance from those in the market clinging to the tradition of cork.

In summing up, Michael Brajkovich explains, 'We have found the most reliable wine closure to date. However, winemakers will continue to experiment with closures and if a better one is found in the future I am certain we will embrace it in the same way we have embraced the screwcap.'

For the consumer, the significant efforts of research facilities, wine producers and closure companies, not to mention the huge impetus created by the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative have ensured quality wine has never been easier to purchase. With so many bottles vying for space on those congested shelves and still some uncertainty about how to choose, at least those sealed with a screwcap can provide assurance that the wine is exactly as the wine producer created it.
Cork_burial_big

Comments

Paul White comes back at Bob Campbell with:

I sense that Bob Campbell MW is trying to duck a little responsibility here by shading context after the fact. Or perhaps Bob is simply recollecting a different quote?

Here’s what Bob says he said: that any winery that still used cork doesn't care about its customers". The answer is "no". What I actually said, after talking to a number of winemakers who believed that screwcaps were better for their wine but were reluctant to use the closure because of possible market reaction, was "any winemaker who truly believes that screwcaps are better for their wine (than cork) but continues to use cork, must surely be short-changing their customers, at least in a moral sense."

And here’s an exact quote from the original NZSCI manifesto of 2001: ‘Consider the following question, posed by New Zealand's Bob Campbell, Master of Wine: "I have one question for all of the other winemakers who for the time being continue to use corks. If you know that screwcaps will produce better and more consistent wine than corks, how can you continue to short-change your customers?"’

I understand the Bob Campbell quote above is what Te Mata (and other producers) reasonably complained about. But there were a lot of quotes like this popping around NZ press in 2001. Te Mata believed, along with many other producers, that corks made their wine taste better, still do even after selling wine under sc for a long time. James Millton, if I recall, complained about similar insulting missives handed down from NZ Winegrower officials aimed at Luddite producers like him that still used cork.

The problem at the point when Bob Cambell MW made his statement nobody really knew anything about SC perfection -- except qualified chemists who understood and predicted SC would have big problems with reduction. In 2001 there was no valid science to back Campbell’s theoretical claims supporting what the NZSCI termed ‘The Perfect Seal.’ And there hasn’t been any since from what I’ve read, quite the contrary. A year later AWRI’s Tech Review 142 would find negative sulphide reduction characters ONLY on wines sealed under SC—shocking the stelvinists. That result has continued consistently throughout the numerous clinical trials published since 2002, where SCed wines have been compared to other closures.

Please note that Bob Campbell was the official spokesperson for the NZSCI at its launch in 2001, and so was a staunch convert from the beginning. I asked Bob then about the potential problems with sulphide reduction and he assured me, along with Michael Brajkovich MW, that this was impossible and would never happen. Like everyone else I assume they knew what they were talking about. They were MWs after all.

Later I recall asking Bob Campbell around 2005-06 whether he had read any of Dr. Alan Limmer’s excellent (highly accessible) articles on redox chemistry, SOLs (Sulphur Like Odors) derived from sulphide reduction under near anaerobic screw cap seals and the dangers of copper sulphate addition as an (ineffective) cure for sc driven reduction. Bob’s response was along the lines that ‘he fell asleep halfway down the first page and couldn’t be bothered.’ He ended our conversation along the lines that closures were ‘boring.’ I asked another influential Kiwi MW (in charge of a $50 million winery) the same question around that time and his response followed Campbell’s almost verbatim. The trouble is that Kiwi consumers and winemakers trusted that these MWs spoke on closure issues from positions of authority. But then I don’t know of any Australasian MWs or wine writers who are trustworthy when writing about closures.

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Bob Campbell said: Wines under screwcap have been embraced by local wine drinkers largely because they don't have to hunt for and struggle with a corkscrew and thus gain speedier access to a glass of wine (the result of a survey of several hundred students in my wine classes). A less common motive for supporting screwcaps is they appear to keep leftover wine fresher, possibly because we are more likely to re-seal a bottle with a screwcap than we are with a cork after pouring a glass.

So here we are 10 years after Bob Campbell’s statement and his only defense of SC is based on the convenience of twisting a top off? And the possibility that the wine will taste fresher the next day. What happened to fault free? What happened to the Perfect Seal? What about tasting fresh enough immediately when it’s opened?

There are two issues here.

Bob suggests leftover sc wine tastes ‘fresher’ the next day because it has been screw capped. The wine will definitely be more oxidized, as in developed through oxidation, if that’s what he means by fresher? In fact, after one glass is removed, there is enough air in the bottle to saturate the wine with O2. Because oxygen passes through the wine’s surface, the larger the volume of that surface inside a bottle, the greater the speed of oxygen transference. So whether is gets recapped or recorked doesn’t really matter all that much once the wine is down to the full inner diameter of the bottle.

However, redox potential and sulphide reduction offers a much better explanation of why the wine tastes fresher (as in better, more developed, more complex). All this is completely consistent with the fundamentals of sulpide chemistry that tells us wines tighten up and close down considerably faster in bottle under screw cap (become less fresh), and then unwind considerably slower once they’re exposed to oxygen again. There is no predicting how tight they will end up at any point in their life in bottle, and whether they will become irreversibly stinky, bitter and coarse: some will eventually, some won't.

All things considered, the implications for this are that SC wines are not well suited to immediate drinking in restaurants or straight from the shelves. They need considerable breathing to show their best. The trouble is how much time is enough? You can’t really know, just that it’s a lot more than if sealed under oxygen permeable closures.

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There appears to be little dissent between winemakers who use corks (or, more likely, Diam) and those who choose screwcap, Zork, technical cork, vino-lock etc. all of which are used in this country. It's great to have a choice of closures.'

Dissent was consciously squelched years ago in NZ. Bob appears to have evolved his position from calling winemakers ‘immoral’ if they didn’t’ use SC 10 years ago to one of celebrating choice now. The fact is a lot of NZ producers were bullied into jumping on the SC bandwagon with statements by opinion ‘leaders’ who really didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. NZ is a small place and peer pressure is an over-riding cultural trait here. In 2001 the NZSCI had to get volumes up to bring the price down to make the closure viable financially and to make marketing $$ and PR work more efficiently. That put great pressure on local producers to commit to SC on trust, almost immediately. The NZSCI made it clear ‘You were either with them or against them.’

I don’t see Bob’s ‘inclusiveness’ here in NZ. The real shame is that wineries that would prefer to use cork or Diam must use sc in order to get any distribution in NZ: Millton, Te Mata and Mission are all examples of that. A lot of that falls down to the total lack of debate about closures in NZ, beginning with a gullible wine press who believed everything they were told in 2001 and passed it on as fact to NZ consumers, sommeliers and super market buyers. The deal was sealed when any criticism of screw caps was immediately shut down within remaining parts of the press that believed consumers had a right to know all sides of the issue. NZ is fundamentally a closed shop. 

10 Feb 2011 08:06 by Jancis Robinson

Bob Campbell MW, New Zealand’s best-known wine writer, responds to Paul White:

'Paul White asks if said something like, "... that any winery that still used cork doesn't care about its customers". The answer is "no". What I actually said, after talking to a number of winemakers who believed that screwcaps were better for their wine but were reluctant to use the closure because of possible market reaction, was "any winemaker who truly believes that screwcaps are better for their wine (than cork) but continues to use cork, must surely be short-changing their customers, at least in a moral sense."

'If fierce debate about the merits and demerits of screwcaps still burns brightly around the globe it's a fairly dead issue in New Zealand despite the best efforts of some to fan the embers. Wines under screwcap have been embraced by local wine drinkers largely because they don't have to hunt for and struggle with a corkscrew and thus gain speedier access to a glass of wine (the result of a survey of several hundred students in my wine classes). A less common motive for supporting screwcaps is they appear to keep leftover wine fresher, possibly because we are more likely to re-seal a bottle with a screwcap than we are with a cork after pouring a glass. There appears to be little dissent between winemakers who use corks (or, more likely, Diam) and those who choose screwcap, Zork, technical cork, vino-lock etc. all of which are used in this country. It's great to have a choice of closures.'

10 Feb 2011 08:01 by Jancis Robinson

Anonymous says: Paul White is entitled to his views. As are US creationists. Anonymous, the best way to defeat ‘creationism’ is to fight it with scientific fact. All you seem to offer is anecdotal reference from biased individuals with a vested interest. Of course all people are entitled to their views. The long term problem with the ‘closure’ discussion is that far too much SC mythology has been passed off as fact, and far too much science has been purposefully distorted or ignored.  My decade long experience suggests the zealotry that has dominated the sc movement from its inception bears a closer resemblance to ‘Creationism.’   The fundamental defense of SC rests on an imaginary theory of chemistry called ‘sulphide equilibrium’ which was devised by a high school science teacher and an AWRI manager, who holds an MBA. And both of them appear to have received their ideas from a band of pro-SC Austalasian winemakers who came up with their own explanation for what the copper sulphate they were adding to their wine to solve the sulphide reduction problem they didn’t understand  in the first place. On the other side you have an unimpeached chemical formula that SCers haven’t been able to explain away.      Over the last eight years I have consistently written about the need for bottled wine to have continuous access to minute amounts of oxygen to counter the negative effects of sulphide reduction. All my writing has been based on known chemistry, sound science, and clinical trials.  Anyone who reads all the threads concerning the Harper’s Saga in my first comment below should have an understanding of where science has been misunderstood or consciously ignored by the SC movement. All of that has implications for how wine tastes under screwcap.

10 Feb 2011 06:15 by Paul White

Anonymous says, “Having read all of the words above, the ones that are fixed in my mind come from Michel Laroche:  'I just regret that I didn't start earlier! Over the last ten years I do not remember one of the tastings when the wine with a cork was better than the wine with a screwcap'. “ As I recall Jamie Goode once tasted LaRoche’s Chablis under screw cap and noted negative reductive characters.  I’ve tasted many wines that tasted better under cork or Diam than under screw cap. I know many other sharp winemakers who have as well. And I’ve tasted many, many, many more wines under screw cap on their own that would have tasted far better under a closure that let more oxygen through. So also have many of my wine students who taste wines blind for varietal typicity and didn’t realize what they are missing.  

10 Feb 2011 06:11 by Paul White

Paul White is entitled to his views. As are US creationists. Having read all of the words above, the ones that are fixed in my mind come from Michel Laroche:  'I just regret that I didn't start earlier! Over the last ten years I do not remember one of the tastings when the wine with a cork was better than the wine with a screwcap'. Klein Constantia is one of the only screwcap users I've come across to turn back to cork. It seems revealing that the vast majority of producers who adopted screwcaps have stuck with them. pace Senhor Guimaraes, the Austrians have a very long history of making wine too, and a growing number of them seem to be increasingly happy to put their Gruner Veltliner under screwcaps...

8 Feb 2011 19:17

Just spent a fascinating evening in a Montpellier brasserie with Robert Joseph and some PET wine bottles (with screw caps, natch) asking random groups of French diners for their thoughts on said bottles. What's most interesting is not their first reactions (predictable to a T) but what lies beneath - what comes out after 10 minutes, once they've "positioned" themselves and then start nuancing their remarks. That said, the NWSCSI would have their work cut out over here...

2 Feb 2011 23:44 by Louise Hurren

Gosh I get tired of driving wooden stakes in these guy’s hearts. Same old usual suspects quoted since 2004 being quoted yet again (hasn’t anyone new joined the team?); same old scientifically unsupported, anecdotal evidence sited ad nauseam; same old dodgy ‘science’ put forward after previous refutation… it just keeps popping up like whack-a-mole:

After ten years of very close observation of the Australasian SC movement, what I’ve seen looks something more like the The Sorcerer’s New Apprentice than something to cheer about.

What seemed to start off as a good idea a decade ago, went badly wrong when the first AWRI negative results for SC started coming in after 2002.

Rather than going through this piece of (not very well disguised) PR, line by line, I’ll knock off a few big points of disinformation.

Let’s talk some closure science. In terms of AWRI and the ‘scientific’ credibility noted in the latest NZSCI’s PR blurb, here’s respected journalist George Taber’s assessment, see his book TO CORK OR NOT TO CORK (pg 250):

“Some in the wine business believe staff members of the normally above-the-fray Australian Wine Research Institute have damaged the organization's reputation by abandoning rigorous scientific objectivity and becoming crusading zealots for screwcaps.”

For those who want to examine some of the central scientific issues and faulty ‘science’ surrounding the closure debate (alongside some of the self-inflicted damage Taber alludes to above), please read the following link in its entirety:
http://www.harpers.co.uk/misc/content/article/3922-paul-white-replys-to-the-awri.html
Sorry, no spoon full of sugar supplied here.

The link above is a defense against a ‘letter to the editor’ by AWRI’s Prof. Pretorius complaining about an alternative historical overview of the Australasian SC movement I wrote for Harpers in Dec. 2005 entitled Appliance of Science 

Please read Prof. Pretorius‘s letter to the editor here

By all means, read the whole sequence—closely--and make up your own mind where the truth lies or doesn’t.

Issues addressed in these documents go right to the heart of closure concerns: Dr. Limmer’s accurate sulphide chemistry vs an imaginary ‘sulphide equilibrium’ theory proposed by various SC promoters; false claims of cork’s wild variability; chemistry relating to screw cap’s propensity to negative sulphide reduction; the (naïve and ineffective) promotion of copper sulphate as an additive to prevent sulphide reduction under screw caps; mangled chemistry published by Tyson Stelzer via his NZSCI/Australian advisors (following in the footsteps of Michael Brajkovich’s mangled chemistry in a previous World of Fine Wine letter to the editor); and plenty of other issues related to a lack of scientific objectivity, scientific competence and rigorous scientific analysis. It’s not an encouraging read for SC supporters.

If you want more to ponder, here’s a pretty good discussion about TCA rates and recently documented copper levels found in Australasian screw capped wines above EU/USA legal limits (there’s plenty more damning evidence and good links provided within): http://www.wineberserkers.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=9052&sid=7bd45c50515e00a49c9e9eebb8b7f5ed&start=0

And, on another tangent, here’s a fairly comprehensive, up to date, discussion about environmental issues related to closures.
http://www.wineberserkers.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=27016&sid=1c9525a4c9a2318e4fcc697fc33842a6&start=100

Finally, I’d like to share some other astute observations made by George Taber in his book: TO CORK OR NOT TO CORK, pg 250.

“Australian wine critic James Halliday says that wineries still using corks are members of the flat-earth society, while Britain's Andrew Jefford in Decanter writes, "The ayatollahs of screwcap have made it seem morally defective to speak up for cork." John Buck, the CEO of TC Mata Estate in New Zealand, says he was personally offended when a wine columnist wrote [Didn’t Bob Campbell something like this around 2001 without any real evidence to support this assertion? No wonder someone poked him. PW] that any winery that still used cork "doesn't care about his customers." Te Mara uses screwcaps, natural corks, and agglomerated corks; Buck cares a lot about his customers.

"In this Internet age, many of the battles are waged in breathless blogs. Tyson Stelzer, an Australian who has written several effusive paeans to screwcaps including Screwed far Good? and Taming the Screw; in 2005 led a blogs on RobertParker.com that was white-hot with emotion and opinion, but weak on facts and research. Stelzer, a science teacher at an elementary and secondary school, elevated himself to "senior oenophile" and claimed his "research has been recognized both locally and internationally." With the passion of a true believer, Stelzer wrote in his kickoff posting, "The great thing now is that we have solid, scientific, quantitative evidence, and it is no longer conjecture."

In the blog Stelzer trotted out an old and widely discredited study on the variation in oxygen transmission in corks compared with screwcaps that showed corks had a 1,227-fold variation. If true, that would make them totally unreliable as a closure. Stelzer repeated that supposed fact like a mantra.

Alan Limmer points out that the 1,227-fold statistic comes from a study done using dry corks [tested under drier conditons than in a bottle of wine. PW]. But corks are supposed to be kept wet to maintain their seal. Limmer maintains the variation is about threefold [about 3 x SC], or about the same as screwcaps. Jim Peck of California's G3 Enterprises has performed preliminary tests using a wet cork and found there to be a difference of less than one order of magnitude. More research is obviously needed. Throwing around "solid, scientific, quantitative evidence" of a 1,227-fold variation, when the real number is perhaps one, shows the degradation of this debate (PW bolding). Michael Pronay, an admitted "cork bark hater" from Vienna, brought a voice of reason to the blog when he pleaded, "Calm down, please."

Some in the wine business believe staff members of the normally above-the-fray Australian Wine Research Institute have damaged the organization's reputation by abandoning rigorous scientific objectivity and becoming crusading zealots for screwcaps. Managing Director Sakkie Pretorius took nearly twenty-seven hundred words in a letter to the editor to attack Paul White's article in the British wine magazine Harpers that raised questions about screwcaps. It would be enough for Shakespeare to think he "doth protest too much." Later, threats of lawsuits and cries of press freedom were tossed around in a confrontation that made no one look good. The editor eventually lost his job.”


Sadly, even after the mythology surrounding 1227 fold variation of cork was soundly disputed, wine writers like James Halliday, Huon Hooke and others in Australasia have continued to use this and other highly inaccurate figures to damn cork unfairly as a means to promote sc and divert attention away from SC’s propensity towards negative sulphide reduction. Unfortunately, those who control bully pulpits can easily perpetuate false information which consumers mistakenly trust to be true.

In talking recently with Dr. Limmer about all this he noted that “No AWRI trial has shown SC to be SLO free, ie every trial, and there have now been numerous. All have found this effect unique and consistent to s cap. The Statistical data from AWRI trial put Altec (Diam) and scap about same in variablity and cork 2-3 times more and synthetic best of all. No ‘random oxidation’ has shown up in any AWRI study, let alone closure trials. Even under the worst cellaring conditions - no temperature control, bottles stored upright.”

Here we are in 2011 and the same old pack of disinformation is still getting passed around.

BTW, the above piece appears to be a ‘cut and paste’ PR blurb written by Marlbrough based PR person, Belinda Jackson. I wonder who paid for it? It doesn’t seem to be a bonified piece of commissioned journalism or even a blog.

http://www.tizwine.com/index.php/ps_pagename/newsdetail?pi_newsitemid=2627
http://www.voxy.co.nz/lifestyle/new-zealand-screwcap-wine-seal-initiative-ten-years/5/80324

Anyway, enough said on all this.

Happy birthday screw cappers! In looking back what I’d like to see is a little more introspection and a lot less self-centred adolescent behavior pretending to know better than anyone else. Why is it the world has been so slow to take up your cause? Perhaps its time to accept a few scientific truths and own up to them like adults. Start doing your homework--thoroughly, stop making stuff up to suit your own belief system, and don’t think that by ignoring truth it will go away. After all, admitting a few mistakes never hurt anyone’s personal growth. It helped the cork industry to clean up its act.

2 Feb 2011 09:03 by Paul White

And now I see that famous and historic South African producer Klein Constantia has reverted from screwcap to natural cork for its top Sauvignon Blanc because of fears of reduction in screwcapped versions of their late-released, lees-aged Perdeblokke bottling. See here for more details.

2 Feb 2011 05:57 by Jancis Robinson

I'm from a 5th generation cork producer family. I'm also a winemaker from Douro Region. I'm 30 years old but I'm "living" in the cork factory since I was 6. I saw many things trying to replace the natural cork stopper but i saw that all that products disapear or have near 0% expression on the market. I could be here all day arguing on behalf of the use of natural cork and all it's benefits but i will left the things came up naturaly and let winemakers and consumers see what is the best.Nevertheless I can assure this 5 guys in the picture that they will be in the grave much early than the natural cork stopper.About the previews comment, I can tell you this: the French people produce wine for very long time, on the oposite to Australia or New Zealand(which  also have great wines), they know very well what is the best for their wines.

1 Feb 2011 20:01 by Hugo Guimarães

I came to France from New Zealand with a view that screwcap was fabulous for preserving wines but cork was better for wines that we want to develop in bottle. Now, after 5 years, 2 cork suppliers with big convictions, many incidences of TCA and being one of Simon Wood's scapegoats on YouTube, I'm on the verge of going completely Screwcap. For me it would be a closing of a circle because the Screwcap was invented in my hometown. It is Barnsley's gift to the world of wine. Now, how do I convince all those French consumers to disregard their prejudices?  

1 Feb 2011 19:10 by Jonathan Hesford

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