This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
- See additional query about Coravin's effect on wine maturation answered at the end of this article.
You've heard of alpha males? Greg Lambrecht is an alpha double plus male. Clean cut, almost male-model looks, 44 but looks barely half that, he starts and runs medical companies which develop clever inventions. Spinal implants are his current speciality and when I met him in London last month he was on his way to South Africa to convince a major insurance company there that the considerable cost of his latest spinal implant was worthy of reimbursement.
He was a particularly young nuclear engineer at MIT. After that he headed off to Japan to help with their nuclear fission programme. Halfway through he realised there was a major problem with it and discussed this with his boss, who agreed but said they'd been hoping their youthful American visitor would solve it.
So what's he doing in a wine column? It turns out he has a serious case of wine infatuation. In fact, he told me, 'although I am rarely on the ground for more than two or three days in the same country, my retirement will involve more time with my family and an attempt at an MW, where even failure will be a great learning experience.' Greg Lambrecht fail the Master of Wine exam? I don't think so.
He may just be on the verge of making a major contribution to the world of wine without a single wine qualification. Over the past 14 years in his Boston basement he has slowly been developing a gadget that allows people to sample wine from unopened bottles and, what's more, over several years. It all began when his wife went off wine after giving birth to their second son. He was already a keen wine drinker but not so keen that he could drain a whole bottle every night.
He started to think about how to get wine out of bottles without letting in the oxygen that robs wine of freshness and ultimately turns it into undrinkable vinegar. His experience of physics, medicine and patents were all presumably useful in the creation, after 23 prototypes, of Coravin, a stainless-steel contraption looking not unlike a small microscope incorporating a long needle which is inserted through the foil and cork and through which as much or as little wine as you like is extracted and the remaining space filled with inert argon gas from a little replaceable cylinder screwed into the system. When the needle is extracted, the springy cork reseals itself and the only trace that remains is a little pinprick in the foil. He is working on a system with an even thinner needle designed for really old wine and its less pliable corks. (It won't work on composite or synthetic corks.)
I knew all the theory when Lambrecht turned up with two bottles apiece of two wines in order to try to convince me that wine from the just-accessed bottle was indistinguishable from the one that he had already 'accessed' (his word; he describes Coravin as a 'wine access system').
Once he had unpacked them on to my kitchen table and I had found him six identical glasses (he had not come across the wafer-thin Zaltos before), I obediently turned my back so that I could not see which of the bottles was being poured into which of the six identical glasses he, ever the scientist, insisted upon.
For the demonstration he had given me in advance a choice of various wines from his collection of 1,400 bottles, 'most of them accessed', of which he had an unaccessed control bottle too. I selected a Gigondas from Pallières as these are quite funky wines which I thought would be a bit more demonstrative than the concentrated Tuscan Cabernet I had chosen for the other trial pair. I tasted the first six samples, knowing that the result he sought was that they all seemed identical and immediately felt embarrassed. He'd come all the way across the Atlantic but the wines in glasses two and five were perceptibly different from the other four - rather more evolved and surely from the bottle that had already been 'accessed'?
Embarrassment was transferred when I spotted that in fact the two wines were different bottlings from the same producer and the same vintage, 2007. The Terrasse du Diable had been freshly accessed while the Racines (with actually rather less Grenache and some Syrah so I would have expected it to be a bit more vigorous) had previously been accessed, according to scribbles on the label, in March 2010 and August this year.
Honour was restored to Coravin's preservative properties, however, with the two bottles of Saeculum Supertuscan 2000, which seemed identical to me, even though one had been accessed in December 2010. He then relaxed a little and told me enthusiastically how 'every evening I have between one and four glasses of great wine, so I learn four times as fast.' He also confessed that Coravin has partly resulted from his pent-up desire for innovation in medical technology and delight at being so much less hampered by regulation in the wine sphere.
The Coravin system is so far available in the US and can be shipped to 25 countries including the UK. There are plans to launch more effectively in Europe and Asia (there is presumably less point in Australia and New Zealand, where the screwcap rules domestic wines anyway). With two gas capsules (enough for about 15 glasses each, replacements $10.95; the argon has to be imported from Europe), it costs $299 in the US and is likely to cost closer to £300 when stock is held in the UK. Wine professionals can choose to invest much more in one of those temperature-controlled cabinets such as the Enomatic that holds multiple bottles, but these are hardly suitable for domestic use, and anyway claim only to preserve the wine for three weeks. For individual wine enthusiasts there are cheaper alternatives (see list below), but nothing I know of preserves wine in an opened or 'accessed' bottle for years as the Coravin system does.
He claims that the needle seems to be self-cleaning. He has certainly never cleaned more than the spout, which needs a quick daily rinse under a tap, and says, in response to a query on our members' forum, that he has proof that TCA is not transferred from one bottle to another via the needle
I cannot fault Coravin technically and I can easily see its applications for restaurateurs who would like to offer particularly fine wines by the glass (as our son has been doing with the model I was lent; he was impressed by their helpline), for (well-heeled) wine students, wine collectors who want to monitor the evolution of the wines they have bought, and wine enthusiasts who cohabit with teetotallers.
But when Greg Lambrecht explained that when he entertains, he takes guests to his cellar and 'I suggest they choose which bottles they want to taste' my heart slightly sank. I see wine drinking as a truly social activity, with an essential part of its enjoyment the sharing of a whole bottle with friends, seeing how it and they change as glasses and whole bottles are drained.
But then I am a spoilt wine writer.
A subsequent query: Duncan Easton suggested, 'surely the development of a wine stops at the moment the system is first used as any oxygen is replaced by argon? Or at the very least the development curve changes with the new argon and oxygen mix in the bottle space?'
Greg Lambrecht's response is 'turns out argon does not freeze the evolution of wine. Much of the way wine develops in the bottle has nothing to so with oxygen, but rather slow chemical reactions between the acids, sugars, and water. If a bottle is stored appropriately on its side, the wine, even in a Coravined bottle, has the same exposure to the small amounts of oxygen that makes it through the cork. I think this is why even years out, Coravined wine is indistinguishable from control - both evolve the same.'
OTHER WINE PRESERVATION SYSTEMS
Canisters of inert gas at about £15 for more than 100 squirts into an open bottle work pretty well for at least a week or so. Very easy to use though difficult to check. Various producers and products. Try Around Wine, London W1, for the best range of wine-related hardware.
The rubber stopper and plastic pump known as a Vacu Vin costs only about £5 but is not particularly effective in my experience.
Platy air-tight pouches at about $140 full price (about a tenth that on Amazon.com) claim to preserve wine for only a few days or at most weeks, and you have to pour the wine into these decidedly inelegant containers.
Same is true of the much easier-on-the-eye Savino glass cylinder with floating lid at $60.