"Screwbie…"

A recent post by “So, You Want To Be A Waiter?” (excellent blog, by the way, with lots of interesting posts, links, news, etc.) talked a bit about the increasingly common occurrence of screw cap, or Stelvin Closure, wines on wine lists, even in the “higher end” establishments.  Indeed, check average at our place is well over $120 per guest, and the wine list has an extensive collection of older Burgundies, Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabs.   Yet, we have quite a few screw-top bottles in inventory.

The now somewhat subsiding wine glut of the early 2000’s put an incredible amount of strain on cork suppliers resulting not only in increased prices due to the supply and demand curve, but also in inferior, too-young, and tainted cork entering the market.  Wineries like to tell the public that TCA or “Cork Taint” affects about two percent of their product.  Those of of us that open and serve wine for a living know the real number to be closer to ten.  I know of no other industry where you can stay in business when so large a percentage of your product has the potential to be flawed.  I can guarantee you that if they were making brake pads with these percentages, they’d be in Court being sued and out of business soon after.

So, to avoid the financial and image ruining implications of delivering larger amounts of “corked” wines to the market, many wineries had to seek out alternate closures, especially with their lower priced bottlings.

Some of the alternatives they were faced with:

Synthetic or plastic corks:  functions just like a real cork, no huge re-tooling of the bottling line necessary, but it just screams “Cheap” at the consumer; and what a pain in the ass to get off the auger of your corkscrew.  And forget about getting it back into the bottle to re-seal as they have an annoying tendency to expand exponentially after being removed.

Composite corks (the ones that are made of little bits of cork, glued together). These are much cheaper than the one-piece version but, by the very nature of their construction, come with a much higher risk of TCA contamination.  Additionally, the actual glue that holds the pieces together can itself be contaminated.  Still, they maintain the romance of the cork pulling and presentation ceremony performed at a restaurant table.

Which brings us, finally, to the main topic of “So’s” post,

The Screw Top or Stelvin Closure, a most efficient and, after you purchase the new equipment needed for the bottling line to accommodate their use, economic way to seal a bottle.  Adopted years ago by New Zealand and Aussie producers of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and even lower end Chardonnays, they have found their way into mainstream wine production worldwide.  They have proved to be an efficient way of mostly eliminating possible TCA contamination (although, the wineries and their facilities can still be a source of TCA by virtue of the use of wood, cardboard, and chlorine-based cleaners).  The other plus is that they reseal a bottle better, making it last longer in the fridge after it’s been opened.  This one I haven’t tried for myself as any bottle that gets opened in our house is going to be consumed.  I saw a dessert recipe once that called for using “leftover Champagne,” as if there is such a thing.  So for wines not meant to be aged for years and years, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a perfectly acceptable and welcome alternative.

The main rub on Screw Caps (I don’t call them Stelvin Closures because I can’t say it and keep a straight face, knowing I sound like I’m doing a British Butler impression:  “Your, uh, Stel-vuhn Cloh-shuh, suh…”) is that they can eliminate and/or diminish, the above-mentioned romance from a bottle opening ceremony that has gone unchanged for decades.  And most servers have no answer to the question of what to do with the little aluminum buggers after you do your twist-crackle move on the neck of the bottle.  There is a simple, if not universally accepted answer to this question.

The Court of Master Sommeliers says, that although corks are to be presented on a trivet or B&B plate, the Screw Cap should never be presented to the guest.  The Court is pretty much “The Law” when it comes to points of service with wine.  So, even though they do admit in their certification classes and in their literature that some of their points of service may not be valid in a practical restaurant setting, there seems to be no ambiguity in the word “never.”  So, okay, we’re done with that one.

A somewhat more debated point of wine service would seem to be the disposition of the cork itself: Darling you’ve got to let me know, should it stay or should it go?

The answer to that question can generally be found in a specific “House Policy” and can vary from restaurant to restaurant.  So, when someone who has been practicing the “leave it” at their former post comes to work for me, they can be somewhat shocked and resistant to my very practical, if seemingly callous, view on the topic:  corks are garbage, and, as such they should be picked up just as you would an empty Sweet-Low packet or beer bottle. Unless the guest specifically requests otherwise, as a manager I instruct my crew that after a wine is presented, opened, tasted, approved, and poured for the table, that the cork should be picked up and taken away (I always advise keeping them in a pocket, or in a bucket at the service station, until the table leaves just in case the guest wants it for a memento, or to make a trivet, or some other garish Martha Stewart-like application).

To conclude my rant, I will offer an answer to the age-old question of why the cork is presented in the first place.  Is it so the guest can “sniff” it to check for taint, or some other clue, whether real or imagined, to the wine’s quality?  No-o-o-o.  Any taint or flaw will surely be evident by smelling the wine itself, right?  So then, is it so that the guest can “squeeze” it to see if it is still spongy or dry, or to glean some other clue as to its proper storage and ageing?  No-o-o-o.  Again, the proof of that is in the glass already.  The cork presentation ceremony began as a way for the purchaser to see that this specific cork came from this specific bottle; that the bottle has not been re-filled with some schwag-wine substitute for the original.  So they don’t feel like they’re getting, a-hem, screwed.  Simple.

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7 Responses to "Screwbie…"

  1. teleburst says:

    Nice expansion of my original topic!

    Actually, another explanation for presenting to cork to the guest is to include them more fully in the ceremony. It gives the guest something tactile and, for those few really savvy wine drinkers, it does tell them something about the wine before they have to taste it. It’s one of the things that most experts check when they open a bottle of wine in their own collection (if you are an “expert”, that is). A saturated cork can be a warning sign (it doesn’t have to be, but it *can* indicate a faulty seal). A swollen cork can indicate a wine that has been “cooked”. Having said all of that, the most important information is pretty esoteric and known by only the real experts (the shape of the cork can indicate how long it’s been there which can be useful for non-vintage wines or wines that have lost their labels, using a composite or “agglomerate” cork can indicate a certain lack of caring from a winery, etc.)

    Thinking back on how I present the cork to the diner, I realize that I never hand it to them. I always set it on the table next to them. Our restaurant doesn’t require a cork trivet, so I just lay it on the tablecloth. One little “detail” thing I always do is orient it so that the guest can read the name printed on the cork if it’s present. Most people probably don’t even notice, but who knows what people notice, if only sub-consciously.

    One other thing that I was taught was not to spin the bottle when removing the cork. I used to twist the bottle in the opposite direction so that it only required half the turns to get the cork out. When I went to another restaurant, the house policy was to NOT turn the bottle – that the label always stayed facing the purchaser. It took me a little time to learn how to do this without seeming to be awkward.

    Thanks again for the information.

    • nativenapkin says:

      Great comment about the cork’s condition. It’s true only the “Cork Dorks” know what to look for but I enjoy watching people try to look all edu-ma-cated as they squeeze and sniff.

      And yes, proper service dictates the label always stays facing the guest, during opening and after you place the bottle on the table. I have found that the “3-cut” method works well: One cut under the rim across the front, clockwise, as the label faces away from you, another around the back as you reach with the blade counter-clockwise, then a short vertical cut to finish removing the top of the capsule.

  2. “the Screw Cap should never be presented to the guest.”

    Reminds of a time at The Capital Grille when a group of guys came in and the loud/obnoxious one started going on about how our wine list didn’t really have anything worth drinking on it. Yeah, a couple thousand bottles of crappy wine, sure. He was clearly showboating for the “boys” and finally said he wanted a Budweiser. His dining companions gave him some ribbing and ordered various cocktails and wines by the glass. Being blond and knowing I could work this table with some good-natured fun, I served the entire table their drinks and saved his Budweiser for last. I draped my serviette over my left arm, presented him the label and said “Born on Date of August 18th. Excellent choice, sir.” I popped the cap with my wine key and presented that on his bread plate, poured a taste into his pilsner and stepped back with a formal face to await his approval. His buddies died laughing, he loosened up, and left me a huge tip.

    • nativenapkin says:

      That is hilarious. People are like baloons; you gotta know how much hot air they can take befor they blow. Your “Table Reading” skills are obvious. I think we could work together…

  3. michael featherston says:

    One of your best posts. To quote Randall Graham “The cork is so 16th century.” I enjoyed one of the highlights of my restaurant career a few months back when I was able to charge “screwage” to a table of chicks that brought in a bottle of Kim Crawford SB. It seemed fair enough, $15 dollars for me to twist off the cap of their $15 bottle of wine. Maybe next time they will just order a $30 bottle off the list, and enjoy their mass-produced kiwi-juice at home!

  4. AK says:

    Here’s a question though… Does a screw-capped bottle of wine preclude people from (legally) taking it home? We’re allowed to wrap up unfinished bottles for guests because when the cork is back in there, it no longer counts as an “open container” of alcohol.

    With a screw cap though, I’m not sure what the difference is between having that in the backseat and a bottle of Jack.

    • nativenapkin says:

      Not sure where you live or what the laws are like, but in every state I’ve ever lived in, an opened bottle of wine is just that, open. In CA even an empty bottle of wine can get you a citation from the CHP. Then there’s Louisiana, where if they leave the little piece of paper on the top of the straw on your Drive-Through Daquiri, it’s technically not open. I tell everyone leaving the restaurant with the rest of their wine to put it in the trunk. So there you have it. Sort of.

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