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Screw it! 

Dwindling cork supply has wineries busting out the screwcaps

Wouldn't life be a dream without corkscrews? If all of a sudden, wineries switched to screwcaps, the wrist-wrenching cork-pulling process would disappear and opening wine would be as easy as unsealing a jug of MD 20/20.

And this might happen since the supply of cork is dwindling. Even though the cork oak tree is a renewable source, it takes 40-45 years before a sapling can produce a closure thick and consistent enough for wine. And cork doesn't just grow anywhere; like a tourist, it prefers sunny, mild Mediterranean locales.

Currently, there are about 5.5 million acres of cork trees planted worldwide, producing 230,000 tons of cork. But even with those big numbers, there's still not enough to satisfy the wine industry's growing need. Like Econ 101 taught us, with short supply comes higher prices.

So in an effort to continue sealing their wares at reasonable prices, wineries are getting creative. The freaked-out cork industry has begun offering a smorgasbord of cork choices, from granulated corks crafted with glue to synthetic closures. The wineries hoped the plastic plug would be the answer to their prayers, but it's proving to be a minor failure. To me, they're imposters that eat corkscrews for breakfast. They're hard to open, smell funny, and leak after plugging a bottle for a while.

Enter the screwtop. Used for many years by spirits producers as well as for low-end wines, the under-appreciated screwtop is experiencing a renaissance after years of scorn. Its slow re-emergence came about as wineries saw the rising prices of natural cork, and the rising number of bottles damaged by cork closures. New Zealand's Kim Crawford Winery, which recently switched to screwtop closures for its line of white wines, put the percentage of wines ruined by cork as high as 25 percent. "If you received a shipment of food and 25 percent of it was bad, would you accept it?" asked Crawford, who has used screwtops since 2000 because they maintain the intended freshness of his wine.

Here on our shores, Bonny Doon Vineyard, a winery famous for its off-the-wall and daring marketing, recently made the huge leap to using screwtops for its Big House wine series. It is the first big winery to do so.

Screwtops do present some problems: No one knows what will happen to wine aged with a metal top. The use of corks actually helps wine "breathe" and improve, so using metal screwtops may not be a hot idea. But we don't really know yet. The wine could take on a metallic taste, or the tannins might eat through the cap.

But this should really only affect about 10 percent of wine production, since 90 percent of all wines are meant to be consumed within the first two years after bottling. So far, the screwtop has proven itself effective for most wines, but reaching the masses will be a different story. The romance and affectation surrounding the cork-removing process will probably remain in vogue, and I don't see the French rushing to cap their bottles with leetle mehtal haats.

It looks like time will tell whether the screwtop will come into its own. But I can't tell you how cool it is to crack the seal on a bottle of wine; you can really taste the freshness difference. And, hey, I'll never pay corkage fees again.

Recommended Wines

2002 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($18) : What a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is supposed to be like: flowery meadow mixed with tropical fruit on the nose, and a crisp, acidic grapefruit flavor on the tongue. Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Bonny Doon 2001 Ca' del Solo Big House Red ($10) : Always a huge crowd pleaser at parties, this easy-drinking red wine blend has a grapey fruit-forward personality. There are also bottles available in cork format, so comparing the two might be fun. Great value.

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