Vine Cuttings

News and Notes from the World of Wine




ARE CORKS SCREWED?
Bonny Doon and APCOR seek closure on the cork-screwcap controversy

The bad blood brewing between APCOR, the quasi-governmental association of the Portuguese cork industry, and California winemaker Randall Grahm, founder and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards, boiled over in October, when Grahm sponsored bicoastal events in New York and San Francisco that he heralded as "celebrating the death of the cork."

Last July, Grahm released 80,000 cases of Bonny Doon's 2001 Big House Red and White wines sealed with Stelvin screwcaps. Grahm has vowed to use Stelvins on all of Bonny Doon's wines eventually. (The only other American winery to bottle premium wine in a screwcap has been PlumpJack, in Napa Valley.)

That was a shot across the bow to APCOR. Portugal supplies about 65 percent of the world's cork from its vast forests, and the cork industry is vital to the country's economy. Bonny Doon's defection was seen as a threat, coming as it did on the heels of similar decisions by Australian and New Zealand wineries to shun corks in favor of screwcaps.

APCOR has fought back vigorously. The organization claims that only 0.7 percent of corks are tainted by mold (the chief reason that winemakers like Grahm cite for shunning them), a figure disputed by many in the industry. The association even recently posted a speech by Prince Charles on its website in which the heir to the British throne defends the use of corks as closures.

Is the cork really dead?
Randall Grahm and APCOR's
Henrique Martins respond, in statements exclusive to Wine
Enthusiast Magazine.

Do you think that corks are on their way out?
Sound off at editor@wineenthusiast.net.

In a widely circulated letter, Henrique Martins, APCOR's president, referred to Grahm's "death" events as a "publicity stunt," a description that Grahm does not dispute. "Of course it's a stunt! What do they think it is?"

"The Death of the Cork" events were fêtes at upscale restaurants in which the theme was black: black tie, black tablecloths, black coffins and black humor. Even the food was noir; the 11-course meal featured everything from seared black cod and squid pasta to blackened almonds and black lentils. At times, the scenes resembled something out of The Addams Family—more comedically macabre with a coffined Monsieur Thierry Bouchon ("bouchon" is French for "cork"), a life-size figure made entirely of cork, situated at the head of the banquet table.

In New York, Jancis Robinson delivered the cork's "eulogy" in remarks that were replayed via videotape in San Francisco. The audience at both events—mostly members of the media—seemed sympathetic to screwcaps, although consumers are said to be turned off by them. But that may be changing. Richard Poyol, general manager of Pechiney Cork & Seal of California, a division of the French-owned company that manufactures the Stelvin, said he has had conversations with wineries that are considering switching from cork to screwcaps. He would not name names, but said "it's a certainty" that in 2003, additional California wineries will be making the change.

They're probably waiting to see how Bonny Doon's Big House wines perform in the marketplace. Will consumers shun them? "This is a huge risk for us," Grahm concedes. "It must not fail."

For more information, visit www.deathof thecork.com.

—Steve Heimoff

Iron Curtain Closed Again
in DC Restaurant

Zola reminiscent of spy movies and Cold War

Remember the good ol' days of John Le Carré and George Smiley, Ian Fleming and James Bond, Len Deighton and Bernard Samson? The good ol' days of the Cold War when the enemy was an Evil Empire instead of a shadow in a cave, and the fate of nations hung on secrets whispered across greasy diner tables or over elegant cocktails at an embassy soirée?

That era of romantic espionage is recreated once more in Washington, D.C., with the International Spy Museum and its adja- cent restaurant, Zola. The restaurant, designed by the firm Adamstein and Demetriou, evokes the espionage motif with subtle visual puns such as spy portals in the intimate booths, coded letters flashed onto the entryway staircase by recessed lighting, and murals of shredded documents.

Chef Phillip Carroll's "straightforward American cuisine" provides a counterpoint to the intrigue of the Spy Museum and the restaurant's playful interior. A Tasso Ham Risotto, topped with spicy fried oysters and rimmed with a savory red pepper syrup, and a Chipotle Roasted Pork Loin highlight a menu rich in organic and regionally grown ingredients. And the chocolate fudge cake is worth defecting for.

The intrigue extends to the wine list as well. General manager Ralph Rosenberg has created three wine stations throughout the dining rooms that display the 11 white and eight red wines available by the glass. Diners not only see the bottles and the crystal glassware as they are led to their tables, but are "co-opted" by samples of Legacy Sauvignon Blanc from Transylvania, or Spy Valley Gewürztraminer from New Zealand. ("I put out an all-points-bulletin for any wine with 'Spy' in the name," Rosenberg says.)

And the global wine list—strong on Californian and antipodean offerings—hints of Cold War secrets, peppered as it is with wines from behind the old Iron Curtain, such as Hungarian Tokajis and Cabernet Sauvignon from Romania and Bulgaria. Rosenberg promises more wines from Eastern Europe as they become available in the U.S. The list offers 18 half bottles as well, which is about, well, 18 times more than most restaurants.

Zola, named for the French novelist Emile Zola, who wrote about the Dreyfus affair, also features specialty cocktails such as the "Spy-Tini," Estonian vodka and Mandarin orange brandy. Or you can go for a traditional Plymouth Gin martini the way Nick and Nora might have sipped it.

And yes, you can have it shaken, not stirred.

Zola, 800 F Street N.W., Washington, D.C., 20004. Tel.: 202/654-0999; www.zoladc.com. Metro: Gallery Place. e-mail: info@zoladc.com.

—Dave McIntyre

Sugar, Sugar
A Chicago restaurateur attempts to fill the cavity in the dessert wine market

In his candy-striped shirt and tie, Jerry Suqi is a lot of things: a restaurateur, man-about-town, cosmetics maven, art collector and someone The New York Times described as "seemingly unaware of his own hyperbole." And, in September, he added wine educator to the list.

That's when the 34-year-old launched his newest Chicago hot spot, Sugar: a dessert bar. Sugar is a grown-up Candyland game come to life, where well-heeled sweet tooths sit on chocolate-bar benches, rest their wine bottles in buckets affixed to lollipop tables, and belly up to a giant honeycomb bar.

Imagine Willy Wonka on drugs and dressed in Versace, with textiles patterned after glucose seen under a microscope, and art depicting the sinister effects of sugar, such as dental decay and gluttony. Waitresses wear cotton-candy pink mini dresses and go-go boots (all the better to dance on the tables), while waiters kneel at private booths wearing Pucci-inspired shirts.

It is in this 4,000-square-foot adult-in-a-candy-store environment in Chicago's River North neighborhood that Suqi plans to change Americans' notions about dessert wines.

I have a penchant for desserts and dessert wines, and I wanted to expose the glory of these wines," Suqi says. "These are the most underappreciated wines. Muscat was possibly the first grape used for wine and Europeans have loved dessert wines for hundreds of years. But Americans are always in a hurry to go. They don't sit and enjoy the best part."

Suqi planned Sugar to allow just that, and only that. The 19-page menu features only desserts, wines and spirits. With Suqi, executive chef Christine McCabe Tentori, an alumna of Charlie Trotter's, developed a menu that pairs decadent sweets with specific suggestions for postprandial drinks. With a chocolate pavlova and caramel banana pudding (Banana Karenina, $15) diners are directed to the Don PX 2000 Bodegas Toro d'Albala, from Spain ($9/glass; $40/bottle). Suggested with the tasting course of sorbets and ice creams (Through the Looking Glace, $12) is Inniskillin's 1999 Riesling icewine ($25/glass; $145/bottle).

The fact that dessert wines don't share uniformity in grapes or terminology like other wines is one of the educational stumbling blocks Suqi faces. "A Cabernet Sauvignon is the same wherever it is from. Dessert wines are particular to the region, and so we want our staff to really know their stuff," he says, adding that his environment is ripe for such efforts.

Suqi likens the experience of tasting wine at many fine dining restaurants to "receiving the Eucharist. I want people to feel not frightened by this wine list, but able to explore, make their way through the wine list with a guide who's kind." Sugar's staff is trained and tested weekly by a sommelier who is able to explain ice wines, late-harvest grapes, "the arduous process and art form of making dessert wine," use of the entire vine and other peculiarities of the libation.

Even Suqi has been surprised by how quickly both customers and distributors took to the idea of stocking a cellar full of dessert wines. "The suppliers have been enthusiastic. They've been sitting on these wines that would not sell because there has not been an outlet for them."

Sugar: a dessert bar, 108 W. Kinzie, Chicago, Illinois. Tel: 312/822-9999.

—Margaret Littman

THE CASE FOR CORK
By Henrique Martins, chairman,
APCOR/Portuguese Cork Association

To paraphrase Mark Twain, "Rumors of cork's death have been greatly exaggerated." On the contrary: Cork is and continues to be the closure used on over 90 percent of the world's wines. Why is that? Because cork is not only the closure that wine drinkers overwhelmingly prefer, it is the best possible closure for both sparkling and still wines, now and for the future.

Cork is a natural product, one whose benefits on the long-term aging of wine have been proven through centuries of tasting and experience. That said, the Portuguese cork industry takes the issue of cork quality extremely seriously. The last three years have witnessed a dramatic transformation within the cork industry. In that short time we have gone from an industry, which, by and large, produced corks according to much the same methods used by our grandfathers, to one at the leading edge of technological innovation and implementation.

Cork…is the best possible closure for both still and sparkling wines…

This transformation has been brought about by massive investments (more than $400 million) in new equipment, modern production facilities, scientific research and exhaustive quality-control measures. Tremendous strides have been made in identifying the sources of TCA contamination and in translating those findings into changes at every step of wine cork production.

At the same time, 2000 witnessed the first year of accreditation of an industry-wide code of best practices. In its first year, 87 companies met the stringent requirements stipulated in this code; last year that figure rose to 138. Independently audited, this certification system has gone a long way to bring major sectors of the industry up to a uniform quality level.

Because of the nature of cork harvesting and wine production, the significant, positive results of these changes are only just beginning to arrive in the marketplace. We are confident that these efforts, together with the inherent viability and natural appeal of corks, have together assured a healthy future for cork in these generations and in generations to come.

THE CASE AGAINST CORK
By Randall Grahm,
founder and winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard

At the risk of protesting too much, let me first begin by saying that I am not a corkist, that is to say, someone who is irrationally prejudiced against the cylindrically shaped bark stoppers. I am, however, as a winemaker, chagrined by the utter unreliability of natural corks. It is a very conservative estimate that as many as 2 percent of all bottles sealed with a natural cork are overtly "corked." No other industry would accept a failure rate as high as we see with natural corks. The fact that 2,4,6 trichloroanisole contamination can come from multiple sources in a winery in no way exculpates the contribution of tainted cork.

As luck would have it, there exist alternative closure systems to the cork, the best being the Stelvin screwcap closure, superior to natural cork in every way. It does not require a specialized tool for the opening of a bottle and there is absolutely no incidence of cork taint. Most significantly, the Stelvin closure makes a more airtight seal than a cork, enabling wines to actually age more slowly and gracefully. The technology has been around for some time and the long-term effects of wine aged en screwcap are well understood. The only negative aspect of the screwcap is the public's lack of knowledge and blatant misconceptions on the subject, viz. wine must be allowed a discreet amount of oxygen through the closure to permit it to age. Most damaging is the screwcap's longstanding association with lower-quality wine.

I plead guilty to engineering some flamboyant and perhaps inflammatory publicity stunts, indeed, proclaiming the "death of the cork." But if the cork is, as I believe, an inferior closure, isn't there reason to believe that it is moribund? These publicity "stunts" were in fact exactly that. If one were single-handedly attempting to radically change the perceptions and buying habits of an entire nation of wine drinkers in the direction of a superior closure, what other recourse would one have?

Frankly, I would much rather make the case for screwcaps than to make the case against corks, but I do wish to respond to some of the claims of the cork industry.

Consumers insist upon the familiar "pop" of the cork. They love the ritual and culture associated with the cork and corkscrew. Do they love it enough to tolerate "corked" bottles of wines? Let's keep them innocent, infantilized, uneducated and focused on the most trivial aspects of wine culture, rather than clue them in on that which actually matters, to wit, the taste of the wine itself.

Cork is a beautiful natural product,
with many applications above and beyond table trivets. Its usefulness as a wine closure, however, has neared the end.

Cork manufacturers have suggested that if a consumer does not buy a wine sealed with a cork, he or she is indirectly contributing to the demise of a complex ecosystem. This strikes me as disingenuous at best. It has been the overharvesting and early harvesting of cork oak bark, in virtue of increased worldwide demand (due to the mistaken impression that all "quality" wine must be sealed with cork), that has led to the degradation of quality in corks over the last 30 years. Leave the trees and the creatures that dwell in and around them in peace. Long may the cork forests thrive!

Cork is a beautiful natural product, with many applications above and beyond table trivets. Its usefulness as a wine closure, however, has neared the end.

New Belgium, Frank Boon Plan the "Opus One of Beer"
Top brew masters form legendary partnership

While cross-Atlantic alliances such as the one between Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Rothschild are now almost commonplace in the wine world, the world of beer has seen few such partnerships. In fact, the ones that have come about (one that comes to mind is the joint venture between a U.S. importer and three Belgian breweries that spawned New York's Ommegang brewery) have been constructed around the creation of a brewery or brewpub, rather than the development of a new beer.

But that all changed on October 4 in Fort Collins, Colorado, when the New Belgium Brewing Company announced plans to create a beer in partnership with the well-known Belgian lambic brewer, Frank Boon. As cameras flashed and a slew of brewing industry insiders looked on, Boon and Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium, signed a proclamation committing themselves and their breweries to the venture.

To describe the partners' beer-to-be as unconventional is a dramatic understatement. Boon's contribution to the final product will be a kriek lambic, a style of cherry wheat beer unique to Payottenland, the small area surrounding Brussels. Lambics are the world's only remaining commercially produced beers that are spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts, a practice that most conventional brewers would view as disastrous. Following their wild inoculation, lambics are conditioned for months or years in oak casks. To produce a kriek lambic, whole cherries are added to the casks and a secondary fermentation is set off by the added sugars. For his half of the intercontinental brew, Boon will use a one-year-old lambic and add roughly twice the amount of cherries he would use for his traditional Kriek Boon.

In early 2003, Boon's beer will be sterile-filtered and shipped across the ocean to Fort Collins, where it will be blended with a complementary beer crafted by New Belgium brewer Peter Brouckaert, a Belgian and formerly the head brewer at the esteemed Rodenbach brewery in north Flanders. While Brouckaert has experimented with several test brews, he has not as yet settled on the exact composition of his contribution to the mix.

No name has yet been selected for the beer, nor has an exact release date been scheduled.

While the blending of beers is not without precedent—Boon himself regularly mixes vintages of lambic to create his traditional, méthode champenoise-style Boon Geuze, and Brouckaert often blended beers at Rodenbach—the combining of beers from different breweries is most unusual. The fact that these two blended brews are from different continents is pretty much unprecedented. Still, to Boon, the idea makes all the sense in the world.

"As a Belgian brewer, I've long thought that I should find a brewery in the United States to bottle my beer and keep the price down," Boon mused. "I couldn't brew anywhere else because lambic beer is about terroir—linked not to the soil, but to the area—but I can reduce costs by shipping the beer in bulk and bottling domestically."

That may come to pass down the road. For the time being, American beer aficionados will have to be content with speculating about the final flavor of the hybrid beer—without knowing what style of ale Brouckaert will bring to the mix. However, Boon may have provided a clue when he spoke of the origins of the project. Back in 1977, he said, his initial experiments in cross-brewery blending involved mixing what he described as an over-cherried kriek lambic with the potent, spicy grand cru of Belgian brewing legend Pierre Celis. If Brouckaert heeds that experiment's success, the "Opus One of Beer" will be noteworthy for more reasons than the locations of the breweries involved.

—Stephen Beaumont

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