Screw Caps Go Upscale

Screw caps are having a moment, as American wines seek alternatives to cork.


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Stelvin® capsules, more commonly referred to as “screw caps,” are having a moment. Amcor, a manufacturer of caps and other packaging, has just introduced four new liners that expand the range of permeability and eliminate PVDC—the material that contains a chlorine component. The company’s Technical Field Service and Quality director, Eric Graham, estimates that about 10 percent of America’s wines now have screw caps, and the numbers are growing.

While wines topped with screw caps are all the rage, many winemakers and consumers prefer corks as the closure for their fine wines, particularly those meant for aging—but not all. Dusted Valley Vintners partners Corey Braunel and Chad Johnson don’t, for example. They have used screwcaps on all their wines for the past decade, including for their most expensive bottlings.

“The cork industry has cleaned up a lot,” claims Chad Johnson. He and his partner easily disregard concerns and criticisms about screw caps.

“Here in the tasting room, most people don’t even notice that we’re pouring from screw caps,” says Johnson. “The comment most often heard when they do see it is, ‘Thanks!’”
And at “white tablecloth restaurants, we believe [screw caps] are a teaching moment,” he says.

When it comes to ageability concerns, it’s even more clear. “Ten years ago sommeliers were still on the fence regarding aging wines with screwcap, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine professional who would argue that it isn’t a significant advantage in quality control,” Johnson says.

And the partners aren’t the one only who have a proclivity to the caps. Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, one of Washington’s biggest wine producers, is now using them to seal select white wines and lighter reds. Their new wine—Anew Riesling—was introduced nationwide in June with a Stelvin® capsule.

“This wine is geared toward a millennial female consumer,” says Lynda Eller, communications director for Chateau Ste. Michelle. “We are finding that younger millennial consumers are more experimental and open to alternative closures,” says says. “However,” she adds, “the majority of our core wine portfolio wines are cork finished. We think that using a natural closure best highlights wine.”

Tim Donahue—enology instructor at Walla Walla Community College, Enology and Viticulture—strongly disagrees with cork usage. “Winemakers will spend years on site selection, soil amendments, clonal selection, canopy design and spray programs,” he says, adding, “They will monitor water stress, leaf pull, fruit thin, measure phenolic data… use a 100% sterile bottling line and bottles, and then, just for the hell of it, shove an old piece of tree bark in the neck of the bottle and hope everything works out.”

Nicolas Quillé, winemaker and general manager at Pacific Rim, is another long time supporter of screw caps. “When I started to work with Randall [Grahm], owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards], it was already 100% screwed, and we've carried that in the Northwest,” says Quillé. “I would think we are the largest user of screw caps in Washington…I am at the point where I don't understand why winemakers use corks for any wine. I have had no complaints from customers for years now,” he says.

At Dusted Valley, Braunel and Johnson say advances in screw cap technology allow winemakers to select different liner options, and offer aesthetic improvements, such as non-threaded closures. Even the best corks, they argue, will have density and porosity differences, and varying oxygen transfer rates, whereas screw caps are consistent and reproducible.

“Imagine a world where all wines are sealed with screw caps and someone comes along and tries to sell you on using tree bark?” asks Johnson. “It’s more expensive, a percentage of corks may fail, quality is inconsistent, but it looks good. Would you really consider switching?”

While disagreements about closures remain, there is no argument that Dusted Valley is turning out some outstanding wines. In our most recent reviews of the Dusted Valley 2010 reds, seven out of eight scored 90 points or higher, and were priced between $35 and $53.


Below are Paul Gregutt's top rated Dusted Valley selections: 

90 Dusted Valley 2010 Petite Sirah Columbia Valley. Strong tannins are a given with varietal Petite Sirah, and they are here in force, along with dark, deep notes of licorice, vanilla and cassis fruit. It’s a big wine throughout, with very ripe fruit that never veers into jammy flab. Just plain delicious all the way through the long finish.  
abv: 15.3%         Price: $42

91 Dusted Valley 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley. A bright, tart, spicy wine with plenty of grip and detail, this threads flavors of herb, stem and earth into the substantial blackberry and cassis fruit. It’s nicely woven together, penetrating and punchy.
abv: 14.7%         Price: $35

92 Dusted Valley 2010 Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley. This is a lovely Cabernet Franc, polished and clean. It’s wound tight, with black fruits and firm, pencil lead tannins. There’s a dash of clean earth, good length, and some softening of the mid-palate from the addition of 18% Merlot. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.7%         Price: $42

92 Dusted Valley 2010 Malbec Columbia Valley. Dusted Valley is really rockin’ it in 2010, with outstanding varietal releases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and this yummy Malbec. A big entry brings blackberry and cassis into the palate, with peppery highlights. Nice details of herb and tobacco are found, as the wine seems to get more powerful the longer it lingers. Editors’ Choice. 
abv: 14.7%         Price: $42

91 Dusted Valley 2010 Wallywood Red Columbia Valley. Wallywood is a Rhône-style red, two thirds Syrah, with Grenache, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah filling in the rest. It surprises with its elegance, despite hefty alcohol and tannic components. It’s a very well done blend, melding together flavors of plum, berry, herb, stem, earth and iron. 
abv: 14.7%         Price: $42

91 Dusted Valley 2010 Rachis Syrah Columbia Valley. Rachis refers to a particular part of the grape stem, and indicates that roughly one quarter of this wine is whole cluster fermented. Very pretty cherry fruit is gently mixed with accents of Italian herbs, and the stems tighten up the tannins and add a light hint of bitterness. The finish has a tart, grapefruity kick.
abv: 14.9%         Price: $53

87 Dusted Valley 2011 Stained Tooth Syrah Columbia Valley. Dusted Valley puts out a number of Syrahs, with this being the first to be released from each vintage. Young and grapey, it’s got good fruit flavors, with suggestions of plum and berry. The tart acids bring a wash of citrus that lifts the finish.
abv: 14.7%         Price: $32

90 Dusted Valley 2011 Squirrel Tooth Alice Red Heaven Vineyard Red, Red Mountain. Mourvèdre is the dominant grape (60%) with Grenache making up the rest. It’s a riot of flavors, Bing cherry, green olive, some stem and herb, with the minerality of the Mourvèdre underscoring the finish. Very well done and quite tasty.
abv: 14.9%         Price: $39

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