If you are one of those people who just can’t get used to the idea of a screw cap on your bottle of wine, then you have a vested interest in the past, present, and future of the corkscrew. From winemaking’s earliest days in the Middle East when wine was stored in clay amphorae, a variety of sealants has been used to protect it from the effects of oxidation, including olive oil, pine resin, and large cork discs. It wasn’t until the 18th century introduction of mass-produced glass bottles with thin necks that a cork stopper inserted under pressure was used as a closure on wine bottles. That innovation introduced the need for a device to extract the cork.
It’s unknown who made the first corkscrew, but it is generally agreed upon that the design is based on a 17th-century “gun worm” used to clean the barrel of a musket. The first identified patent for a corkscrew was "Patent Number 2061" granted to Samuel Henshall of England on August 24, 1795. Corks were also used to seal smaller perfume, cosmetic and medicine bottles. Many of the earliest examples are miniature versions of the tools we use today.
There are two main types of corkscrew: the wing and the lever. Both types have a helix or “worm,” the metal spiral that is twisted into the cork in order to remove it from the bottle. The wing, also called the butterfly or angel, has two levers on either side of the worm, which raise as the worm is lowered. When the worm is fully inserted into the cork, the levers are pushed down, causing the cork to rise out of the bottle. The lever type, commonly called a sommelier or waiter’s corkscrew, folds like a pocketknife. In addition to the central helix, it has an arm that comes in contact with the edge of the bottle, allowing the cork to be removed in one swift motion once the helix has been embedded.
Levers often have foil-cutting tools on one end, and many double as bottle openers. Many earlier models incorporated other useful devices into their design, including tobacco tampers, whistles (for summoning the barman) and cigarette lighters. Many more are simply figural and often reflected cultural influences at the time they were made. There are antique corkscrews in the form of every animal from aardvark to zebra. An abundance of lever corkscrews with animal horn handles exists, and in the 19th and 20th centuries they were used to advertise products. Many bawdy versions feature a human figure with the “worm” extending from between the legs. Before factories started churning out look-alike corkscrews by the thousands, they were hand-crafted by jewelers, artisans, and blacksmiths. Many beautiful examples exist to this day, the finest of which are housed in private collections.
There are several large corkscrew collections worth visiting, three of which are at European wineries. The largest is at Dinastia Vivanco’s Museum of Wine Culture in Rioja, Spain. In a six-story museum chronicling the history of wine, patriarch Pedro Vivanco displays selections from his personal collection. His is the largest in the world, numbering around four thousand, of which three thousand are on view. A mind-boggling array of human, animal, political, historical, and humorous specimens are arranged by type, covering the history of the device from its beginnings to the space age.
Vangelis Gerovassiliou is also passionate about corkscrews, and he has amassed 2,700 of them. His Wine Museum at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Eponami, in northern Greece, showcases 1,850 models, enhanced by text and illustrations. Grouped into categories telling “Stories With Corkscrews,” there are many novelty figures, including a selection devoted to political satire. One notable example combining figural and functional aspects with political commentary is a combination corkscrew, cup and bottle stopper; It’s a man in a coffin. The date of birth on the coffin is 1919—the first year of Prohibition, and no date of death is listed.
Domaine de la Citadelle in France’s Luberon also houses an impressive collection, with over fifteen hundred pieces from the 18th century to the present. Owner Yves Rousset-Rouard has traveled the world in pursuit of rare and unusual implements.
You have a penchant for corkscrews? Then you have a pretty busy week ahead! The International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts (ICCA) meets in Vermont from October 4th-8th, and the Canadian Corkscrew Collectors Club (CCCC) will convene in Boston from the 8th-10th. Although Vangelis Gerovassiliou states that rare pieces in good condition are getting harder and harder to find, if you are yearning to begin or add to your own collection, head to the Northeast and start now