Dear Dr. Wine:
I find more and more bottles are closed with plastic, rather than natural, corks. What gives?
R. B., Chicago
Dear R. B.:
Certainly not the plastic corks, which can be maddeningly difficult to extract from the bottles.
Several years ago, wineries began to notice that a small but significant percentage of their wines smelled funny when opened. Most wineries have estimated from 2-5 percent, but others have gone as high as 10 percent. The odor is like wet cardboard or a dank, even mildew-y, basement. Whatever fruit aromas were present in the wine are knocked out.
Such wines came to be called 'corked'' wines because, winemakers believe, a newer chlorine-based solution used to clean cork tree bark interacts with wine, causing a chemical (called trichloranisole) to cause these smells and ruin the wine.
Losing 5 percent of your production is a horrendous loss to a winery, so wineries around the world have examined alternative ways to stopper their bottles, and plastic corks are one of them. (Their real name is 'thermoplastic elastomers" and are extruded something like spaghetti pasta, then cut up into little lengths.)
Other closures are ground-up cork, reformulated with inert glues, into cork look-alikes; and plastic-bottomed screw caps. Randall Graham, the rogue winemaker for the well-regarded Bonny Doon Winery, uses screw caps now.
No non-cork 'cork' meets the snob appeal of true cork, but all these substitutes actually perform better (that is, don't interact with the wine) and last longer than true cork. It's just that we associate 'plastic'' with less than romantic ideas about wine.
By the way, real cork not only spoils in time (whereas plastic does not), there's nothing to the myth that cork 'let's the wine slowly breathe over time' by allowing miniscule amounts of air in and out of the bottle. That's hooey: The whole idea is to prevent oxygen from getting any entrance to the wine at all. Even in 'miniscule amounts,' oxygen ruins wine in short order.
Dear Dr. Wine:
I generally buy wine in the $10-$20 a bottle range and am quite happy with my selections. But I continually come across bottles costing $100 a bottle or more (there even was one for more than $300 that I saw). Are these wines really that much better and am I missing out on something?
J.Z., River Forest
There are three reasons why a wine costs $300 a bottle (or $100, for that matter): one, it is so rare that the demand for it makes it worth that; two, the winery just says it's going to cost that much; and three, people are stupid and pay the winery.
About rarity, demand and high prices, I trust you understand.
But, especially in the last few years, wineries have simply said 'Our wine costs $75 a bottle'—or more. And a lot of them have gotten away with it because wine buyers go ahead and blithely open their wallets.
'Cult'' wines such as Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon ($125) aren't the problem. A secondary market in auctions creates most of the demand for these wines.
By and large, I'm referring to red wines that a winery simply defends as—'let's see, what can we get away with?'—worth so many dollars.
Examples that have worked? There are plenty: Gaja Barbaresco; Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino; Robert Mondavi-Baron de Rothschild Opus One; or most any 'super Tuscan.' None of these wines was pricey before the maker said so. Winemakers of these wine just plainly, flat-out blew up the price.
Are they worth it? Not at all—unless it's cool for you to have prestige in glass in your wine cellar.
Look at it this way: Calculate how many 'pleasures' you get from a $15 bottle of wine. Will a $150 bottle give you 10 times as much pleasure?
I doubt it (again, unless showing off expensive wines pops your cork). Stick with what you're doing. It's the happy way.
Have a wine question? Send a mail to email@example.com and Dr. Wine will answer it.