Twist caps

Beverages have been sealed with metal caps since the 19th century, but—horrors—nobody thought about using them on quality wine bottles until the 21st century.

Impetus came from two directions. A dramatic increase in wine consumption stressed cork producers in Portugal and Spain and cork quality declined, leading to a rise in “corked wine” problems. At same time, cork prices—50 cents to more than a dollar each—stressed makers serving the market for wines priced less than $20, especially those priced less than $15. What was a winemaker to do?

In the late 1960s, a French company, Le Bouchage Mécanique, developed a metal screw closure. It was a slow slog for a while, but increased in importance as the cork taint plague spread. Le Bouchage Mécanique passed through several owners until, in 2005 it introduced the Stelvin Lux cap which has become the industry standard, to the point that “Stelvin cap” is both a brand name and a generic identifier in the same way as Kleenex and Band-Aid—trademarked names that identify a product even when not made by the owners of the trademark.

There is no question twist-off caps are perfectly fine for wines drunk young. That is why almost all sauvignon blancs from New Zealand are “Stelvin” closed. Also why wineries around the world have turned to twist-off caps, especially for their mass market offerings.

What is unknown is how well age-worthy wines will fare, and since that requires the investment of a quarter-century or more the jury is still out. Most makers have engaged in experiments rather than vintage-wide commitments.

Twist-offs have another problem: image. Repeated surveys report people associate pulling a cork out of a bottle of wine, especially more expensive wines, improves their perception of the quality of the wine. No small thing.

Add to the intrigue: cork producers in Portugal and Spain got the memo to clean up their act. Literally. Cork taint was traced to unclean conditions in the cork factory. Today, makers have significantly reduced the incidents of inferior corks. Bottom line: twist-off caps are here to stay. So are corks.

Last round: Hard-won wisdom: Never, ever ask a woman who is eating ice cream out of the carton or drinking wine out of the bottle how she is doing.