Recently I wrote about why I have come to believe in alternative wine closures. Today I write about six Washington wineries that have made the switch, focusing on what made them decide to use alternative closures, what type of research they conducted prior to making the change, and what consumer response has been. The wineries listed here range from small to large. It is not a comprehensive list but rather is intended as a hopefully representative sample (others feel free to chime in with your experiences).

Syncline Wine Cellars, located in the Columbia Gorge, uses both screw caps and glass stoppers. Winemaker James Mantone says, “We have been proudly cork-free for four years. Sold our corker two years ago, never looked back.” In terms of making the decision to switch from cork, Mantone says, “We were encountering too many purchased wines that were either tainted or had cork failure and were concerned what the consumer reaction might be to a similar problem in our wines.”
Mantone continues saying, “Beyond the TCA issue is the inconsistency in cork. Some great research out of Australia showed that there could be as much as 1,000x difference in oxygen transmission rates in a single bag of purchased corks. How do you attend to this as a producer, or anticipate its affects on your cellared wine as a consumer?”

Syncline Cellars started out using Stelvin screw caps until Mantone came across a glass stopper on an Austrian wine. Mantone did a good deal of research in deciding to start using glass stoppers and screw caps. He continues to. Mantone says, “As (glass stoppers) were so new there was very little research available, only information from the manufacturer and a few wineries that had used it for a year. We began adding the glass stoppers to the trials we were conducting comparing cork to Stelvin. We were measuring SO2 levels pre and post bottling, and six months past and were finding some dramatic results.” What Mantone found was that the SO2 levels – a preservative added to wine – had dropped significantly in bottles closed with cork while levels were maintained in screw cap and glass stopper bottles. He decided to make the change. Doing so also allowed Mantone to lower the amount of sulfites added to the wine.

Mantone continues to taste wines from the original trials and evaluate the closures. He says, “A six year old Subduction Red is far fresher under Stelvin than under cork, and has begun to develop secondary bottle aromatics while maintaining brighter fruit than the cork finished wine.” In terms of consumer response, Mantone says, “When we first introduced the screw cap there was a little resistance from the consumer, but by now it has mostly evaporated.”

Mike Sharadin of Northwest Totem Cellars also uses glass stoppers. In deciding to use an alternative closure he says, “I read about the closure within a week of having a very nice personal bottle of Penfold RWT corked. So seeing it was an elegant solution though slightly more expensive than premium cork, I rationalized stepping up the cost as a cost I did not have to incur later in replacing product or losing customers.”

Sharadin has seen a positive response from consumers. “Consumer response has been amazing!” he says. “They remember the bottle for obvious reasons and have a high stickiness in leaving restaurants with a stopper in their pocket. Additionally, we now sterilize those returned to us in the winery and reuse them. About 3,000 have been returned in our ‘customer loyalty’ program that is simply use, reuse.”

Prosser’s Airfield Estates uses screw caps for its wines. Winemaker Marcus Miller was inspired to use screw caps after talking with winemakers from New Zealand and Australia. Miller says, “One of the first questions I would ask these winemakers was about the screw cap closure. Eventually I was won over by all of the wonderful arguments they put forward.” In terms of consumer response, Miller says, “We have only had a hand full of people that maintained opposition to screw caps after explaining to them the benefits it has over using cork as a closure. Most of these people are cork salesmen.”

Perhaps the largest winery in Washington State to use screw caps is Hogue Cellars. Hogue conducted a multi-year study looking at the effectiveness of various types of closures (see additional information here). The winery concluded that screw caps held fruit and maintained freshness better than cork or synthetics. Hogue brand wines, which account for seventy percent of the winery’s production, are now under screw cap. The winery has not seen any adverse consumer response.

Winemaker Thomas Glase at Walla Walla’s Balboa Winery started out using Stelvin screw caps but recently made a change to conglomerate corks. Glase says, “When we started this little adventure in 2005 we felt that Stelvin closures were the best fit for us. Our wines were early to market and at the time no one else was using them. We never had any problems with them. Last year for the 2008 vintage we decided to go to a conglomerate cork. We bottled half of the syrah and half of the merlot with each. As it turned out the wines with the conglomerate cork sold first.”

Glase’s decision to switch to conglomerate cork was not just based on a difference in consumer response. It was also based on environmental concerns. Glase says, “The conglomerate cork is made from the left over cork bark after the main corks have been punched. They are 98% TCA free and cost half of what a Stelvin closure costs. They also take one-third the energy to produce. We also eliminated the foil. In this business I would say 100% of what we create turns into waste, so we wanted to minimize our impact on the environment, and I think we have.” Glase says consumer response has been positive.

Walla Walla’s Dusted Valley Vintners has been a major advocate for screw caps. In deciding to use screw caps, Corey Braunel says of cork, “It is an organic material with variability in structure which leads to variability in the transfer of oxygen into the wine which could create bottle to bottle differences or destroy the wine completely. We also know that 1 in 20 corks (conservative) will be tainted by a chlorine derived molecule called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA).”

Braunel says, “We were the first winery in Washington State to use screw caps on 100% of our bottlings starting with the 2005 vintage. We’re a small family-owned winery that can’t afford the risk of losing a Dusted Valley convert because of a bad cork. Over 80% of folks don’t even realize they may be drinking a tainted bottle. But, what they do know is they don’t like what’s in the bottle of a tainted cork.”

Braunel says that customer response has been extremely positive – with one exception. He says, “We’ve only had one guy in four vintages give us a hard time about abandoning cork. He said, ‘it took the romance out of it for him.’ His wife was standing there with him and she rolled her eyes at me. So, I said, ‘Forgive me but shouldn’t the romance happen after the bottle is gone? I guess I don’t get what’s romantic about the ‘pop’ of a wine bottle.’ His wife damn near died on the spot and he was a good enough sport in that he said, ‘OK you got me!’ He joined the Stained Tooth Society and purchased six bottles.”

See a recent Wall Street Journal article on plastic corks.

Also see a recent post from the 30 Second Wine Adviser which contains a must see picture from a ten year study.