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Screw It Up!

Over the course of my travels, I chat with restaurateurs and hear the latest hot industry topics. Recently, much of the talk has been about screw caps and how to deal with them. This column addresses the presentation of screw-capped wines on the list. We will also explore ways to present a screw-capped bottle of wine with as much integrity and ceremony as those closed with corks.


Slights and Murmurs
The restaurant industry’s use of alternative closures is nothing new. Bag-in-box wines, for example, have been successfully utilized in establishments for years, especially in casual concepts. But instead of being publicly celebrated, box wines have been hidden behind the bar, clandestinely used for by-the-glass orders. This second-class treatment has everything to do with perception. Though a box wine’s closure affords bartenders expedience and ease and its air-free container enhances the wine’s shelf life, spigot service is not perceived by customers as being nearly as impressive as pulling and presenting a cork.


The screw cap falls victim to similar prejudice, although not by everyone. Many wine-savvy consumers already understand its benefits. Ironically, customers whom we have successfully “traded up” from jug or box wines or who have not been privy to the screw-cap movement are seemingly the most perplexed or put off when presented with a screw cap.

Guest Education
Because more and more bottles have these closures—including ultra-premium selections—it’s important to educate consumers and acclimate them so that they are not unpleasantly surprised when a wine they order is uncapped before their eyes. One good way to begin is to decide whether you want to address screw-cap wines on your wine list. Of course, your staff can simply answer guests’ concerns on a case-by-case basis. Or you can tag the bottles on your list with an asterisk and include on the menu a brief explanation of screw-cap benefits. Better yet, you could create a section on your list that highlights alternative-closure wines, including those with synthetic corks, and let people know why they’re all the rage.


Here are a few facts in support
of screw caps that you can present either verbally when serving a screw- top bottle or in writing on your list. First, they have been around for a long time—mostly in the domain of food products and soft drinks, where they’ve been proven to guarantee freshness. Additionally, cork, being a natural material, is imperfect. Its failure rate—i.e., wines affected by cork taint stemming from the closure itself or from the winery—is 2 to 11 percent, depending on whose research you rely on.


Touting Taint-Free
The failure rate is not so evident to most consumers. Even if they are drinking one affected bottle out of every ten, they may not know it because they usually can pick up on only the most blatant offenders. (You know the ones—those with the moldy cardboard smell.) In most cases, cork taint simply takes the edge off the wine. Maybe the fruit is not as bright or the wine is off or not
as lively. This is especially unfortunate for restaurants because, rather than recognize that the wine is flawed, patrons are more likely to think the particular selection they chose from your list simply wasn’t very good. And surely you want your customers to have faith that you offer a quality selection in both food and wine. But you can reassure your guests that, while most people may never be able to identify a mild case of cork taint, a twist-off top eliminates the possibility of buying and consuming a wine that should taste better than it does. Finally, there are numerous studies that demonstrate that screw tops are conducive to red- and white-wine ageability and longevity, including a recently released four-year comparative study by Hogue Cellars, which states: “Screw-cap closures proved to hold fruit and maintain freshness more effectively than natural and synthetic corks.” In a nutshell, screw tops ensure consumers a better product and make it easier to open and reseal their favorite bottles. What’s not to like about that?


Screw-Cap Stigma
A large part of the dilemma has to do with perception. Historically, these types of closures have been used almost exclusively for lower-end wines. As a result, most consumers—especially those who have moved up from jug and screw-cap bottles to varietal wines with cork closures—associate these user-friendly twist-tops with low-brow selections. The irony, of course, is that now that the screw cap has embraced all tiers of the industry, we have to convince these guests that they’re trading up by selecting 750 ml bottles with juglike twist tops. Another barrier that slows these clients’ willingness to wholeheartedly embrace the screw cap is that simply unscrewing it is not as romantic as pulling a cork. As a result, restaurant staffs are often baffled by how to ceremoniously open a quality bottle with a screw cap. These issues are becoming more and more commonplace for restaurants as wineries continue to move away from cork in favor of screw caps. As members of the wine-service community, it is our job to help the wine industry eliminate the screw cap’s stigma and show our customers that formal wine service is not adversely affected by these closures.

Do the Twist
From a service perspective, all wines need to have classic presentation at the table. Just because screw tops are different from cork closures doesn’t mean you shouldn’t present a screw-top bottle with the same formality. Just as a bottle of sparkling wine deserves the same service fanfare as Champagne and a synthetic cork is presented even though it’s not created from cork bark, the newly elevated screw cap is worthy of a dignified presentation. But how?

• First, prepare your mise en place. When opening a screw-top bottle
at the table, you won’t need a corkscrew. But you will need a napkin, and you’ll still want to have an ice bucket nearby, if that’s a usual element of your wine service.
• Second, present with panache.
The presentation itself is identical to normal wine service: present the bottle with the label facing the guest at eye level and repeat the name and vintage that was ordered. If
the guests raise an eyebrow about the screw cap, you have the perfect opportunity to educate them on its merits, which I outlined above.
• Next, open the wine, but not with your bare hand. Instead, open
the bottle as you would a bottle of Champagne: take a serviette, place the screw cap and neck of the bottle in the serviette, close it around the bottle neck so your whole hand
is around it, and slowly twist the bottle to break the seal and remove the screw cap. Once the cap is off, do not present it. Simply pocket it in case you need it later, taste the guest on the wine, and proceed with normal wine service.
• A few side notes: Make sure you don’t tilt the bottle too much while opening it. Screw-cap bottles tend to be fuller than cork-closed options (another bonus to twist-tops!), so holding it the way you would a traditional bottle might result in a little spillage. Also, you should keep the removed and pocketed screw cap along with your extra corks in an ice bucket, just in case your customers, where legal, decide to take the bottle home with them.

If you want to make your customers comfortable with the screw-cap selections on your list, you have to eliminate the misperception that a twist-top equals a cheap wine. One of the best ways to do that is by making sure your staff treats these wines with the same dignity and respect that they would any fine wine.

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