Sitting across the table from me at one of those New Orleans Wine & Food Experience events was a guy who owned a winery in Napa Valley. I seized the opportunity to ask him something I had been wondering about. Several years ago, I told him, I visited a winery and the guide was talking about the shortage of corks, but then he whispered that screw tops were actually better than corks; there’s never any leakage from the twist-off caps plus they can easily be put back on the bottle. The only reason some wineries still use corks, he said, was because of the romance of pulling them out. “Is that true?” I asked the winemaker, “Are screw tops really better than corks?”
Hearing my question the winemaker stared at me with a wide-eyed “why-have-you-stopped-me-officer?” sort of look. He paused as though searching for the right words, and with a faint smile said, “You have violated both church and state with that question.”
Then he attempted an answer. For the next few minutes he waxed on about the different characteristics between red and white wine and about the various types of corks, including the plastic ones. He spoke about industry economics, acknowledged the cork shortage, mentioned shipping conditions, elaborated on proper storage method.
He did suggest that screw caps might work better for one type of wine than for another though I don’t remember which. His answer was long and thought- provoking but stopped short of a definitive conclusion. If I may interpret his response, I think what he meant to say is that “yes, screw tops are better.” By then I thought it might be better to change the subject.
Earlier I had asked the winemaker another question that went much more smoothly. I told him that I had visited several wineries, taken the tours and understood the first few steps – picking the grapes, washing and crushing them. Where I got lost, I said, was the next step, which is adding yeast. I have never understood what happened from there, as though magic took over. He nodded, conceded that he never grasped the post-yeast chemistry either and suggested that it was indeed magic.
I might have lived with that answer except that the next night I was talking to a woman, also from California. She wasn’t a winemaker but knew the industry. I posed the yeast question and she said I should think of yeast as tiny animals. They eat the substance and transform it internally, leaving their excretion. “Oh, I see,” I replied while deciding the analogy shouldn’t be taken any further.
This being our annual Best New Restaurant issue, we pause to toast what always accompanies a fine meal, wine, which itself is often the sustenance of the toasting. Why do meals go better with wine? That is simple: it’s magic.