The combination of corks and wine bottles was a great innovation in the 1600s. But while a lot has changed since then, most natural corks haven't--at least not enough. They still dry out, crumble and shrink as they age. Some don't ever fit right, allowing air in to oxidize the wine and turn it stale. And then there's "cork taint," those moldy smells and tastes caused by trichloranisole, a chemical that some experts estimate adversely affects up to 10% of all bottles of wine. (Synthetic corks solve some of those issues but raise their own.) Recently, however, the search for alternatives to the cork has heated up. Here's how some pioneering winemakers are thinking outside--or, in some cases, literally inside--the box to make wine better, more accessible and less perishable:
SCREW CAPS AND GLASS STOPPERS Influential wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has predicted that by 2015 more wines will be opened with the twist of a wrist than the pull of a cork. Screw caps eliminate the oxidation and taint problems, are simple to open--no corkscrew required!--and reseal easily. After decades of being associated with cheap wine, they're finally overcoming their image problem. New Zealand already closes more than 80% of its wines with screw caps. The French even use them on a few prestigious Bordeaux and Burgundies.
Enterprising California winemakers are embracing them too. Don Sebastiani & Sons playfully named one of its brands Screw Kappa Napa. Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard, held a mock funeral for the cork in 2002; today 99% of his wines use screw caps. Fetzer and Stone Cellars by Beringer have gone so far as to put their single-serving screw-top wines in plastic bottles. Whitehall Lane goes a step further and uses elegant glass stoppers for its expensive bottlings.
CROWN CAPS AND POP TOPS The crenellated closures usually found on beer bottles are being drafted into service for sparkling wines. Following the tradition of winemakers in Italy's Veneto region, who use these covers for bottles destined for their home consumption, Mionetto, a winery based in Valdobbiadene, seals its IL bottles with these user- friendly caps. Cali fornia's Domaine Chandon puts crown caps on étoile, its top-of-the-line cuvée. Meanwhile, Sofia Blanc de Blancs, the sparkling wine that filmmaker turned winemaker Francis Coppola created for his daughter's wedding, now also comes in magenta Mini cans with pull-tab tops.
BOXES AND CARTONS Bag-in-the-box containers can keep wines fresh for four to six weeks after they're opened, thanks to the vacuum-sealed bag inside that collapses as the wine is consumed, making it difficult for oxygen to get in and spoil what's left. Although box wines often come in 3-L sizes, equivalent to four bottles of wine, more convenient 1.5-L boxes are becoming available.
Juice box--style cartons don't offer that extra shelf life once opened, but they are more eco-friendly than bottles. French Rabbit--whose slogan is "Savor the wine/ Save the planet"--estimates that its containers produce 90% less packaging waste. They also fit more efficiently in trucks, reducing fuel usage and carbon emissions.
Paper-based containers are going upscale too. Last November famed New York City chef Daniel Boulud and his wine director, Daniel Johnnes, launched the dtour label with a Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay in a 3-L cylinder. A Côtes-du-Rhône followed in May.