Is Screwing Hip?

We twist open 2005 for a nip. Is this a sign of things to come?

Back in the day, after restaurants were ravaged by bursting equity market bubbles and brutal terrorists kicking in New York City's architectural teeth, wine drinkers went downscale. Go-go '90s expense accounts were pinched. Travel slowed to the speed of Web conferencing. Wine lists sloughed off the perpetually allocated cult cabs and Burgundies and Bordeauxs that tasted so good while Global Crossing and Enron became the new General Motors. But after the pop, cult cabs were allowed to age. Pricey Chardonnays languished. Wine inventories tightened.

Now that the economy has largely recovered and General Motors is the new Global Crossing, what are wine lists doing? After stabilizing in 2004, it seems this year inventories are growing again. Price resistance is wearing down.

And it's turning weird.

First there's the Merlot/Pinot Noir flip-flop, with the once-hot Bordeaux grape that made Petrus famous ceding ground to the temperamental and subtle (in theory) grape that made Domaine de la Romanée-Conti famous. Blame the movie Sideways and the utterances of Miles Raymond: "No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" The trick is to ride such precious dialogue to riches.

"Pinots are really rocking out there," says Guy Stout, director of wine education for Glazer's Distributors and Texas' only master sommelier. Stout says dry rosés are also kicking into gear, if you can believe that. Drinkers appear ready to open their minds to this great food wine that looks suspiciously like Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill.

Gene Street, chairman of the 145-restaurant (plus 40 franchised units), $265 million Consolidated Restaurant Operations (Cantina Laredo, Spaghetti Warehouse, III Forks, El Chico, Cool River Café), says wine sales at the company's III Forks and Silver Fox steak houses have shattered records over the past few months, though he says the Pinot hype has leveled off.

Then there's Riesling. "The Riesling renaissance is hitting us now here," says Drew Hendricks, sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Riesling? In a steak house? Hendricks points to the Sideways-like effect Riesling hype has had on consumer awareness in recent months. Riesling was the cover girl on the December 15 issue of Wine Spectator. This was after The Dallas Morning News ran a feature on the noble wine in late August.

But perhaps the weirdest quirk in wine-list demographics is the gradual but unmistakable dislodgement of the cork. "People are really embracing screw-top closures," insists Stout. "[Bars are] showing it off...They're using it as a selling point." Showing off screw-tops? You mean like demonstrating how Pabst caps can be lifted with gold crowns?

No, no--by emphasizing the screw-top's selling points: fuller, fresher wines free of cork fragments. Screw-tops provide more secure wine containment, preventing oxygen seepage as well as eliminating cork taint caused by a chemical triggered by a fungus that sometimes infects the cork. Cork taint robs wine of its fruit characteristics and imparts a wet cardboard essence. Wine Spectator reported that as many as 15 percent of the wines their reviewers open for tasting are corked, though that number seems high.

Until recently, resistance to screw-tops was entrenched and immovable. Corked wines denote cachet and cork removal confers a bit of romance to the otherwise mundane task of opening a bottle of wine. Twisting a screw-top, on the other hand, was viewed as little more than a street exercise most often associated with cheap fortified wines such as Night Train and MD 20/20. Unscrewing on a first date or on an anniversary simply bleeds off the romance.

But perceptions appear to be shifting. Thank/blame New Zealand and Australia. These countries were among the first to cap a substantial amount of their wine production with aluminum screw-tops. Wineries such as California's Bonny Doon Vineyard, Oregon's Chehalem Winery and Washington State's Hogue Cellars are also twisting in the fray. Adopters are even popping up in Chablis, Alsace, Germany and Spain. The reason is simple: As a recently released study conducted by the University of Auckland points out, screw-tops outperform cork closures, preserving the freshness and varietal character of wines, especially Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand's fermented cash cow.

Screw-tops have other advantages in this post-September 11 world. "If you travel and you have a corkscrew taken from you at the airport like I have so many times, it's convenient," Stout says.

But this isn't the only gauche wine accessory that will go mainstream in restaurants in the foreseeable future. Look for bladder-in-the-box wines equipped with a spigot dispenser to squeeze their way into by-the-glass programs. Again, the reason is simple: Like screw-tops, boxed wines protect against spoilage by preventing oxygen exposure and microbial infection, especially after opening. Opened wine in boxed bladders will last for weeks, potentially slashing waste in restaurant by-the-glass programs. Plus, these bladders are beginning to slosh with panache: Jean-Marc Brocard is filling 3-liter boxes with genuine Chablis, like the 2004 "Jurassique" Bourgogne Blanc. Bladders are even bloating with quality Rhône-style reds, so the potential for high-value by-the-glass wine programs is startling.

Logistically, incorporating bag-in-the-box in by-the-glass is dicey. "Realistically, I don't know how you pretty-up the package," says Whit Meyers, chief executive officer of the Entertainment Collaborative (Green Room, Jeroboam). "But it's not something you want to put on your back bar."

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