Five years ago, Hogue Cellars took a leap few others were willing to try: It switched the vast majority of its production to screwcaps.
Today, putting wine under threads is not a huge deal. Five years ago, that was unthinkable. Five years ago, much of the wine industry wondered if it could get away with using screwcaps. Most importantly, it didn't know if anyone would accept screwcaps as a closure on quality wines, rather than associate them with cheap jug wines.
In hindsight, that concern was hardly an issue. Winemakers, winery marketing departments, wine merchants, wine stewards and - most importantly - consumers have accepted screwcaps as anything but an alternative. Most certainly, there are a multitude of holdouts. I speak with winemakers all the time who say they will never switch from corks. And some of the Northwest's largest wineries have not embraced screwcaps. Yet.
That doesn't matter to Co Dinn, Hogue's director of winemaking, the guy who put his reputation on the line five years ago. Sales of Hogue wines and a remarkable lack of consumer pushback have solidified what he knew to be right: Screwcaps were the correct path for Hogue.
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"Five years ago, it was all new," Dinn said. "We had done some experimentation. We had proven to ourselves that we liked what we were seeing, and we had made the decision to go to screwcaps on a commercial scale."
For Hogue, "commercial scale" meant putting hundreds of thousands of cases of wine per year under screwcaps. No other winery in the Northwest was going that far.
"Five years down the road, it's panned out as good as or better than we could have expected."
A technical tasting in August proved his point. I sat down with Dinn for a five-year vertical of Hogue Riesling. The wines showed vintage variations, but each was fresh and seemed to be aging properly. Most enjoyable to me was that each wine was gorgeous and just what Dinn expected when he bottled it.
And that's really the whole point of screwcaps: They should preserve what the winemaker crafted, not leave the wine to the whims of a hunk of bark.
After the Rieslings, we tasted a horizontal of 2003 reds from Hogue's "Terroir" series. These wines are made in small lots that are meant to show off various regions of Washington. Now seven years old, these reds were rather tightly wound still and needed some time to open up. But they were remarkably fresh, almost as if the screwcaps had acted as a time capsule of sorts. I was surprised by this, and Dinn seemed to be, as well.
These five years have brought a lot of change in the world of corks. Thanks to the proliferation of screwcaps, the cork industry has shaped up in a big way. A half-decade ago, few would publicly admit there was a problem with cork taint. Now, cork manufacturers are embracing change because they realize anyone can follow Hogue's lead if they get angry enough. This means TCA - the compound that can cause a wine to smell like a wet dog sleeping on moldy newspaper in a damp basement - is much less prevalent than it was a half-decade ago, when experts estimated anywhere from 3 to 6 percent of wines were affected. Writer George Taber authored a book on the subject, called To Cork or Not to Cork, that shed light on the issues, both with corks and screwcaps.
In fact, compared with five years ago, TCA has nearly vanished because wineries and cork manufacturers won't stand for it anymore.
Meanwhile, the Spanish and Portugese cork growers have launched PR campaigns that are laughable at best. My favorite is the plight of the Iberian lynx, the world's most-threatened species of cat. If you were to believe the cork industry, the Iberian lynx will be saved if you will only eschew wines that don't use natural corks because this will support its natural habitat. In fact, the Iberian lynx has been declining in numbers for decades, and the primary reason for its demise is its primary food supply - rabbits - has been devastated by a disease called myxomatosis. None of this is remotely related to corks or screwcaps.
Cork apologists also are trying to claim that reduced sulfur is prevalent in wines stored under screwcaps. Reduced sulfur can cause aromas that might remind you of rotten eggs or cabbage. Sulfur is used to keep wines from oxidizing, and in an anaerobic environment, reduced sulfur can become a problem. Hogue solved the potential problem by using a type of screwcap that lets a tiny amount of oxygen in - not unlike a cork - and limits potential issues. Ironically, a winemaker using corks might blast a little more sulfur into the wines prior to bottling. But with screwcaps, winemakers have the freedom to bottle wine in a more perfect state because the seal is better and the chances of spoilage are lower. Additionally, I have asked a number of wine competition directors if they have noticed issues with reduction in screwcapped wines, since they see hundreds of them at once and will quickly be able to note trends. To the contrary, they see no issues.
Dinn doesn't much care about the shenanigans in the cork industry because he has moved on, for the most part. A small percentage of his wines still are bottled under cork, but he is running tests with the Vino-Lok, a glass "cork" that is becoming quite the rage amid high-end producers.
In fact, when I asked him what he missed most about corks, he quickly replied, "Nothing."
The cork industry is far from irrelevant, but Hogue's leap of faith helped push everyone forward.