Joel Tefft hates corked wine. When the Yakima Valley winemaker opens a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, he prefers to smell rich dark fruit rather than moldy cardboard.
Call him crazy.
But Joel is doing something about it. Something proactive and different. Something drastic.
Joel put one of his wines - gasp! - in a box. And - horrors! - he put a screwcap on another.
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Wine is "corked" when it's tainted with TCA (2,4,6-trichloro anisole), a compound that can occur when chlorine comes into contact with wood products. Chlorine is used to bleach cork bark, and if TCA occurs in a cork, it can ruin a wine pretty quickly. The tragic part of this is there's no way to tell if a wine is ruined until you pull the cork, and there's nothing you can do with corked wine except cuss and pour it down the drain.
TCA ruins a lot of wine. The cork industry claims 1 or 2 percent; others say 30 or 40 percent. My experience has been 7 to 10 percent. Regardless, it's too much tainted wine.
As a consumer, I don't like that. As a winemaker, neither does Joel Tefft.
"It just makes for bad customer relations when you get a bad bottle of wine," Joel says.
Experienced wine drinkers come to expect some TCA, which isn't good but forgivable. They won't blame the winemaker while cursing the cork. But less-savvy wine drinkers may only recognize the wine as "bad." They probably won't buy that winery's products anymore and might not even bother with wine again.
Joel decided it was time to do something about it.
Earlier this year, he bought 250 wine boxes from a Canadian supplier and filled them with his Proprietor's Red, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend. The wine normally sells for $10 per bottle, but Joel's four-liter box (a little more than five bottles) sells for $25. Because the containers cost less than bottles, he was able to save his customers quite a bit of money. In the box is a mylar bag with a spigot, so as a glass is poured, the bag folds up, never letting air touch the wine inside.
This wasn't a simple project because Joel and his wife, Pam, had to fill the bags by hand. There's a $9,000 machine that will do it, which Joel will gladly buy if this idea takes off.
So far, it's a huge success. He sold all 250 boxes in three months this summer and fall, all through his tasting room outside the tiny hamlet of Outlook. That's 100 cases of wine, a good amount for a winery that makes 5,000 cases per year. A lot of folks who bought his boxed wine came back and bought more because they liked the concept -- and the wine - so much.
The boxed wine will keep for about 18 months before any degradation occurs, Joel says, which is plenty of time for someone to enjoy the equivalent of five bottles of wine.
"Washington makes wines that are so approachable," he says. "When we bag them, they're ready to drink."
Joel's other experiment is with his 2000 late-harvest Chenin Blanc, a $10 white dessert wine he'll release around Valentine's Day. He used screwcaps to close up all 70 cases of half-bottles. Again, he had to do it by hand. But he didn't mind because he knew his customers would be tasting his delicious wine, untainted by TCA.
A couple of years ago, Plumpjack, a premium California winery, created a stir when it bottled half its expensive cabernet sauvignon with a screwcap and the other half with natural corks. Joel isn't bothering with this; he bottled all of it, save for a few bottles he's holding back to see what the long-term effects are. And if his customers like it - I don't doubt they will - he plans to put screwcaps on more of his wine.
Tefft Cellars is the first Northwest winery I've run across that is going to this level to avoid TCA, but it has plenty of compatriots in the wine business. In New Zealand, 27 wineries have created the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, reports New York Times wine writer Frank Prial. These, like Tefft's, are fine wines. So are a handful of Australian wineries that are putting some of their premium wines in boxes.
Understandably, Joel is concerned with image. Box wine and screwcaps conjure up images of cheap California jug wine, the kind of stuff that built E&J Gallo's empire.
But this isn't Night Train, Franzia or Hearty Burgundy.
Some of Joel's neighboring wineries are glad he's taken the plunge and are waiting to see consumer reaction. He's seen enough and is planning to also box a white wine in 2002.
"God didn't strike me dead, so I guess I'm doing OK," he says with a sly grin. "Just because it's in a box doesn't mean it's bad. It would be fun to do a reserve cab, but I don't know if I'd get away with that."
I think he would, and I hope he does. Smart consumers want untainted wines. And the first step to guaranteeing that is to stop screwing around with corks.