A few months ago, I attended a fabulous wine tasting -- amazing bottle after amazing bottle, an embarrassment of stellar scores and vintages. As the evening wore on, the attendees set about the enviable task of choosing the brightest star in the heavens, nodding and smiling over their favorites. But at the outset, the most common comment was less sanguine: "Did you taste the '86 Lafite Rothschild? Corked!" A great wine, cellared for some 19 years, ruined by a trace compound in its packaging. It's the risk you run -- however small -- when you stick with the (aesthetically wonderful) tradition of stopping up your bottles with tree bark.
A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner with a very good winemaker for a good-sized winery. I asked him if he had ever considered going to screwcaps. "Absolutely" was his immediate reply. But, he said, Marketing would not hear of it. Apparently, too many people still associate screwcaps with plonk, still long for that anticipatory pop of the cork as it exits the bottle, still enjoy the waiter's ritual as he sets to work with foil cutter and corkscrew.
This year will mark the first that Brian Loring puts his Loring Wine Company wines under screwcap. "I wanted to do it two years ago," he says, "but I couldn't get a conversion for my tiny bottling line. But now that I've ramped up production to 4000 cases, I have a mobile bottling coming in, and they're screwcap-capable. I said, 'Okay, time to switch. '"
He was not always so eager. "Early on, I would have told you that I would never be the guy to lead the charge away from cork. But then I started making my wines and opening them at tastings and finding out how many corked wines there were. And then I started seeing people on the online wine boards just screaming about corked wines and what a pain they were and wineries not taking wines back, or retail shops not taking wines back, and being out all this money. That was the final push; I said, 'I've got to get away from cork. '"
He sent word to his distributors. Surprisingly, the reaction was almost uniformly positive. "Most of them said, 'Oh, the restaurants are going to be so happy. No more corked wines. '" Loring joked (half-joked?) that somebody had come up with a fancy way to open screwcap wines tableside, cracking the seal by hand and then unrolling the cap by sliding the bottleneck down an outstretched forearm. By the time the bottle reaches the hand, the cap is ready to be slipped off.
"There's some good timing about it," says Loring. "I think there's been enough press about screwcaps that the general public is starting to get accustomed to the idea. Wine Spectator put the whole cork/screwcap debate on the cover a few months ago. And once people understand it, they feel cool. They're in with the clique; they know screwcaps are really good. They can impress their friends; it's almost a kind of cachet. Five years ago? No. But now..."
Still, he sympathizes with the hesitant folks back in that other winemaker's marketing department. "You have to be careful. The wine boards represent one-hundredth of one percent of the top wine-buying people in the country. Most people who are into wine are still excited when they see a bottle of Silver Oak or Caymus -- things that the wine boards are just beyond right now. These people are on the leading edge. It's ridiculous to ignore them, but anytime you see stuff on the boards, you have to stop and think, 'Okay, is this really representative?' It's probably more representative for me, because I'm a boutiquey producer making high-end Pinot Noir. These people are my market. But if you're a bigger winery, if you make 50,000 cases, you have to be more careful. Your market is people walking into a wine shop or grocery store. It might be too soon. But for me, the timing is perfect. I've been listening; I know it's ready to go."
For Loring, the wine boards -- places like the West Coast Wine Discussion Group and eRobertParker.com -- are, among other things, a fantastic tool for market research. (This is perhaps especially true in his particular case, since he was a regular on the boards before he began making wine and so has numerous personal connections.) The switch to screwcaps was helped along by the boards. So was the switch to smaller-format bottles. As with screwcaps, Loring was seeking to remove aspects of his packaging that kept people from getting to his product. "I used a bigger-style bottle, and it was very beautiful. It just didn't fit on a standard wine rack. I didn't have a wine rack at home, so I didn't think about it. All of a sudden, people are on the boards saying, 'Oh, I hate these bottles!' People e-mailed me and said, 'Brian, I can buy only two of your bottles, because I have only two spaces that will fit them.' So I switched."
The boards led him to cancel shipping charges for his wines -- many Internet posters do a lot of direct ordering over the Web. "I was charging one or two bucks a bottle, and then if you bought six or more, shipping was free. But then I started seeing people complain, and I thought, 'Gosh, what is the point of charging someone three bucks? That's just ridiculous.' And I saw people saying things about other wines: 'The winery charges me $40, and they charge me for shipping. But the wine is $40 retail down in the wine shop. I'll just go there!'" The difference, of course, is that when you sell the wine directly, you're not paying out percentages to distributors and retailers. Better to eat the shipping costs and preserve the customer. "I also offer my mailing list people 10 percent off retail if they buy direct."
And the boards helped carry him into the mainstream of wine distribution. "My guys in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Missouri, and Massachusetts all came to me through people who were on the boards. A lot of people contacted me long before I got any big press. I haven't had to go looking, which is cool. I know people will come on the mailing list and drop off later, or start buying less." That's the business -- there are always people looking for the next thing. "If I just stayed with my mailing list, I have a feeling that at some point I would have nothing left. It would just end. Distribution through retail shops and restaurants is my hedge to keep it going. I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I want to have a strong business. Next month, I'm pretty much going to quit my job in software and go full-time into wine."