Public warming to screw cap wines

The idea was relatively straightforward. The world had produced a healthy bulk wine market and three winemakers had the opportunity to move on it fast.

The idea was relatively straightforward. The world had produced a healthy bulk wine market and three winemakers had the opportunity to move on it fast.

The three, all relatively young, but coming from an established wine background, were a bit disenchanted with the uniform 750 ml wine vessel and, emboldened by the trivia that the first wine bottle was a jug, set out to produce a wine counter to the wine establishment.

Their company, Three Thieves, put out its first wine, a 2002 zinfandel, in a liter jug. But that wasn't the only way the trio - Charles Bieler, Joel Gott, and Roger Scommegna - thumbed their collective nose at convention. They topped off the bottle with an item that is usually associated with wine coolers and sickeningly sweet fruit wines suited only for binging. They put a screw cap on it.

The company got one of its first big breaks when Gourmet praised the wine in an article entitled "A Steal Deal."

Subsequently, Three Thieves has made and sold 35,000 cases in the ten months the company has been in operation. Many stores have sold out of the wine, and the company has been struggling to meet the rapid demand because of the long process it takes to make their custom jugs from Italy.

"Gourmet was one of the first major magazines to believe in us. That confirmed that we were for real and that the wine is definitely worth a try," Bieler says.

PR successes like this one mean that the screw cap is no longer taboo. Increasingly, oenophiles and casual wine drinkers alike are being forced to face a less-than-glamorous reminder of bygone drinking habits. Be it a $320 Napa vintage or a Gourmet-lauded $10 jug, the new black in the wine industry involves a twist of the wrist. In a 2001 Wine Spectator survey, 5% of its readership said they most preferred a screw cap as closure. In its 2003 survey, with over 21,000 respondents, that number blossomed to 20%. However, it still remains the lowest of the three possible scenarios (cork or synthetic being the other two). And the wineries have not yet completely embraced the trend. A 2003 Wine Business survey of 150 wineries found that only 4% used screw caps.

With such low numbers, why would screw caps even become an issue? The answer: because the closure represents so much more than the top of a bottle. To some consumers, the cork symbolizes the art of the winemaking process and the glamour of the consumption process. To others, it represents the pretension that has deterred so many Americans from enjoying wine. To some winemakers, it is the proven way to age wine. To another sect, it is an antiquated procedure that has destroyed so many great bottles of wine through "corking," where the advertised bouquets of apple, oak, and cinnamon can get obscured by a barrier of wet cardboard and mushrooms.

Since there is no consensus regarding the best closure, winemakers and their PR firms have to take great care and time to educate the public, make sure to position their brand in the right environment, and get the press on board.

Educating the public

In 1999, PlumpJack, a winery in Napa Valley, took the plunge and announced one of the first luxury wines to be released with a screw cap. If you're still able to find that '97 vintage Cabernet in the marketplace, PlumpJack winemaker Charles Biagi says, it will cost you about $200.

The drive for alternative closures came when the company noticed more wine being returned in both PlumpJack's restaurant and shop because of cork taint. At the time, they were in no danger of being placed in the discount rack if they switched over to cork.

"We had two vintages under our belts that were critically acclaimed by Robert Parker in Wine Spectator. We had the reputation for making tremendous wine," Biagi says.

A "corked" wine has been tainted by 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), which is generally attributed to when the bleaching process that treats the cork combines with an invisible mould that has grown within its pores. The amount of "corked wine" in supply hovers anywhere from 3% to 10%, depending on whom you talk to. While this may not affect the casual consumer and, in fact, many taints go unreported, those who collect wine in the high price range have most certainly felt the sting of a musty aroma wafting from a prized possession. Using screw caps for wine eliminates the possibility for TCA. However, many are skeptical about the aging prospects for screw caps wines, while a small undercurrent of wine makers are trying to change people's perceptions.

PlumpJack had started experimenting with synthetic corks, but eliminated them due to the aforementioned extraction difficulties. While cheap white wine had been available in screw caps for at least a quarter of a century and research done on that had been very promising, there hadn't been any production research done for red wines, he says. PlumpJack brought the University of California-Davis in to produce an independent, third party study of the aging prospects for luxury red wine in screw caps, which prompted the company to go ahead.

PlumpJack put a lot of effort into laying the groundwork for the product, retaining San Francisco-based PR firm Glodow Nead to help them with a positive media message. They approached the trade magazines, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs to let them know they were working on bottling with screw caps.

What ensued, Biagi says, was a mixed response that ranged from congratulatory e-mails from competitors to vitriolic e-mails sent at 3:30 in the morning encouraging him to "burn in hell."

But the detractors have not tempered PlumpJack's belief in the screw cap. Its 2001 vintage, which will be available in September, will sell for $320 a bottle in cases of six where three bottles will be screw cap and three will be cork.

The point PlumpJack is trying to get across, Glodow Nead VP Nancy Uber says, is what is in the bottle is all that matters.

"People who are true wine enthusiasts appreciated what we were doing. It's easier to educate the people who are into the wine," Uber says.

Position is key

When Bonny Doon released its first screw cap wine, Big House Red 2001, vintage in 2002, they embarked upon "extreme PR tactics," according to winemaker Randall Grahm. At dinners, in New York and San Francisco, he announced the "death of the cork."

"We wanted to be a little provocative. We threw down the gauntlet and announced that the cork was dead," Grahm says.

He says this firebrand approach was necessary because they were banking so much on the screw cap being successful.

While Bonny Doon and Three Thieves can pursue, with positive results, a more unique PR and marketing strategy, the higher-end brands must focus more on the quality message and screw caps' ageability benefits. The price tag differential allows those on the lower end of the price spectrum more iconoclastic approaches.

Bieler says that Three Thieves is only available in upscale wine shops and are not approaching the big discounters.

"These are places that never really sell jug wine, so it stands out from the rest in the wine shop," he says.

UVA Wines, a shop on Bedford Ave., the trendiest stretch of the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood Williamsburg, sells Three Thieves and a few Bonny Doon varieties.

"When the distributor first brought the Three Thieves wine in, I thought it would either sell really well or fall flat," UVA wines salesperson Pamela Allred says. After winning the praise of the staff, UVA Wines featured the Three Thieves wine in its newsletter.

She was right on the former account, as every shipment has sold out within days.

While Bonny Doon has not seen the same sales as Three Thieves, a lot of people do come and ask for it by name, she says.

"The anti-snobbery, retro-movement Williamsburg hipster crowd is a slam-dunk kind of thing," Bieler, who lives in New York, says.

Stephanie Teuwen, president of Teuwen One, a PR agency that represents clients such as the Loire Valley Wine Bureau and North Square Restaurant, believes the future of screw caps is for wine by the glass in a restaurant and that it's a good closure for fun, young wines that are targeted to a younger audience.

Says Biagi, "The beer guys got it a long time ago when they realized if you eliminate the need for a tool to open a beverage you might attract more customers."

Getting the media on board

Teuwen says that both consumers and winemakers tend to associate screw cap wines with poor quality. Because of that, she says it would take quite a bit of campaigning to get people over that perception. Teuwen herself is not quite ready to personally jump on the screw cap bandwagon because she still loves the pomp of opening the cork from a bottle.

"In the screw versus cork battle you would need to create an event around the product and enlist ambassadors like wine makers, renown wine writers, and sommeliers of some of the top restaurants," Teuwen says.

She adds: "Wine connoisseurs read wine magazines and believe the advice of people who are really well established."

Uber said PlumpJack and Glodow Nead took their message to both the consumer and trade audience and got a very warm reception. It was featured on CNN and written up in Wine Spectator.

"Getting written up in Wine Spectator obviously lends credibility to the screw cap and reinforces what we were doing," she says.

Plus, wine connoisseurs aren't the only ones who listen to the press.

UVA Wines buyer Shane Smith has says that he's noticed plenty of instances where a kind of wine has languished on the shelves for months, only to be snatched up if there is a favorable review in New York Magazine or The New York Times.

Bieler marvels at the amount of press Three Thieves has received, considering the low-key PR approach they undertook. The brand has been in The New York Times, Men's Health, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, and The Oakland Tribune, as well as industry standbys like Wine Spectator and Wine Business.

"A lot of the publicity is thrown our way. We did some modest press releases, but we've mostly been building this as a grassroots sort of campaign."

He adds: "A lot of writers have discovered Three Thieves themselves. We're not going about it traditionally because the younger generation wants to discover things for themselves. This word-of-mouth aspect has really driven the press and interest."

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