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"The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they began to cultivate the olive and the vine."  Thucydides, ancient Greek historian (born between 460 & 455 BC, died 395 BC).


The Bottle, the Cork, and the Corkscrew 

Winery Insight Featured Article - December 2004 by Timothy O. Rice


Tradition and wine go hand in hand.

Perhaps the most impressive and memorable of those traditions is the opening of the bottle. The ceremony was always there in the mind, whether from family occasions, scenes from old movies, or passages in books half-remembered. Always there was the bottle, the cork, and the corkscrew. But where did that tradition come from?


There was a time when the state-of-the-art in wine containers was a clay jar. We would say it was strange in shape. The bottom, researchers say, was never flat, it had a wide lower part and a narrow neck. The Romans called them amphora. Because they had a pointed bottom, they had a stand to hold them upright. Properly sealed, they could keep wine a good, long time without spoiling and could be used to transport wine long distances by sea. These amphorae were usually sealed with wax or resin. Opening one involved scraping the top off. No way to easily reseal the contents, so people tended to drink it soon after opening.


That was all a major improvement over what went before. A bustling wine trade developed around the Mediterranean Sea. Taverns stocked wine from far-off places. The rich stored amphorae away for when they threw parties and had friends to visit. I suppose there was some tool favored above the others for the opening of the vessel, just as there is today, and that good establishments had a servant or steward who knew his wine to care for the stock.


But times change. Rome fell, the Dark Ages came, the barbarians ravaged the civilized world, the Black Plague slaughtered millions. Somewhere amidst all this, the use of amphora to store wine faded away. Perhaps it simply became too expensive, perhaps the skilled workers who made them died off and were not replaced. It might be that the marauding Vandals, Huns, and Goths made it too dangerous to continue trade routes in such items. Whatever the reason, the Dark Ages of world history also reflect a dark age in the tale of wine.


Wine in those days was stored in bottles or animal skins. The seals were poor and the quality of the container varying. You could ship wine about the civilized world of Europe, but it usually would not be much good when the wine arrived. The thriving trade in wine crumpled up. Wine was usually consumed locally and not too long after it was made. This may not have seemed like a big hardship to those alive at the time. After all, most people never traveled more than a day's journey from where they were born. Pirates, Vikings, robbers, and wars discouraged tourism.


Somewhere along the line, the art of bottle-making improved. People began to notice the wine tasted better if you stored it in bottles. Sometime in the 1600s, glass bottle production techniques improved noticeably and those who liked wine began to pay even more attention. In England, particularly, the demand led to better and better bottles.


Winemakers, seeing a way to make money if they could only preserve their wine better, began experimenting. Some began to use corks because of the ease of opening and resealing the bottle. Cork was easily available, easy to shape to the task and, best of all, cheap. With better bottles and corks, wine-drinkers began to discover the benefits of aging.


No one seems to know when the first corkscrew was invented. We do know the word "corkscrew" was in common usage in English by about 1720. It almost had to be done, because once all those winemakers started using corks, wine-drinkers discovered how tough it could be to get a cork out of a bottle. For the winemakers, the easier it was to get the cork out, the further they could drive it into the bottle, which made a better seal and preserved the wine. Once you have bottles, you need corks. Once you have corks, you need a corkscrew.


Now we are some 300 years down the road. The tradition of the bottle, the cork, and the corkscrew is engraved in the public consciousness, the art of pulling the cork almost a rite of passage into the society of wine-drinkers. Yet all that lore seems about to fade away again.


Today winemakers, aware that a small percentage of their wines spoil due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), are investigating new closures such as screw caps for their wines. (TCA is a naturally occurring compound in the bark used to make corks and sometimes leaches into and taints the taste of wine in the bottle, giving it a musty quality.) No one wants to lose part of their production this way, especially since it is usually detected by an unhappy customer. Some are investigating the possibility of doing away with the bottle all together, test-marketing other containers to see what the market will say.


If there is no bottle, who needs a cork? Without a cork, who needs a corkscrew? If your wine comes in a drink-box or an aluminum can, will you simply open it with a pull-tab or a can-opener?


When that happens, three centuries of tradition will fade into foggy memory and tales from grand-dad. But have no fear! Humans need tradition. Just like those ancestors of ours, the next generation of wine-drinkers will start a new tradition.


I wonder what it will be?

 Last modified: August 07, 2007