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Published: Tuesday, 5/24/2005

Corkscrews turn into collectibles

Some wine customers take the cork-vs.-screw-cap war to such lengths that they snub favorite varietals because those wines sport the "wrong" closure.

Keeping up with the heated declarations of some winemakers in the international wine press, it's apparent that "war" is almost a fair word to describe the controversy.

As is true of wars in general, there are profits to be made by people on the sidelines who turn a cold analytic eye, and so it is with the wine-closure war. Bottles made for corks can be adapted to screw caps seemingly overnight; as a result, specialists who make screw caps prosper while cork producers' incomes fall.

It's not yet time to throw out your corkscrew, however; with the passage of time and the likely long-term outcome of the closure controversy going in favor of screw caps, the corkscrew might become a valuable antique. Already there are serious collectors, and some older corkscrews command handsome returns at international auctions.

If you don't believe me, ask your bookseller to get you a copy of Bull's Pocket Guide to Corkscrews by Donald A. Bull (Schiffer Publishing, $19.95). Before a friend lent me a copy, I was dubious, too, but now I'm a true believer. I can even say that the first English patent for a corkscrew was granted to the Rev. Samuel Henshall in 1795.

Playing one side against the other, the manufacturers of these implements have made one distinctive alteration: a steel ring of slightly larger diameter, with an inside ring of spring metal that can be ratcheted tightly around a screw cap. The one such model I've seen is coming to resemble a basic Swiss Army knife.

Among more traditional cork pullers, as the French call them, one of two popular models can be found in many American kitchen-implement drawers.

The easiest to conquer even the most stubborn cork has two winglike handles attached to a metal collar that precisely fits the rim atop the bottle as a point of leverage. Despite its virtues, this model has left its mark on many table cloths: You can't work the two handles and hold the bottle steady at the same time, and as the cork reluctantly yields to superior force, the bottle often tips, spilling its contents on the table and the server.

The most popular alternative to that essentially awkward corkscrew is commonly called a "waiter's corkscrew." It looks like a folding knife, and does have an inch-long knife with which to cut away the capsule - originally lead foil, now plastic or aluminum foil - that covers every closure, cork, screw cap, or other alternative.

Mastering this style of cork puller requires opening several to get used to it, and many hosts don't make the effort, relying rather on the winglike handles of the other design.

But the waiter's corkscrew is what many wine professionals use, and that should tell you something. Once you get the hang of it, you might well become as deft as a professional.



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