In his journal for July 10, 1841, Thoreau wrote: ‘A slight sound at evening lifts me up by the ears, and makes life seem inexpressibly serene and grand.’ The nature-loving writer was describing (I think) the sound of wind in the willows, the muffled flap of owl’s wings, the rowdy ruckus of crickets in love. As a countrywoman I think of Thoreau as my patron saint, a naturalist who weaved together man’s relationship to nature and man’s dilemma in society, creating a tapestry of ideas as illuminating as a full moon.
But try as I might, I am not one of nature’s naturalists. Given the choice of a sojourn on Walden Pond and a week at a Relais et Chateau I go for the room with a view, linen sheets, palatial plumbing and the smell of lilies. I blame this decadent hankering on a country childhood which was rich in flora and fauna and dirt roads but low on luxury. For me the slight sound at evening that lifts me up by the ears is not the low squawk of crows or summer rain, it’s the expressive sound of the cork making its exit from the bottle of wine. That companionable popping sound may not make life serene but it’s a ceremony that promises a little patch of peacefulness.
Ceremony. That’s the right word. And accompanying the ritual is a rich history: cork trees shedding their priceless bark over the centuries for the greater pleasure of mankind, the corks containing the pores and cells that hold and release air and add to the mystical evolution of the wine.
So it is with a heavy heart that I announce that we are living in the twilight of this ceremony. Prepare your farewells. Put the silver tire-bouchon that was given to your grandfather on his 21st on the sideboard, a relic of temps perdu. Ditto the pair of simple and perfect decanters from Berry Bros., a 50th birthday present. The sad truth is that the wine cork is being made redundant, sacked after centuries of devoted service. Like typewriters and phonograph records, it is being tossed onto the scrap heap of history, conquered by the screwtop.
The vocabulary is not poetic: ‘synthetic closures’ says my winemaker, trying to persuade me to rethink my commitment to cork our 15,000 bottles about to be bottled. ‘Cork taint’ he whispers. Last year when offered the choice I said NO, NEVER. This year, after a love affair with a New Zealand Pinot Noir called Roaring Meg, a wonderful wine with . . . screwtops . . . I’ve had to rethink. Virtually all New Zealand wines are screwtop now and the whole of the New World can’t be far behind. Their defence is economic: when one out of 10 bottles of wine suffers from ‘cork taint’ and there is an acute shortage of finest-grade cork, screwtops are the answer. Wines which cost £25 plus per bottle are opened with the same flick of the wrist required for diet Coke.
And what will we lose besides the mystique, that elegant dance of effort and anticipation? We will lose wines with ‘age’, what the French who drink their wines young call ‘le gout anglais’. The great wines that deserved and rewarded patience will be confined to the pages of literature. We will drink more: gone will be the inhibiting fiddle of finding the corkscrew and opening a second bottle. And we will drink wines that don’t receive our grateful attention.
Meanwhile I’ve opted for one more year of corks. But I’ve seen the future, and wine will never again seem quite as special. Maybe that’s all right. Maybe to reject progress just because it lacks ceremony and magic is as dumb as throwing away a bottle of good wine because it contains bits of cork.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on August 25, 2005.