Tablas Creek on "Vinography: A Wine Blog"
Some nice recognition for my Dad

Consumers choose... cork?

Many of you will remember my post from last summer with our take on the cork-screwcap debate.  It suggested a more nuanced approach than many of the polemics that you read asserting that one closure was always better than the other: that some wines evolved better under the more reactive closure of natural cork, and others under the more hermetic Stelvin screwcap.  It did not address consumer preference, because we've assumed that consumers more or less have become accustomed to screwcaps and make their buying decisions based on the wine's (or winery's) reputation rather than the closure.

Up through the 2004 vintage, we'd only made the decision to put our aromatic whites and our Rosé in screwcap, and leave the cork finish for our reds and our Roussanne-based whites which seem to benefit from the flavor and oxygen exchange with the cork.  That said, the red wine we've been most curious about watching under Stelvin is our Côtes de Tablas.  It's based on Grenache, which is notoriously prone to oxidation.  It's our blend of wine lots in the cellar we think will be approachable younger.  Even though they make up between 20% and 40% of the blend most years, it tends not to show the reductive characteristics of Mourvedre or Syrah.

So, with the 2005 vintage, we decided to bottle about 350 cases of Cotes de Tablas in screwcap and the balance in cork, with the idea of showing the Stelvin version only our tasting room.  We like to start experiments in our tasting room because it ensures that we're around to notice anything unexpected.  We're opening bottles every day, and can see if the wine is showing reductive characteristics or other undesirable development.  For the other 3000 or so cases, including everything we're releasing wholesale into the national market, we finished the wine with cork.

We started pouring the Cotes de Tablas in screwcap in our tasting room in mid-January. At that same time, we posted it alongside the corked version on our online order form.  I wasn't conducting some conscious sociological experiment; I just wanted people to be able to buy the closure they'd tried, wherever they'd tried it.  I figured that since about three-quarters of the people who order online are our wine club members, and an even greater proportion first became familiar with the wines at our tasting room, we'd sell mostly screwcap-finished Cotes de Tablas on our Web site.  This has not been the case.  Since I posted both versions of the wine, 15 of the 21 orders we've received that have included Cotes de Tablas have specified the cork-finished version.

Granted, this is a small sample size.  As people have a chance to sample the wine in the tasting room, I think that more people will be more comfortable with the screwcap finish on one of our red wines.  Still, I wonder if the consumer acceptance of screwcaps, even among the more-educated, more-progressive audience who orders direct from a small winery specializing in Rhone blends from California, has been a bit overstated.

Would these people shy away from the wine if their only option was screwcap?  It's impossible to know.  I suspect not.  Certainly, with whites and rosé, we've noticed no consumer resistance.  When we released the Cotes de Tablas Blanc in screwcap (exclusively) with the 2005 vintage, our monthly sales of that wine went up 30%.  Again, I don't think that this was because of the screwcap (the wine was terrific, and got some great press) but I think that any momentum it inherited from its closure was positive.  I'm suspecting that were we to release the Cotes de Tablas red into the national market in screwcap, it would get a little negative momentum from its closure.

It may just be that consumers have more background with screwcapped whites than reds.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs have been imported almost exclusively in screwcap for years now, and many California producers have switched white production into screwcap while leaving red production under cork.  I have a feeling that this will change with time.  Certainly, the bulk of the wine press is solidly behind the screwcap. Laurie Daniel, in a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News used the results of a Tablas Creek library tasting of wines bottled in both cork and screwcap to advance her thesis that even for big reds, screwcaps are an attractive option.

Still, I'm happy that we didn't move our whole production of the Cotes de Tablas 2006 into screwcap, as we were considering after our initial taste trials of the 2005.  We'll give ourselves another year to assure ourselves that the screwcapped wine is at least as good the cork-finished one, and give the wine market another year to become accustomed to the idea that top reds can be found under screwcap as readily as under cork.