RISMEDIA, Feb. 16, 2007-(MSN.com)-The next time you find yourself battling with a cork wedged intractably in the neck of a wine bottle, think of your predecessors in 17th and 18th centuries. Opening a bottle then, says Raj Kanodia, "was quite an experience."
"Often," says Kanodia, a collector of corkscrews who runs a Web site dedicated to implements of uncorking, "the bottle would break."
Even then, it seems, the tyranny of a tight cork knew no mercy. But think of the alternative, says Kanodia. "If the cork was too loose, the wine would spoil. Once a decent corkscrew was invented, it changed the ritual of opening a bottle of wine."
Yet hundreds of years after the invention of a decent corkscrew, many still sometimes struggle with that ritual.
"Sure, it happens occasionally," says Dieter Schafer, a Seattle-based wine educator and sommelier who has been deftly removing corks from bottles for nearly 50 years. And if it happens to Schafer, even though just occasionally, what chance do the rest of us have to get a cork out cleanly?
A very good chance, Schafer insists. All it takes is the right corkscrew and some practice.
The right corkscrew
For 20 years, Raj and Justine Kanodia have had a thing about corkscrews. Their collection, antique and otherwise, now stands at about 500. Their Web site, Corkscrew.com, sells dozens of varieties. So many different types come through his door in the San Francisco Bay Area, Raj Kanodia says, that he has trouble picking out just one favorite. It depends on your wine, your cork, and your personal preference of corkscrews.
Kanodia classifies the openers in two categories: "leverage" corkscrews, in which a lever reduces the amount of force you must apply to get the cork out, or "torque" corkscrews, in which turning a handle inserts the corkscrew and extracts the cork.
For beginners and the nervous, Kanodia says, "A double-lever corkscrew – a wing corkscrew – with a good worm is very reliable."
The wing corkscrew is named after the levers on either side of its frame. Inside the frame is the "worm," the spiral that drills into the cork. To operate a winged double-lever corkscrew, lift the wings, place the frame over the neck of the bottle, put the wings in the down position, turn the handle at the top to insert the worm and watch the wings rise upward like those of a graceful butterfly. Push the wings down and the cork comes out. There's only one caveat, Kanodia says: Spend a little more and get a decent wing corkscrew. The cheap ones don't work as well.
If you have motives other than simple and safe cork extraction, Kanodia has further recommendations. For pizzazz, it's hard to beat the Zig-Zag, a compound-lever corkscrew from France. The Zig-Zag has four sets of hinges that expand as you use it, putting on an impressive show of 1920s technology each time you remove a cork.
If you have arthritis in your hands or simply aren't excited about using the force equal to lifting 100 pounds that Kanodia estimates is necessary to remove a cork, try the spring-loaded corkscrew made by Sieger in Germany. A strong spring attached to the worm extracts corks with a minimum of tugging, and the bright plastic bulb that houses the spring looks very James Bond in the Connery years.
The right technique
Despite the temptations of German engineering and French design, Schafer, the sommelier, continues to stick with his traditional waiter's corkscrew. There is something appealing about the standard for professionals everywhere; nothing can make you look like you know what you're doing faster than deftly wielding one of these babies. But whatever corkscrew you use, says Schafer, follow procedure.
First, unless you have had lots of practice, find a stable surface to put your bottle on, and hold it firmly. It's time to remove the capsule. This is the covering over the cork, which used to be called the foil before many wineries stopped using metals. With a small knife – waiter's corkscrews come equipped with their own – cut around the capsule just below the lip of the bottle, and remove the top part of the capsule. You can remove the entire capsule, Schafer says, but it just doesn't look as nice. After the capsule is off, wipe the top of the bottle with a clean cloth.
Next comes the crucial yet tricky part: inserting the worm. To avoid breaking the cork, or worse, the bottle, it's important to get the worm as close to the center of the cork as possible. Some corkscrews hold the worm in a frame that can help you center it. If you are working with a waiter's corkscrew, Schafer says first hold the worm horizontal to the cork and locate the cork's center with the tip. Tilt the corkscrew to the vertical position and begin turning, making sure to keep the corkscrew very straight.
At this point, consider the length of the cork. You don't want to drill your worm all the way through, Schafer says. A tip: composite corks – the hard type that are made from bits of cork glued together – are often shorter than corks that come from a single piece of bark.
Once the worm is in the cork, gently ease it out bit by bit. Waiter's corkscrews come with a lever that fits over the lip of the bottle. Hold this down with one thumb while you ease the cork out with your other hand.
After the cork is out, check to make sure no dust that could be pushed into the wine has collected on the lip of the bottle. Then wipe by dipping your cloth-covered finger just slightly inside the lip.
Now reward yourself with a glass of wine.
If despite your best efforts it all goes wrong, Schafer says not to worry. If your wine touches the capsule or your cork bobs in the bottle, it won't hurt the flavor. And it will give you an excuse to perfect your technique through practice, practice, practice.