The Boston Phoenix
June 1 - 8, 2000


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Getting screwed

The twists and turns of corkscrews

by Thor Iverson

The crowd started chanting: "Thor, Thor, Thor, Thor!" It would have made me nervous had I not consumed so much wine earlier that evening. I held a still-closed magnum of Champagne in my left hand, and I tightly gripped the bottle, condensation forming on its surface. In my right hand was a saber, flashing in the torchlight. I rested the flat of the sword against the bottle, and with a quick wrist motion sent the cork (and the glass around it) flying through the courtyard, as Champagne frothed forth into a series of waiting glasses. The Italian winemaker in whose courtyard we were standing, who had supplied the bubbly and the saber, and who had bet 300,000 lire that "the American" wouldn't succeed, starting paying off his debts.

Wine-sabering is an old French tradition, and at this point I should lie and tell you what a wine-sabering expert I am. But the first time I tried to do it, I failed no fewer than 17 times in a row, and managed to cover myself, a deck, and a dog in sparkling wine. Truth be told, I don't even own a saber. Most nights, you'll find me doing what wine lovers everywhere else are doing: twisting a corkscrew.

Most people don't think much about opening wine. They liberate a clunky old corkscrew from their parents, or snag a free one at a liquor store, and never give it a second thought despite frequent struggles with mangled corks. But as with wine glasses, a lot of innovation (and even some technology) has been thrown at the problem of how to make opening a bottle of wine as effortless as possible. And some people -- me included -- own several different corkscrews for different situations.

Before going over the good screws, though, let's talk about the bad ones. The most basic design for a corkscrew is a worm (that's the spiral thing) attached to a perpendicular handle, in the shape of a T. The worm usually works just fine, but all the tugging and pulling necessary to extract the cork often results in spillage.

A far more common corkscrew, and unquestionably the worst design, is the "butterfly." This is the one with a worm attached to a handle, surrounded by a contraption with two levers or "wings." When the worm is inserted into the cork, the wings move upward; the cork is extracted by pulling down on the wings. The problems with this model are twofold: the worms are often so thick they can destroy the cork; and the levers aren't long enough to fully extract many corks (which means more tugging and pulling).

A good corkscrew does three things: it reduces or eliminates brute force in cork extraction, it does as little damage to the cork as possible (damage usually results in bits of cork floating in your wine, and can make subsequent insertions and extractions of that cork impossible), and it adapts to a wide variety of situations. And while there are hundreds, even thousands, of designs to choose from, there are only three basic types that fulfill all these criteria.

The first, and most flexible, is known as the "waiter's friend." This is the model that looks like a pocketknife, with a folding worm, a folding knife for cutting the foil capsule, and a lever that rests against the rim of the bottle as the cork is extracted. Some have two-stage levers that assist in the extraction of really long corks. Simple and elegant, this is by far the most portable and adaptable corkscrew. Prices range from free (in those aforementioned liquor-store promotions, though these are often cheaply made) to $100 or more for hand-carved versions from Laguiole, the French knife maker.

Although I carry a waiter's friend with me nearly everywhere I go, the corkscrew I most often use at home is the Screwpull. An old design perfected by cookery company Le Creuset, this is unquestionably the easiest corkscrew to use. The design is no more than a worm with a handle, threaded through a clothespin-shaped plastic frame. Rest the frame on the bottle's rim, start twisting the worm into the cork, and keep twisting in the same direction until the cork, now extracted, rests inside the frame. With a neat little foil-cutting attachment (sold separately or attached, depending on the specific model), this is the corkscrew that you'll use more than any other. Expect prices in the mid to high teens.

Although the Screwpull works wonders on most corks, it can be troublesome when used with delicate corks, synthetic "corks" (which erode the Teflon that covers the worm), and tight-fitting corks. For the former two, employ the waiter's friend. Tight corks are best attacked with a third design, known as the "Ah-So" or "California" model. Doing away with the worm altogether, this one has two metal prongs (one slightly longer than the other) that are wiggled between the cork and the inside surface of the bottle. The device is then twisted while being pulled gently upward. Often, this is the only way to remove a firmly stuck cork. Prices are just a bit less than those for Screwpulls.

Gadget-heads with a little extra cash will want to take a look at the Leverpull (also made by Le Creuset), a slightly complicated device that inserts the worm, extracts the cork, and removes the cork from the worm with a single pump of a handle. This can be a godsend when there are a lot of bottles to uncork, like at parties, but it's not cheap: $75 to $125 is typical.

And as for sparkling wines: never use a corkscrew. It's dangerous. Though I suppose it's no more dangerous than some drunken idiot waving a saber around . . .

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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