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Good to the Last Drop

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New techniques and tools for wine preservation are keeping bottles fresh for days, even weeks, beyond the first pour.
By Kristine Hansen September 2014 Wine

While I was sipping wines at a Bordeaux tasting room in May, a vacuum noise stopped me in my tracks. Old World met New World in one sweeping flourish when an employee thrust a thin, hollow needle into a pricey bottle of Château La Louvière, so the industry’s newest preservation device, Coravin, might extract a single glass of wine without popping the cork, allowing argon gas into the bottle and preserving the coveted wine.

I’d heard about Coravin from sommeliers, including Michael Madrigale, wine director at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in New York City, who is a huge fan—albeit with an air of skepticism.

Wine-preservation gadgets roll out every month, for consumers and restaurateurs alike. From hand-held manual tools to motorized machines, each promises to lengthen the time a wine is palatable after it’s uncorked. Because the shelf life of an opened bottle of wine is quite narrow—two or three days, at most—there’s a need for preservation. To a restaurateur, bad wine is lost revenue. Also, using a wine-preservation method opens the door to offering expensive wines by the glass, at prices upward of $50 a glass. This has considerable allure for operators because it carries the implied assurance that the entire bottle will be sold, even if it’s a glass at a time.

One such object that crossed my desk this summer, Savino, is an American-made glass carafe so elegant it could be mistaken for a water carafe. Yet it holds the contents of a standard, 750-milliliter bottle of wine. While targeting consumers, the tool could easily work in a restaurant. After the wine is poured into the glass container, a float is inserted to slow down oxidation, followed by the lid, providing two layers of enclosure. According to Savino, wine will stay fresh for a week in the carafe.

Another preservation gadget worth noting is Zork, a natural peel-and-reseal closure added during the bottling process that has attracted at least one California winery, The Other Guys in Sonoma, California, producer of labels that include Pennywise, Hey Mambo, The White Knight, and Plungerhead. Available in nine colors, it negates the use of a corkscrew.

“After using the Zork with several of our wine brands, rather than cork, the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Ann Sebastiani, president of The Other Guys. “Plus, the Zork absolutely eliminates the possibility of cork taint, which is a huge bonus for restaurants and their patrons.” An added bonus: It even makes a sound similar to a cork popping.

Lacking a method for preserving wines could limit the number of selections a restaurant can pour. “These places that have 100 wines,” says Mitch Einhorn, owner of Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago, “I always question whether they’re busy enough to keep the bottles constantly fresh.” While he’s toyed with a handful of tools designed to remove the oxygen out of a bottle of wine, using a vacuum method, none have won him over. However, Coravin might prove the exception, and Einhorn acknowledges that it looks impressive, and he hopes to begin using it soon.

David Burke’s Primehouse, tucked into The James Hotel Chicago, uses Coravin. Armed with this new way to preserve wines, sommelier Matthew Bills launched the Cellar Glass Pour Program recently, which allows him to feature 3- and 6-ounce pours of rare vintage wines, priced from $25 to $80. He pours those wines tableside using the Coravin, a compelling advantage given that many of these wines—such as the 1975 Château Cantemerle, Bordeaux, France; and the 1988 Chateau d’Yquem, Sauternes, France—were previously available only by the bottle.

“It in no way affects the wine’s integrity,” Bills says. “The system allows the wine to continue aging for upwards of a year, more than enough time to sell a 750-milliliter bottle of wine, or even a larger-format bottle.”

“Guests are allowed rare access to fine vintage wines without having to invest in an entire bottle,” he adds. “Having had many guests express interest in high-end pours, we knew we would have a built-in audience if we used the Coravin system. It’s a great product for any sommelier’s tool belt—if they want to give their guests something rare and special.”

To get the word out, Bills invited the restaurant’s top clients in to sample wines by the pour, courtesy of the Coravin. Waitstaff are coached in talking up the system, too, in hopes of convincing customers to try a vintage wine that previously might have been beyond their financial reach.

Another fan of Coravin is “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella, owner of Kapnos in Washington, D.C. Pairing with the Mediterranean menu are hard-to-find wines from Greece, Lebanon, France, Italy, and the United States. Now, orders for single-glass servings of these wines are a hot commodity.

“It tends to be something you use for higher-end wines,” admits Daniel Grajewski, director of beverage at Mina Group, which includes RN74, Bourbon Steak, and Michael Mina in eight cities across the country, from San Francisco to Las Vegas. But the investment can pay off quickly, helping rebrand the restaurant as a spot for serious wine drinkers. In the spring, Grajewski introduced the Kings of Cabernet program at Michael Mina, pouring the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignons—from Napa to Bordeaux—by the glass, with prices from $40 to $50 for wines that would normally cost $1,000 a bottle.

“We’re a wine destination. Being able to offer something no one else can get is a great offering,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for someone to try an older wine, a wine they’ve never had, and from a large format.” Grajewski plans to have every restaurant in the group begin using Coravin.

Yet, for every sophisticated gadget, there is an alternative approach requiring less financial investment, the Coravin included. For Francine Diamond-Ferdinandi, sommelier at Los Angeles’ Factory Kitchen, the cost-effective alternative is simply the refrigerator. By storing open wines in the cooler environment, with a cork, she’s found wines last several days longer than they might otherwise. “Putting the wine in the refrigerator is a good solution because cold temperatures slow down the spoiling process,” she says.