Wine Primer

Wine for the Wino Wannabe

This page contains bits of info which make up the basics of Winoism.  Study this page and you, too, can win friends and impress people with your knowledge of wine.  Some of this info has been "borrowed" from other sources.  Because of our high level of journalistic integrity (and because of our lack of legal resources), we attempt to give credit to the original source when we steal something.  


1) Cork - 101

2) The Cork - Part II

3) The Cork - The Final Chapter

4) Cork Extraction

5) Recorking

6) Glassware

7) Wine Tasting

8) Big Bottles

9) Glossary and Pronunciation Guide


Cork - 101

This weekend I read the book, "Essentials of Wine- A Guide to the Basics" by Harvey Steiman of the Wine Spectator and volume XIX No. 4 of “The Wine Journal”.  Both had articles on the cork controversy.  Is synthetic better than natural?  Until I read the article in the Wine Journal, I was an advocate of the synthetic cork.  The two driving forces were the fact that 5-8% of wine is dead on arrival due to the cork and I understood that the natural cork supply was in jeopardy. 

The article addressed both of these issues to my satisfaction and has me coming up big on the side of the natural cork.  I also learned the life cycle of the cork.  I know that for many of you, this is common knowledge, but indulge me a little.  Here are a few facts about cork:

  • Cork comes from the bark of Quercus suber, the cork oak tree, that is indigenous to the southern Iberian Peninsula of Portugal. The industry has been centered on the sunny montados, the savanna-like landscape of the Alentejo region.

  • It takes 40 years for the bark to thicken to about 3 inches before it can be harvested.

  • Until 1680, a lump of olive oil soaked hemp was jammed into the bottle as a stopper.

  • Legendary Dom Perignon was the first to place a cork in his bottles of Champagne.

  • Amorim is the world’s largest producer of natural corks producing about 10 million corks per day.

  • The bottle cork is the most profitable use of the bark and fetches about twelve cents a piece in bulk.

  • The chemical TCA is the agent, when contacting the wine, which renders it DOA.

  • Synthetic corks are a medical grade thermoplastic polymer.

  • The wine industry will use about 14 billion corks this year.

  • Supreme Corq. Inc is the leader in synthetic cork production.  Based in Seattle, Washington, there are rumors that Bill Gates is a large investor in the firm.

  • At the turn of the century, 3 cork oak trees were planted at Geyser Peak Winery in California.  Today, one tree remains, it has never been harvested. 

  • After the first harvest, 40 years after planting, it takes 9 years for the bark to thicken for a second harvest.

  • To stave off the devastating financial impact the synthetic cork could have on the Portuguese economy, Amorim has agreed to discontinue the use of the chemical TCA in cork production.

  • In 1999, a process using microwave radiation on the natural cork was developed, eliminating the need for TCA to kill molds that could taint the wine.  Wines being bottled in 2000 will carry this new cork treatment.

Viva la Cork!!

Submitted by WinoBob - 9/10/00


The Cork - Part II


Wines can go bad for all kinds of reasons, most of which are betrayed by the way they smell. If they develop acetic acid, they smell like vinegar. If they contain hydrogen sulfide, they smell like rotten eggs. If the Brettanomyces yeast affects them, they smell like wet dogs, saddle blankets, or horse manure — though some people like that (especially if they're French).

The most common kind of wine spoilage, however, is beyond the control of a winemaker — and is also one of the hardest flaws to identify.  That's when a wine is "corked," or ruined by a bad stopper.

A corked wine smells like a damp basement, mildewed books, or — in the mind of Senior Wine Merchant Jeff Prather — "your grandmother's attic." Basically, we're talking mold: a problem that, according to recent estimates, contaminates as much as 7 percent (about one out of every 15) of all bottles of wine.

Mold is sometimes found in the bark of Quercus suber, the cork tree, which is raised commercially in Portugal, Spain, and North Africa.  Processed cork can also pick up mold if stored in humid conditions; mold spores, after all, are found almost everywhere. In any case, it wreaks havoc in wine when it encounters the chlorine chemicals that, ironically enough, have traditionally been used to sterilize corks. A compound inadvertently produced by this confrontation — trichloranisole, or TCA — results in a dank, musty smell that can be detected by the human nose in concentrations as tiny as six parts per trillion.

"Most people don't recognize corkiness for what it is," says Prather.  "They just think it's bad wine and as a result, they decide they don't like that winery, or that winemaker, or that type of grape, or wine from that country. Corked wine can also take the blame for other problems, like oxidation or Brettanomyces or volatile acidity. It's probably the wine world's worst enemy."

Many contemporary cork manufacturers have now abandoned bleach, opting to clean their corks with hydrogen peroxide or sulfur dioxide or even ozone. Chloroanisole chemicals, however, are also found in other products — for example, pesticides employed in (cork) forests and preservatives applied to wooden storage pallets. Jack Squires, vice president of Napa's Amorim Cork America (its parent corporation is the world's biggest cork producer) says that his company has discovered corks contaminated by their shipping containers — a problem that also affects beer and coffee. "Now we only use stainless-steel pallets," Squires reports. 

They also use a Gas Chromatogram Mass Spectrometer, which can detect TCA in concentrations of only one part per trillion. "We reject a lot of corks," announces Squires, who, despite such recent advancements in the battle against corkiness, still stops short of guaranteeing 100 percent taint-free wine closures for the immediate future.

"Cork is not a magic product that appears out of thin air," says Prather. "When you extract it from tree bark, it's brown and organic with bugs in it. It takes nine years for a cork tree to replace its bark — and in nine years and a day we strip it all over again. We use the bark to stopper a wine that took years of work to make, then age it for five or ten or 20 more years and finally invite our best friends over to drink it, only to have the whole evening ruined by a bad cork."



The Cork - The Final Chapter

One Word: "Plastics"

Last week, Senior Wine Merchant Jeff Prather began to work himself into a lather on the subject of natural corks — a method of sealing wine bottles that, he says, shows "we're still stuck in a medieval mentality."

According to Prather, this is literally true because "the last [accepted] improvement in wine-closure technology was three or four hundred years ago." That's when Dom Perignon, a French Benedictine monk, drove a piece of cork bark into the neck of a wine bottle, instead of banging the (then traditional) oil-soaked rag into the bottle with a wooden bung.

Although it was a great innovation in the 17th century, a porous and spongy cork is hardly an ideal way to seal a bottle. To keep the cork swollen and tight, a wine bottle must be stored horizontally. Still, mold and/or chemicals on the cork contaminate as many as one out of 15 bottles. 

"Why would you want to spend 25 dollars on a bottle of wine and then have it ruined by a 25-cent piece of bark?" Prather asks. "Wineries put years of work into their products and spend millions of dollars marketing them — and meanwhile, we're raping the cork forests of Portugal."

Prather's solution echoes the career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie "The Graduate": "Plastics."   "Plastic doesn't have the organic problems of cork," says Prather.   "Modern artificial corks don't change the taste of wine at all — we now have neutral food-grade polymers that don't break down in contact with wine's alcohol or acidity. The long-term effects on aging are still being tested, though, so we won't know that for 10 or 20 or 50 years."

One of the biggest producers of synthetic stoppers in the United States is SupremeCorq of Kent, Washington, which defines its product as an "injection-molded, closed-cell thermoplastic elastomer." According to Vice President of Sales Marla Rosenberg, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon aged for five years under such stoppers "is developing beautifully."

Such respected, well-known California wineries as St. Francis and Bonny Doon now seal all their wines with plastic closures. St. Francis' marketing director Nan Fontane says that the winery made this decision after losing a substantial amount of wine (including "a high percentage" of reserve Chardonnay) to tainted corks.   "We wanted to make sure that our wine would reach people in the condition it was meant to," Fontane explains. "If you're looking for an excellent seal, plastic has all kinds of advantages. You can store your wines upright because you don't have to keep the cork wet, and removal is always consistent. Conventional corks tend to break in half or crumble."

Fontane says most of the feedback about plastic stoppers has been positive. "There were some Puritans who said they needed to smell the cork and would never buy our wine again," she reports. "We weren't going to win those people over, even though sniffing a cork doesn't give you an accurate impression of a wine's bouquet at all."

Synthetic stoppers are now widely used in Europe, Australia, South America, South Africa...almost everywhere, it seems, except the United States. "Most American wineries' marketing departments are afraid that they'll be perceived as cheap," Rosenberg explains. 

To Jeff Prather, that's merely evidence of our "prehistoric stubbornness and stupidity and dogged loyalty to something called 'tradition.' Longing for your hunk of bark is just as backward as people in Dom Perignon's time longing for their oily rags."


Cork Extraction

Let’s start with the basics.  If you’re going to bring a bottle of wine home after reading any of the reviews on WinoStuff (or any other reputable website or publication), you’re not going to turn the spigot on one of those box wines.  You’ll need a reliable corkscrew.  The classic corkscrew that you see many waiters use is a knockoff of the Chateau Laguiole corkscrew.  Manufactured for over five centuries (centuries, what a concept for us Americans!) in Thiers, France, these are the devices that have a small knife blade on one end for cutting the foil, a corkscrew worm for the cork, and a leverage bar contoured to the lip of the bottle.  I like these tools for their all-around, handy-dandy convenience, but I don’t recommend them for the beginner or for the Wino who likes to quickly open a bottle.  You can buy the original Chateau Laguiole corkscrew for about $90 (handmade with rosewood inlays) or a knockoff for $2.  It doesn’t really matter which you use as long as you get the job done.  

If you want to do the job quicker, I would recommend a foil cutter ($2 to $3) and a screwpull device.  The original screwpull sells for about $20 (#3110 at  It fits over the lip of most bottles and provides a stable base to turn the Teflon-coated corkscrew.  These two items will do the job.   



This is the high-end hybrid bottle opener, corkscrew.  It is the typical, garden-variety device that you can buy in any grocery store.  The large handle on top makes it easy to screw into the cork and the levers make the extraction process a breeze for novices.  Consider this a corkscrew with training wheels.



I call this The Terminator; it never met a wine cork it couldn’t extract.  This gadget is for mechanical engineers and you need to review the half hour instructional video to make sure all your body parts are clear prior to deployment.



If you want to get the job done effortlessly and have an unlimited budget, buy the Estate or Champion opener (#3146 at for approximately $99.  This is The Mother of All Corkscrews.   This thing comes with a rad pair of safety goggles.  Please professionals only, this will chew you up and spit you out.





Recorking the Bottle

Now that you’ve got the basics down on opening the bottle of wine, what other equipment do you need?  I think a valuable piece of equipment for any Wino is the basic Vacu-Vin wine saver system.  The Vacu-Vin allows you to pump out the air in an opened bottle so that it stays fresh longer.  Unlike Wino John and Wino Bob, I occasionally consume only a glass of wine.  I don’t like opening the more expensive bottles and pouring out the spoiled wine a few days later, so I use my Vacu-Vin system to keep the wine fresh until consumed.  Basic system comes with a hand pump and two stoppers for about $14 (#3125 at  I would also add two additional stoppers for about $5.  For those of you who are single, you can use this system when you’re home alone, but always keep the line about needing to finish the bottle so that the wine doesn’t spoil (just don’t let them know you have a Vacu-Vin!).   WinoWally



If you don’t own any wineglasses, go to a Target, Wal-Mart, or Kmart and buy a pack of six or twelve.  They’re inexpensive and easily replaced, but are much classier and more practical than paper cups.  If you received some crystal wine glasses with your wedding china and stemware, use them for the fancier occasions, but I’d still own some inexpensive glassware that could hold up at a party and which wouldn’t dent your wallet if someone broke a glass.  For the true aficionado, I can only recommend Riedel crystal stemware.  Available through a number of proprietors, the Riedel glasses were first designed by an Austrian engineer who recognized that the size and shape of a wineglass could influence the bouquet, taste, balance, and finish of the wine.  Riedel Sommelier is the hand blown crystal version ($$$$) and Riedel Vinum is the less expensive version.  If your favorite wine is a Chardonnay or a Cabernet, buy two of these glasses and experience the difference.   WinoWally


Wine Tasting

For those of you who are interested in tasting wine for the sake of tasting (rather than for enjoyment with a meal), we present the following wine tasting primer.  This blurb was copied from the internet. (Can't recall where, maybe.  We had been doing a little "tasting" ourselves.)  Check out our reviews, taste the wines yourself, and see if you agree with our esteemed panel of experts.

The "Tasting" in Wine Tasting

The first two aspects of wine tasting are sight and smell. Now's the time to taste all the things you saw and smelled — and some you didn't — such as wine's sweetness, bitterness, astringency, and acidity.  Tasting wine, however, is different than just drinking it. Slower, noisier, and altogether less socially acceptable than a polite sip, tasting is a specific process designed to aerate the wine and run it past the full range of taste buds. Here's how to do it: 

  • Take a small sip of wine, drawing in enough air to make a light slurping noise. Besides entertaining those around you, you're speeding up the vaporization to intensify the flavors. 

  • "Chew" the wine (teeth not actually required) to move it all around your mouth. Different parts of your tongue will taste different aspects of the wine, and you want to make sure to cover each sector. 

  • Finally, either swallow or spit. If you plan to taste a lot of wines, spitting can enhance your focus and extend your stamina. Have a bucket on hand if this is your strategy.

The basic parameters of a wine's taste are intensity, dryness or sweetness, body, acidity, tannin, oak, and complexity. Refer to the Tasting Chart for the full scoop on each of these aspects of tasting. Also see their Studies in Contrast samplers, which are designed to help you develop your own tasting skills by presenting sets of two or more wines that differ in some specific way. 


Big Bottles

You often see wines in stores or restaurants in large format bottles.  Some of the bottles appear only slightly larger than normal while others appear as bloated as WinoBob's liver.  Well, there are names for each of those large formats  and Wino Diana was kind enough to educate us on the subject:

Magnum                   1.5L   2 bottles
Jeroboam                  3.0L   4 bottles
Rehoboam                4.5L    6 bottles
Methuselah               6.0L     8 bottles
Salmanazar               9.0L     12 bottles
Balthazar                  12.0L    16 bottles
Nebuchadnezzar       15.0L    20 bottles

Wines are generally thought to age better in large format bottles.  The price for wine in these large bottles is usually higher on a per liter basis as these bottles are often both scarce and collectible.

Bonus Update...

World Famous Wine Guy and Honorary Wino, Robin Garr, included the following summary in one of his 30 Second Wine Advisor newsletters...

The naming conventions vary somewhat among wine regions, with the two standards being Champagne and Bordeaux in France. In case you run into a big bottle, here's a quick field guide to the larger sizes:

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Jeroboam: 3 liters (four bottles)
Rehoboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles)
Methuselah: 6 liters (eight bottles)
Salmanazar: 9 liters (12 bottles)
Balthazar: 12 liters (16 bottles)
Nebuchadnezzar: 15 liters (20 bottles)

Even larger sizes are occasionally seen, although they are very rare:

Solomon: 20 liters (28 bottles)
Primat: 27 liters (36 bottles)

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Marie-Jeanne: 2.25 liters (three bottles)
Double Magnum: 3 liters (four bottles)
Jeroboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles) *
Imperiale: 6 liters (eight bottles)

* Because of recent U.S. regulations limiting larger bottles to even liter sizes, some modern red-wine "Jeroboams" are now 5 liters rather than the traditional 4.5.


Glossary and Pronunciation

We know that it is often difficult to pronounce wine related word, especially some of those French words.  So we have included this handy pronunciation tool.  (Actually, it's just a link to the Wine Lover's Page glossary and pronunciation tool, but you found it here, right???!!!)  Click here to learn to pronounce your favorite wine-related words...  (Hint:  Turn ON your speakers!)

Didn't find what you were looking for on the Wine Lover's Page?  Try Merriam-Webster OnLine.  Type a word in to the dictionary field, click on Look It Up, and bam!,  you get a definition and, more often than not, a little speaker thing like this    that you can click on to hear the word pronounced!  Is technology great or what?  




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