What's Blowing Up In Wine These Days? Bottles.

If you've heard about a new wine device lately, the Coravin, it was probably because of a recent full recall of the devices issued by the government's Consumer Product Safety Commission. There had been indications for months that something was up.

In February, a letter was sent out to all Coravin owners (including myself) warning against using third-party suppliers of the gas capsules that are required to use it. It turns out that with a little reverse engineering, it was as easy as screwing on a plastic cap to substitute much cheaper Argon capsules than the Coravin-branded refills. The letter implied that there had been a few cases of exploding bottles, but that it was only a result of using these jerry-rigged capsules. Months later, another letter came admitting that due to exploding bottles and resulting facial lacerations, a recall was imminent and that a neoprene sleeve, to encase the bottle while it was being accessed, would be sent free of charge. In number 36,000 of these sleeves have been shipped and, although I haven't yet received mine, they have received permission to resume selling the systems — which are back "in stock" on the company's website.

Accessed wine? Argon capsules? Facial lacerations? Perhaps the newest technology in wine opening since the corkscrew needs a little explaining. The company lore goes like this: Greg Lambrecht, an M.I.T.-educated engineer who began his career working with nuclear power plants in Japan, became inspired when his wife became pregnant. An avid wine collector, he wondered how best to enjoy his bottles now that he had no one to share it with.

After 14 years, and some fundraising, the Coravin was released last summer. In essence, it's a handheld device that attaches to the top of a wine bottle and, using a very thin needle, penetrates a wine's cork. As the wine is poured through the device it is replaced with an inert gas that protects it from oxidation, and the needle is thin enough that the cork naturally reseals itself when removed.

Not many argue that it wasn't a brilliant, almost magical, contrivance. And after being "beta-tested" at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, there was no surprise that it sold well, despite the $300 price tag (which doesn't include the printer cartridge-like replacement Coravin-brand gas capsules, which costs around $10 each and lasts for a single 750 ml bottle). I was lucky enough to receive one as a gift in during the first round of production, and it's true, I was impressed. It absolutely blew people's minds at The Dutch — when I walked up to the table and poured them a taste of a wine that cost far more than they would ever consider paying.

It was nice at home, too. I could have one wine while I was cooking and other with dinner, without worrying about when I finished the bottle. In the end, as soon as you pull out the cork of a nice bottle, the clock begins ticking. It might take an hour or two to taste its best, but after a week in the fridge, you're lucky to find anything to enjoy about it. I tried to empirically measure the freshness of the wine, and, as the manufacturer suggested, kept track on the back label with when I had last "accessed" it. Generally, it seemed pretty effective, and although by the six-month mark I found some wines starting to show a little bit of fatigue, that there was overall plenty of time to finish a bottle's worth of wine, even all alone at home.

Unlike a lot of restaurants, we didn't integrate the Coravin into our by-the-glass program. It was by no means perfect: the wines that I would want to serve typically had quite a bit of sediment that I would normally carefully decant the wine off of. And even though it was fun with people that I was confident I could "geek out" with, it was pretty cumbersome and awkward to have to use tableside and train staff on. In the end, people don't come to The Dutch to spend $65 on a glass of wine. And frankly, now with the recall, things have gotten complicated.

Coravin is quick to point out that the issues were mostly with bottles that were chipped or made of an inferior type of glass. Inferior to what? I'm not sure. I live dangerously every now and then and use it anyway, at arm's length and definitely not table-side. The sleeve, like other safety measures of a similar shape, takes some of the excitement away. It's a new product and like any new product created by a smart team, I'm sure future releases will only improve upon the original — perhaps some way of measuring the pressure inside the bottle and releasing it if it creeps into explosive territory. Or, even better, a horizontal Coravin that would allow sommeliers to use it on wines in a cradle, without disturbing its sediment.

But the biggest threat to the Coravin isn't exploding bottles. It's what is actually the biggest development in wine packaging in the past 100 years. The Stelvin Closure, otherwise known as the screw-cap, which is becoming ubiquitous in big wine-producing countries like Australia, New Zealand and Austria. Screw caps don't work with Coravin technology, rendering the pricy technology obsolete. But there's little doubt Greg Lambrecht is already back at the drawing board.

Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages. He is also beverage manager for The Dutch in NYC.

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