Uncorking a bottle of wine is one of life’s great pleasures. It can also be a nightmare when something goes wrong in the process. Faulty corks are the usual culprit, but the actual problem may be right in your hands; your opener. Let’s take a look at the many different styles of corkscrews, or wine keys, and how well they perform.
The first known corkscrews were made in England in the mid-17th Century. They were shaped like the letter T with a metal worm topped by a wood, bone, ivory, or various other material handles. In 1883, Carl Wienke of Germany produced the biggest breakthrough in corkscrew design with his Waiter’s Friend lever corkscrew. Much like a Swiss Army knife, it contained a helix metal worm, a knife for cutting the foil, and a fulcrum to assist in easy cork extraction, all able to fold into an easy carry package.
Since then, a large number of designs have hit the marketplace. Some good; some bad. Some great; some relatively dangerous. Let’s examine the pro’s and con’s of many of the more popular models.
The Ah-so cork puller has two thin metal prongs that slide down between the neck of the bottle and the cork. Rocking it back and forth until fully inserted, the user twists back and forth while pulling the cork upwards. I found this style at times a bit awkward to use, but in truth, it’s the best tool to use with older vintages where the cork may be either dried out or spongie from over saturation of juice. A valuable tool to have on hand just in case.
The Twin-Lever or Winged Opener drills into the cork until its wings spread upward. Once fully inserted, you press downward on the wings to extract the cork. Very popular and easy to use, yet it does have its drawbacks. The style that contain an auger style worm, a central shaft with spiral windings, often times damages the cork during extraction. I have seen them pull up fragments from the center of the cork and not much else. They also tend to leave small pieces of cork in the bottle. Ones that have a spiral worm are usually thick metal and not easy to insert. Over time, most of the worms loosen and get wobbly, damaging the cork beyond recognition. At this point, do yourself a favor and throw it out and get a new opener.
The Rabbit style has become very popular over the years. The mountable styles are very good yet I hear many complaints about the hand held models. Its rabbit ear handles grip the bottle, then using the hand lever to move up and down to enter the cork and extract in one simple motion. Dropping the bottle from either faulty gripping on the part of the opener or the openee is often common. Pushing the cork straight into the bottle is also highly likely. The hand held models could benefit from the help of a third arm, yet the mountable models, especially those of better quality, work extremely well.
The Screwpull or Continuous models have a longer helix worm, a spindle handle on top, and a plastic guide. You put the clothespin looking guide on top of the bottle, enter and extract the cork with the worm in the same revolving motion, and reverse the motion to free the cork from the worm. It was chosen as a favorite over other various openers by America’s Test Kitchen experts. This style works very well, the only drawback is, over time, a loose or out of align worm make it impossible to extract a cork.
The Needle & Gas versions are a disaster waiting to happen. Run out of gas, you’re left high and dry. Cases of exploding bottles have also been known to happen. I have even opened a bottle with this device once only to stab myself with the needle because the needle was longer than the cork, and once out, it was hard to stop the rapid motion the gas had caused. Use at your own risk.
The Waiter’s Friend is arguably the most popular style in the world. Compact in design, it is easy to use, and handily transportable. This is the preferred model for most restaurant waiters and waitresses. Ever try carrying any of the above mentioned corkscrews with you? The rare problem I see at times is someone pulling up the lever at weird angles, causing broken corks. Pulling straight up on the lever usually eliminates this problem. Better yet, try to find the model with a double fulcrum, my personal favorite. The first stage let’s you get the cork started out of the bottle, the second stage removes the cork very easily, all in one straight upward motion.
A large number of Battery models have hit the market in recent years and have become very popular. Press a button, the worm drills down, and when fully inserted, draws the cork up in one easy motion. I’ve seen some work flawlessly and others struggle to get a tight cork out of a bottle. Also be sure to have extra batteries on hand just in case. They are large and bulky but have found a home in many cabinet drawers.
Technically not an opener but rather a wine extractor and preservation system all in one, the Coravin is primarily used by collectors and wine professionals who only want to extract a small taste or a full glass out of a certain bottle, then be able to save the rest of the bottle for weeks, months or even years. It uses a needle which is inserted into the cork without allowing air into the bottle, hence allowing it to keep its freshness. The extracted juice is then replaced with argon gas that is built into the system. When the needle is pulled out, the cork reseals itself, allowing the remaining wine to be undisturbed. One problem I have seen, and it will be a costly one over time, is that when more and more of the wine is extracted, it takes that much more of the argon gas to replace the space between the cork and the remaining wine. It unfortunately does not work with plastic or alternative corks. If the cost of using the Coravin is no object, it might be a new tool for your wine sampling pleasure.
All in all, no matter which type opener you may possess, it all comes down to personal preference. You may be perfectly happy with whatever style of opener you already have or you may be looking to possibly upgrade to something new. But if you are experiencing problems opening a bottle of wine, it may well be your faulty corkscrew. If you are in the market for something new, look for one with a good strong helix worm, preferably one that is Teflon coated as it glides through the cork easily. Also beware that a certain number of corkscrews may not work well with plastic or other alternative style corks. All in all, find one the works best for you and is easy to use.
Final question? Why hasn’t someone yet to invent a left handed corkscrew!