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
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
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 email@example.com.
The Uncorked archive