A Massachusetts company this week launched a new wine-opening device that could signal an end to the frustration known by wine lovers around the globe. You open a bottle, it doesn't get finished, and within a couple of days it's vinegar.
Cue Greg Lambrecht, a nuclear physicist whose business until now has been developing high-tech medical devices. As a confirmed wine buff (he has an estimated 1,500 bottles in his cellar) he was moved to take action when his wife became pregnant with their second child in 1999 and stopped drinking.
"I still wanted to enjoy great glasses of wine, but didn't want to commit to whole bottles," Lambrecht says. He didn't believe that standard preservation systems worked. "Each time, once the cork was pulled, oxidation started and I was locked into that bottle."
After years of experimentation, Lambrecht believes he has come up with the answer: the Coravin Wine Access System.
Made from stainless steel and aluminum, the device does not open the bottle. Instead, a thin, hollow, Teflon-coated needle pierces the cork (and foil). When the thirsty drinker lifts the bottle, the wine travels down the needle and out to a waiting glass, but no oxygen gets in. At the same time, the device injects argon into the bottle – an inert gas that displaces the wine that is taken out.
When the needle is removed, the cork reseals itself, allowing the remaining wine to stay in pristine condition.
Over the last two years, Coravin has been road-tested by a host of volunteers: wine aficionados, wineries, retail stores and restaurants – including New York's Del Posto and Eleven Madison Park.
In a marketing man's dream, Robert Parker – who stresses that he has no financial interest in the company – has declared the Coravin to be a "transformational" new product for wine lovers. He calls it "a killer device.“
The wine critic's enthusiasm for the device is evident in an interview with Lambrecht on erobertparker.com: "I can't tell you how impressed I am with this – with the technology and how well it works," says Parker.
During a video presentation Parker tastes bottles that have been accessed with the Coravin and poured multiple times, and yet are "as fresh as could be." One example is 2003 Chapoutier Le Meal white Hermitage, which he says would normally oxidize within hours. It tastes of "fresh fruit – like apricot marmalade," declares Parker. "This blows my mind."
It was Lambrecht's work in the medical field that led to his breakthrough with Coravin. He was working on a product for accessing the vascular system using fine needles when he thought: "There's got to be a way that I can use this to get wine out without ever removing the cork."
Once he had developed a prototype, Lambrecht conducted randomized tests using a total of 600 bottles of wine over 10 years.
"I would buy a half-case of a wine and would access one bottle immediately. One month later I would access it again, along with a sample from a control bottle to see if I could taste a difference. Then again at six months, one years, two years, five years..." Hundreds of bottle later, says Lambrecht, "I felt comfortable it worked."
Cutting the waste
He believes his invention will enable enthusiasts to explore their collections glass by glass "without committing to any bottle – or wasting a drop." Restaurants will be able to offer diners a greater range of wines – including older bottles – by the glass. Wineries are planning to use it for tastings.
At California's Martinelli Winery, tasting room manager Debbie Timm has held trials of the Coravin with both staff and members of the Martinelli family. She says it will transform their library tastings of old vintages – for example, the prestigious Jackass Hill Vineyard Zinfandel made from 100-year-old vines with diminishing yields.
"This wine is too precious to open a bottle for a tasting if you're not going to use it all," explains Timm. "With the Coravin, we can take a little out and then keep the bottle for months or years."
Lambrecht reports that early on in the development process, some in the wine world were concerned that the Coravin could be used by counterfeiters to empty bottles, drink the contents, and refill them with fake wine. However, he stresses that his device "goes only one way," and cannot be used to put wine into a bottle.
In fact, it seems that the Coravin may have a role to play in countering the growing problem of wine fraud. Wines could be sampled before an auction without the bottle being opened. The former head of Christie's wine department in the Americas and Hong Kong, Charles Curtis MW, has launched his own consultancy business and plans to use the Coravin to assist in the authentication of fine and rare wines.
Another concern expressed by wine buffs relates to the danger of disturbing the sediment in old bottles of wine. However, Lambrecht cautions users to hold those bottles carefully and attach the Coravin while they are lying flat. Then, rather than tipping them up to withdraw the wine, the bottles should be raised only slightly.
The next generation
In countries where screw cap closures are now the norm, including Australia and New Zealand, some may wonder about the usefulness of the Coravin device. Indeed, cork has lost market share to alternative closures since the turn of the century. However, it is estimated that around 70 percent of the 18 billion closures produced each year are still made from natural cork – a sizable chunk of the worldwide market. What's more, U.S. surveys suggest that American consumers and high-end wine buyers are still firmly wedded to the natural cork closure.
Even so, Lambrecht has plans for the screw cap: "Our development team is working on this problem, thinking about a way to adapt our device for screw caps." Plastic corks present more of a problem because unlike natural corks, "they are not elastic and do not have the capacity to heal the hole that is made by a needle."
Nor is the Coravin designed for Champagne and other sparkling wines, although Lambrecht says it will help them to "keep a little better" after opening. His development team is working on a separate device that would also inject carbon dioxide into the bottle.
The Coravin retails online at $299, while the argon capsules cost $9.95 each and must be replaced after about 20 glasses of wine have been poured.