Before you can experience those subtle nuances of dried cherry, new leather, tar, black olives and
garrigue, you need to be able to uncork that bottle of wine. Since there are literally hundreds of
devices to extract a cork out a wine bottle, what is YOUR best bet? Does more expensive
necessarily mean better? Or is old school the way to go?
The World of Corkscrews
Though they are named corkscrews, what you should be looking for is a device with a “worm”
versus a “screw”. The worm actually threads itself into the cork giving you more leverage to
actually pull it out of the bottle whereas the screw will simply burrow down the middle of the
cork. If the cork is too dry or tight, the screw will simple gouge out the center of the cork
leaving you with a crumbly mess.
The most common model is the waiter’s model which consists of a pocket sized device with
pivoting worm and lever. Some models also come with a folding curved blade to cut through the
plastic or lead capsule covering the top of the wine bottle. Prices can run from less than $10 for
plastic bodied devices all the up to $200 for hand crafted Laguiole openers from France.
There are also waiter’s models that are equipped with dual levers that make it easier to extract
the cork – like using a two step ratchet for leverage.
To use these devices, first use the curved blade (if it’s equipped with a blade, if not use any small
knife blade) and hold against the lower lip of the wine bottle and cut through the capsule in a
circular motion. If done properly, you should be removing about the top ½ inch of the capsule.
If there’s any crud on top of the cork including mold, wipe it off before removing the cork.
Thread the worm down the center of the cork until you reach the last circle of the worm. Swing
the lever to rest on the top of the lip of the bottle. Now slowly raise the body of the opener
until the cork starts to move. Once the cork is loosened, you can keep going until it is fully
extracted. Be careful if you’re uncorking a red wine that’s been cellared as the wine residue on
the bottom of the cork will splash any guest near you. Once the cork is almost out of the
bottle, I usually cover the cork with towel and manually pull it out to prevent any wine spray.
If you notice that the cork seems to be breaking as you’re levering it out, stop and unthread the
worm. At this point, you can either reposition the worm to a solid part of the cork and try
again or hold on until you read the end of this article.
There are also larger worm based models that simplify cork removal that don’t take as much
coordination or strength. These were first made by Screwpull which revolutionized cork
extraction in 1979. Back then, your two options were either to use the archaic cork screw device
with the two arms that rose as you bored through the cork. As you folded those two arms
downward, either the cork was extracted or you simply bore a ¼ hole right through the cork.
Screwpull introduced the Teflon coated worm that made it glide through most corks and its
simple design caused the cork to rise out of bottle with simple twisting. No fighting, lifting,
struggling or cursing necessary. They followed this up with the Lever model that simply has a
user clamp around the top of the wine bottle and pulling a lever forward to thread the cork and
pull back to extract the cork. Simple. Now days there are also table models that thread and
extract the cork in one motion. Even simpler.
The basic Screwpull models start at about $20 with the Lever models starting at about $40.
Those one-pull table models will set you back about $75 and they’re not meant to be stored in
a drawer, they need to be clamped onto a table, counter or stand.
No Worm or Screw
Nicknamed the Ah-So cork extractor supposedly from the German “ach so” or “Ah, I see”, this
device is a double bladed cork extractor that hopefully you’ll never have to use. It consists of an
oval shaped circular handle and two flaring blades – one a little longer than the other with a
cover for the blades when not in use. The main use for the Ah-So extractor is for corks that
either have broken or are about to break with normal corkscrews or for those corks in such
decrepit condition that you know will break with a standard corkscrew.
To use the Ah-So puller, remove the cover exposing the dual blades. I usually remove the whole
capsule from the top of the bottle so I can see where the blades are going. The blades should be
sliding between the cork and the bottle – they shouldn’t be going into the cork. Place the
longer blade between to cork and bottle and slide it about ½ inch down the neck. Place the
other blade on the opposite side between the cork and bottle and slide it down about ½ inch.
Now alternately slide each blade down until the handle rest on the lip of the wine bottle. Slowly
pull out the cork using a twisting motion.
What about Bubbly?
With roughly 6 atmospheres of pressure and anywhere from 70 to 90 pounds per square inch or
p.s.i. in every bottle, uncorking a bottle of bubbly can be a little unnerving for the uninitiated.
First of all, make sure the bottle is properly chilled. Increasing the temperature makes the
dissolved carbon dioxide more likely exit the solution hence more frothing and foaming. Next,
remove the foil covering the cork. Most sparkling wines have a little pull tab to easily remove
the foil. Now for the fun part. Place your thumb over the top of the cork while untwisting the
looped wire securing that metal cage holding the cork in place. Once this wire is loosened,
NEVER face the bottle to any of your guests because that cork can take flight at any time. I
usually cover the cork with a bar towel – to prevent overspray and also to get a better grip on
the cork. While hold the cork and keeping the bottle at roughly a 45 degree angle, slowly twist
the bottle, NOT THE CORK. As you feel the cork being pushed out by the pressure, slowly
allow the released carbon dioxide to exit the bottle. If you’ve performed it perfectly there
should be no loud “pop” as the cork exits the bottle (especially if you’re sitting for the Certified
There are sparkling wine specific devices to facilitate gripping the cork but I never use these.
Fumbling with another device simply allows more time for the unwired cork to fly out on its
own. There is one device that I do occasionally use, the Descorjet. I first saw the device
employed at the Domaine Chandon tasting room. You place the Descorjet over the cork after
removing the foil and wiring then squeeze the handle. It does remove the cork with a noticeable
“pop” but its still so COOOOL!
If you’re into major fanfare and have a streak of daring in you, you can always saber or sabrage a
bottle of bubbly open. This involves sharply striking the lower lip of a chilled bottle of sparkling
wine that has its foil and protective wiring removed. That sudden strike cleanly fractures the top
of the bottle (with cork still intact in the glass) so that cork and glass flies off into the air. This
does take a lot of nerve since you’ll be walking around with a bottle of pressurized wine without
its protective wiring and you’re basically breaking the bottle in a semi-controlled manner of
said pressurized bottle hoping it doesn’t totally shatter in your hand. Whenever I employ this
technique, I make sure it’s a young bottle of sparkling wine (young glass fractures cleaner than
old glass), the bottle is chilled properly and that the bottle has been minimally disturbed (hasn’
t been shaken or wasn’t rolling around in the car trunk after purchase) to minimize sabrage
Aren’t screw tops found only in skid row quality wines? Actually, Stelvin closures (the politically
correct nomenclature) are being used in many high end wines. They do resemble the screw tops
of old (I still can’t detect any difference myself) but the increased incidence of “corked” wines
with natural cork contaminated with TCA or trichloroanisole which gives wines a musty, wet
old rag smell necessitated the proliferation of Stelvin closures. It has been estimated that
detectable “corked” wines occur in up to 10% of cork sealed wine bottles or more than 1 bottle
per case and that Stelvin closures drop this to almost nil. In any case, you will see Stelvin
closures in many white wines and with increasing regularity in red wines also.
You can open these bottles in the same manner as Thunderbird or Boone’s Farm – just grab and
twist. However, if you’re trying to impress your dining companions with your recent acquisition
of Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon, instead of simply grabbing the cap and twisting, hold the
bottom section connected to the cap and twist the bottom of the bottle. Once the seal is
broken, you can then gracefully untwist the cap itself to liberate your wine. Will your wine
taste better? Probably not but it might save the fleshy part of your thumb from being sliced by
the sharp edge below the cap. And your dining companions will be spared recollections of early
trysts with Boone’s Farm.
Getting Inside of that Bottle of Wine