Claire Bretecher, a profound French cartoonist, once drew this pathetic, wordless sequence:
She is lying on her mattress on the floor, bawling her eyes out, while his scowling memory hovers in a thought balloon overhead. She gathers her strength, pulls herself together, rises, and boots the scoundrel out of her mind. Resolved, she marches determinedly into the kitchen, takes a bottle of wine from the small rack under the counter, and, newly confident, threads a simple, T-shaped corkscrew into the bottle.
For the next five frames she struggles vainly with the cork, wedging the bottle between her knees and yanking, holding it on the floor between her feet and pulling.
Dismayed, she carries the bottle back to her mattress, corkscrew lodged tight in the unbudging cork, and again begins bawling while his scowling image reappears overhead.
You know the feeling. It has happened to you, man or woman. It has happened when the boss came to dinner, in a hotel room, or on a picnic. It need never happen again.
Where Bretecher's woman screwed up was not by choosing the wrong man, but by choosing the wrong corkscrew. That simple, T-shaped device is frustration incarnate. Samuel Henshall, who patented it in 1795, should be immortalized in the wax museum beside the Marquis de Sade.
A replacement is necessary, because in this age of microchips and rocketships, most fine wines are sealed with a plug of resilient, spongy wood cut from the bark of the Quercus suber, more commonly known as the cork oak tree.
Cork hugs the glass neck of the bottle with tenacity. When kept moist by the wine in a reclining bottle, corks can last 25 years or more before they have to be replaced.
So if you have acquired the civilized habit of a refreshing glass of wine with your meal, here are a few tips on selecting and using cork pullers.
Tips on technique
Once you have a good corkscrew, there are a few pointers you should know for smooth operation.
- The first step is to prepare yourself mentally. Breathe deeply, and repeat three times, "I am smarter than the cork."
- Then peel away all the foil or plastic capsule and wipe the top. Mold and other gunk hang out on cork tops and can give the wine an odd taste.
- Keep your tip sharp. Sharp tips on corkscrews prevent cork bits in the wine.
- Make sure the tip of your corkscrew is aligned with the rest of the helix so that it is not boring its way down while the rest of the helix is tearing a wide hole. Always insert the helix in the center of the cork and be certain it is going straight in.
- If something goes wrong, stop and think. Remember that you are smarter than the cork. Do not force the issue. If only half the cork is coming out, screw the helix in deeper. If it is pulling out the center only, remove the corkscrew and drill another hole where you can start over again, or screw the helix down the side and try to pull it from there.
Choose your weapon
The T-shaped Henshall screw is a worthless piece of junk. Right now, get up and go into your kitchen and throw yours out. The good news is there are several designs for corkscrews that work flawlessly. A few are even idiot-proof. You would not cut your lawn with a pair of scissors, and neither should you try to pull a cork with a device originally designed to remove perfume stoppers. Go out and buy a real cork remover. There are three features to look for when selecting a cork remover.
- Worms not augers. The part which is inserted into the cork should be a helix formed from a heavy wire that looks like a coiled worm. These wire worms do not tear the cork as they wind through it. Augers, whose thread is more like a screw, tear corks and should be avoided.
- Mechanical advantage. The device should give you a mechanical advantage with levers, gears, or screws. Its design should translate a gentle motion on your part to forceful action on the cork.
- Wide and long. Make sure the worm is wide enough and long enough to get a good grip on the whole cork. Narrow worms tend to pull out only the center of the cork, while worms shorter than 1.75" only screw through part of a long cork, and often tear it in half.
I have personally used all of these devices many many times.
Screwpulls and imitators
The finest corkscrew ever designed is a gadget called the Screwpull. Actually there are three excellent models of Screwpull and there are some Screwpull imitators that work pretty well. At the center of the concept is an extra-long, wire helix with an extra wide spiral. The tip is extra sharp so it will not punch cork bits into the wine. The screw is housed in a bracket that automatically aims the screw at the center of the cork, the point at which many of us go awry. However, the Screwpull's secret is that the helix is coated with a non-stick material that helps it glide through the cork effortlessly, and when it is turned all the way into the cork, even the most stubborn plug of wood floats out of the bottle as if weightless. It is idiot-proof and inexpensive. For discount pricing on Amazon.com, click here.
The Oster battery operated wine opener is a really clever device. With the touch of a button it can open 30 bottles between charges. Perfect for people with arthritis or the elderly. Or people like me, the lazy. For discount pricing on Amazon.com click here.
Another type that I recommend is the winged corkscrew. It has two wing-like levers that pull the cork up through its frame when they are depressed, and they are very inexpensive, usually under $10. Beware of cheaper models with augers rather than wire helices. Here's a nice one from Pedrini.
The "Ah-so" was once the rage in California. The device has two prongs that are wiggled between the cork and the bottle neck, and with a quick twisting motion, easily yanks the cork out of the bottle without puncturing the cork. Most of the time. They work best on new American corks which have been lightly lubricated before insertion. On older, saturated European corks, they can punch the cork into the bottle if you're not careful. The "Ah-so" works fine, but requires skill and practice. There are several brands ranging from $4 to $7. I don't recommend them for beginners.
The waiter's lever is still popular with bartenders and restaurant staffs. It is compact and folds up like a pocket knife. Its handle is hinged and one end has a fulcrum which rests on the bottle lip. Newer models like this one uses a 2-step lifter that improves leverage. This model by Le Creuset has a non-stick coasted screw, serrated foilcutter and bottle opener, and is made from stainless steel.
This device requires some skill because beginners tend to pull the cork out at an angle, bending and often breaking it. If pulled straight up, it does its job as well as any other. Cheaper models usually have a short helix which rip corks in half.
The double screw is so-called because it removes the cork by screwing the helix into the cork and then a latch is thrown so a thread around the top helix pulls it out.
The compressed air hypodermic cork remover looks like a giant needle to be inserted through the cork. The "syringe" part is like a bicycle pump, and pumps air into the bottle until the internal pressure pushes the cork out. It works fine, but can break off in the cork, can explode, and a stuck cork can blow out suddenly pushing, the device into your face. $15-20. Not recommended.
The foil mohel (foil cutter)
Screwpull makes a handy tool to cut the foil off the bottle nice and neat so you can clean the top nice and neat. One look at it and I broke out laughing and dubbed it the foil mohel. Mohel (pronounced moil), is the Hebrew word for the man who does circumcisions. Amazon.com sells several foil cutters that work well.