Clare Valley winemakers and their role in taking the global wine industry from cork to screw cap

ABC Rural / By Dimitria Panagiotaros Posted Mon 14 Nov 2022 at 6:45amMonday 14 Nov 2022 at 6:45am

Read the article on the ABC website here / Listen to the story on the SA Country Hour Radio Program

Hillary, Angus and Edwina Mitchell standing in their vineyard with glasses of red wine.
The Mitchell family was the first to put all their wines in screw cap bottles. (Supplied: Edwina Mitchell)

When you're in your local bottle-o picking up your favourite wines, you probably don't overthink the fact that most of the wines you see have screw caps.

But if you journey back to the early 2000s, you might remember the familiar feeling of banging around kitchen drawers in the hunt for a bottle opener … and then praying the cork comes out in one piece.

In the early 60s and 70s, a few Australian winemakers tried their hand at moving away from cork, but the public was not sold.

People viewed the screw cap as cheap and likened it to opening a soft drink.

Where was the romance of drinking wine without the "pop" of a cork to go with it?

For a long time, screw caps were known as a trialled but failed experiment, with some saying that the attempt almost sent some wine companies broke.

But all that was set to change when 14 winemakers from the Clare Valley decided to meet one night down at their local pub (where all great ideas start), two decades ago.

Fed up with their best wines spoiling under cork, they banded together and unknowingly began a movement that would change the global wine industry forever.

Andrew Hardy sits against a cement wall with a glass of red wine
Andrew Hardy was one of the 14 winemakers to start the screw cap initiative. (Supplied: OX Hardy Wines)

Poor-tasting wine a concern

OX Hardy Wines director Andrew Hardy was the instigator of the pub rendezvous and one of the main drivers behind the cork-to-screw cap phenomenon.

"The cork taint problem in world wine, but especially in Australian wine, was a huge problem, and through the 90s we were paying a lot of money for what was supposed to be very good corks, and they were not," he said.

Mr Hardy, who was the chairman of the Clare Valley Winemakers at the time, said people were turning their noses up at poor-tasting wine without realising it was a taint issue, not the wine itself.

"Cork taint was causing a lot of damage to people's brands, and we were sick of seeing our wines spoiled and out of condition with cork in the top," Mr Hardy said.

The Rising Sun Hotel- a heritage building with a sunset in the background.
The Rising Sun Hotel in South Australia, where it all began.(Supplied: The Rising Sun Hotel)

Frustrated, Mr Hardy called the group together and the search for solutions began.

"Once we started delving into the science of the screw cap, we knew we would be able to deliver a quality outcome," he said.

After the first bottles and caps were secured from France, the winemakers went on what Mr Hardy called a media blitz.

"We did tastings in every state, in every capital city and in all the regional towns," he said.

"It was us out on the road — literally shoe leather on the road, showing our wine under screw cap.

A closeup of a pile of wine bottle corks.
Clare Valley winemakers phased out corks because of their impact on wine quality.(Unsplash: John Murzaku)

"Really, we were only in the beginning of people drinking table wine in Australia," Mr Hardy said.

"Up until the early 60s it was a fortified industry — most people drank port, beer and tea, so the wine boom had only started in Australia.

"Once the consumers started seeing it, the convenience factor came in as well — they didn't need a corkscrew anymore."

Mr Hardy recalls the acceptance for screw caps growing quite quickly, not only within Australia but internationally.

"New Zealand moved very quickly after Clare. The fact that we got the screw cap initiative going in Clare, the whole wine world looked at what we were doing with real interest, and saw an opportunity," he said.

"[The shift] was arguably one of the great quality changes in the industry that was driven by Australian winemakers."

What do you call this, then?

Winemaker Hilary Mitchell, from Mitchell Wines, recalls her family's involvement in the movement.

Her father was one of those faithful 14 winemakers at the pub that night, and was the first to decide he would put all their wine under screw cap.

Simone Pringle who is the current winemaker is pictured with Dale Lomas, Andrew Mitchell, Jane Mitchell and Leon Schram
The Mitchell family and team back in 1999, when they still used corks to seal their wines. (Supplied: Edwina Mitchell)

"We went all in," Ms Mitchell said.

One of her first jobs while at university was doing in-store wine tastings for their family's winery.

She would approach people in bottle shops with a screw cap wine in hand, trying to convenience potential buyers on a product that many had not seen before.

"What is this? How do you open it? Isn't it just for cheap wines?" she said they would ask.

"I was the face on the street, trying to explain it to customers," she laughed.

"But once people realised it was easier and better quality, it was a no-brainer."

Andrew and Jane Mitchell hold a bottle of their wine in a bottle shop in Ireland with the store owner, Johnathon.
Andrew and Jane Mitchell present their cork-less wine in an Irish bottle shop. (Supplied: Edwina Mitchell)

Ms Mitchell believes a big part of the success of the movement was due to being in the right place at the right time.

She felt the world was ready for the change and just needed a group of brave people to sell it to them.

"So many people tried to do it but it almost sent their companies broke," she said.

"The fact it was Clare Valley putting their premium riesling under screw caps, it was the little push that everyone needed to get onboard.

"And 20 years later, some people drinking wine now have probably never had a corked wine. They don't know the world without screw caps."

A landscape photo of the Mitchell Wines.
The Mitchell family led the charge against corked wines. (Supplied: Edwina Mitchell)

The proof is in the pudding

Nick Ryan, a freelance wine writer of more than 25 years, praised the Clare winemakers for their foresight.

"In 2000, if you were to go and ask anyone who worked in the wine trade if they thought the market would accept screw cap closures, most of them would have said no way," he said.

Mr Ryan said the motivation to move to screw cap was quite simple — it was purely based on improving quality.

"There was no marketing advantage to them at all. If anything, it was a disadvantage."

Wine writer, Nick Ryan poses with glasses of wine.
Nick Ryan says the decision to change to screw caps was based on wine quality. (Supplied: Twitter)

Recently, some of the original Clare winemakers' group toured parts of Australia, celebrating their decision to move to screw caps all those years ago.

To vindicate their vision, they brought along wines from their 2002, 2012 and 2022 vintages and showed off just how consistent the quality was ... and still is.

"The results were even more emphatic than I thought they would be going into it," Mr Ryan said.

"One of the things that these people struggled with back in 2000 was all sorts of market resistance, and within the industry as well, saying that the wine won't age under screw cap.

"And these tastings showed that to be a lie and nonsense because they all aged beautifully and consistently."

Clare Valley led the world

Australian Grape and Wine cheif executive Tony Battaglene said initially, the wine industry was concerned people would not be convinced to move away from cork.

"We were worried they would miss the sound of the cork coming out … the theatre," he said.

Australian Grape and Wine CEO, Tony Battaglene, standing in a vineyard.
Tony Battaglene says the Clare Valley led the global shift to screw caps. (Supplied: Australian Grape and Wine)

"But after that initial trial from the Clare Valley, it started getting adopted around the world because consumers actually liked it — it was convenient, you didn't need a corkscrew in your back pocket.

"Now, 98 per cent of Australian wine is produced under screw cap."