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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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Corkscrews: Three Centuries of Imagination and Engineering

There is evidence of wine production as early as 6000 years ago but corkscrews are a more recent invention.

Prior to the 18th century, wine was mainly stored in wood casks, and in older times – clay jars or animal skins – and served in pitchers at the table. Stoppers, often made of wood and sealed with wax, protruded from the container. The irregular nature and expense of hand blown bottles limited their use. Circa 1728, new techniques in glass blowing allowed factories to produce glass bottles in uniform sizes. A cork plug set flush with the rim of the bottle neck turned out to be ideal for keeping liquid contents in, and air and contaminants out. Wine, beer and other products–perfumes, inks and medicines–began to be available in bottles with corks beginning in the second quarter of the 18th century. The average person used a bottle stoppered with a cork several times a day.

An Englishman, Samuel Henshall, is credited with registering the earliest known patent for a corkscrew in 1795. The design was based on a spiral tipped tool, known as a cartridge remover, created for use with muzzle loading guns in the mid 17th century. The cartridge remover turned out to be useful for removing cork stoppers as well. Henshall’s design featured a disk of metal on the shank. Pressure from the disk on the rim of the bottle helped break the seal between the cork and glass in conjunction with the twisting motion of the tool. The same 18th century factories often produced both corkscrews and cartridge pullers, cementing the historical relationship between the two tools.

Corkscrews consist of two main sections – the handle and the “worm” which is twisted into the cork. There are several types of worms but most fall into two categories. The auger style– shaped like a screw, and the helical style – a tapered rod wound around a hollow axis. The auger removes material as it twists into the cork, and is more likely to create particles that drop into the bottle’s contents. The helical style burrows into the cork and temporarily displaces the material. Early aristocratic examples can be found made of gold and silver but steel became the material of choice for the worm due to its strength and durability. The design of the handle was limited only by imagination. From simple finger loops and wooden cylinders, to tusks and antlers, fish, fowl, animals and objects of all types in a variety of materials, there is a dizzying array of styles to explore. By the mid 19th century the corkscrew became a vehicle for advertisements. Designs of all eras show remarkable wit and humor. A popular early 20th century model featured a caricature of Senator Volstead who championed Prohibition.

Meanwhile inventors were busy creating a better corkscrew. New mechanics were developed throughout the 19th century. The “bell cap,” was a variation on Henshall’s design, which pressed downwards on the bottle as the cork was lifted up. The prong style, better known today as an Ah-So, is still the best for dealing with older, fragile corks. Compound levers with names like “Tric Trac” and “Zig Zag” became popular in the late 1880s. The 20th century brought us the air cartridge “wine popper” and the 21st century gave us the “rabbit” a variation on the classic lever.

If you are traveling in Europe, there are museum collections of antique corkscrews in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Greece. Luckily you don’t have to go that far to whet your curiosity. Napa Valley is home to the collection of Brother Timothy, the well known Christian Brothers winemaker. Brother Timothy, who passed away in 2004, began collecting corkscrews in 1949 and amassed approximately 1650 at the peak of his collecting.

Brother Timothy is fondly remembered in Napa Valley as a kind and generous man with a playful sense of humor and a gift for winemaking. Sources claim he started collecting to discover the best corkscrew design, and from there he was hooked. As the collection grew, he often loaned the pieces to museums and for marketing displays as well as gifting corkscrews to family and friends. Occasionally he sold the more valuable pieces and and donated the proceeds to the Christian Brothers’ educational funds. In 1974 he was a founding member of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts (ICCA), a corkscrew collecting group that is still active today.

Today, approximately 800-900 pieces of the collection remain, most of which are on display at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. A few of Brother Timothy’s personal favorites remain in the De La Salle Institute archives in Napa. Visitors are welcome to view the Brother Timothy Corkscrew Collection at the CIA daily between 10am and 6pm. One warning–we predict that, just like Brother Timothy, you’ll be addicted to corkscrew collecting.

More information on visiting the CIA available at www.ciachef.edu/california