Friday, February 9, 2007
About cork removers
Believe it or not, there was a time when cork removers came in a limited number of flavors. It use to be you just screwed the thing into the cork and pulled with all your might, hoping, often against hope, that nothing broke. This is why they were called corkscrews.
Given the flights of fancy to which “designers” are prey, it should not come as any surprise that a number of encumbrances crept into this simple approach. But in most cases you could count on being rewarded with a satisfying "pop" as the cork came out. Problems crept in when folks tried to make of a utilitarian implement a clever device, an elegant tool, or, god forbid, a work of art. I'm sure you've seen them. They look like some of the ones pictured in the photograph above or variations on inspired but counter-productive fancies. (Click on picture to enlarge.)
So, what are the problems? They boil down to two: the opener’s grip on the cork and your grip on the opener.
The curly-cue part of the opener that screws into the cork is called the “worm,” and as the worm turns so goes your chances of success. The worm needs to be fat and the threads not too close together. Otherwise the worm is as likely to pull out of the cork as pull the cork out of the bottle. So, if it’s going to work at all, an opener must first get a good purchase on the cork, just as you need to be able to get a good grip on the opener itself. If the opener is too small for your hand, or has sharp edges, bumps, nobs, or other protrusions that interfere with your grip, then chances are you’ll have a devil of a time producing that satisfying pop you want to hear.
Of the “old fashion” type openers, I think the most efficient are those that work on the double-action principle. What is the double-action principle? Well, in this case it refers to a combination of pushing and pulling at the same time. Sound impossible? It’s not. It’s really simple. The opener made of a boar’s tusk capped with silver pictured above is an example of a double-action opener.
As with all double-action types what happens is that, as you screw the worm into the cork, a collar piece fits itself around the top of the bottle and begins pressing against it. As you continue screwing the worm into the cork it is slowly extracted by the pulling force of the worm working against the pressing force of the collar. It’s as simple and elegant as that, a mini-confirmation of one of Archimedes several principles.
The next most reliable opener is called “the waiter’s friend.” It’s the one you’ve seen a thousand times and probably had difficulty using more than once. It applies another of Archimedes’ principals, that of the lever. I’m sure you recall from your school days his famous declaration, or boast, regarding the power of his discovery -- “Give me a place to
stand,” he is claimed to have said, “and I shall move the earth.”
Well, that’s all well and good, but why do some of us have such a hard time removing a cork with the lever-action “waiter’s friend.” There are two basic problems: centering the worm in the cork and positioning the boot lever (the hinged metal piece) on the lip of the bottle. I’ve found the best way to center the worm is to begin with it almost perpendicular to the bottle and with its end point down. Now place the point in the middle of the cork and bring the opener up while pressing and screwing
the worm into it. It may take a few practice runs to get the movements coordinated, but in the end I predict you’ll find it quite simple.
Once it’s centered, the next question is: “How far do I screw it in before engaging the lever?” Some “waiter’s friends” have a long boot lever, so long that if you screw the worm all the way in you can’t get the lever to catch on the bottle’s lip. So do is do what waiters do. Learn how many turns of the screw you can make and still have the boot lever fit. Place the boot lever on the bottle lip and lever the cork out as far as you can. Then screw the worm the rest of the way into the cork and make the
To help overcome this problem, a Spaniard came up with the idea of a double-hinged, double-flanged boot lever. (It’s the opener below the boar’s tusk in the picture.) What you do is first screw the worm in just enough to use the first flange, pull the cork out a bit using it, and then screw the worm all the way home and use the second flange to pull the cork out of the bottle. This works very well.
Unfortunately, in the last few years I’ve noted a problem that could spell the end for the “waiter’s friend.” It seems bottle makers have started giving the bottle a more rounded lip. As a result the boot lever tends to slip off of it. This frustrating.
There are other types of cork removers -- the Rabbit, the Screwpull, the gas injector, the Ah-So (perhaps the trickiest of all to use) -- but for me these extractors (I refuse to call them corkscrews) take the tradition and ceremony out of opening a bottle of wine. These devices are efficient, no doubt about it, and for the most part easy to use, but when it comes to enjoying wine, efficiency is not everything. If you are having a party and need to open dozens or hundreds of bottles, then one of these style openers may be just the thing. But if the gathering is more intimate, if you want to experience the full range of wine’s enchantment, then opt for the old fashion way – get a firm grip on your favorite corkscrew, screw it in, and then pull or lever your way to happiness.