A Toast to the Corkscrew
– by Julie Robards
It has been said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”
In his autobiography Robert Mondavi writes, ‘Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s the essence of civilization and the art of living. Wine is passion, warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. ’
Indeed wine is passion, for we celebrate love and romance with it – and it is warmth of heart and generosity of spirit, especially when we enjoy it with family and friends. The art of living is most certainly enhanced because of the art and culture of wine.
To fully embrace the art of wine, there are a myriad of accoutrements that enhance the enjoyment of serving and drinking it. For the Oenophile, it’s not just the enjoyment of accumulating a cellar full of bottles – it’s liquidating the collection at the table !
Wine lovers often have beautiful decanters and glassware for serving, special funnels for filtering and decanting, and coasters to protect linens. But before these can be enjoyed, the corkscrew must first be employed.
For as long as corks have been used to plug wine bottles – there have been corkscrews to extract them. As a result, it is easy to assemble a collection that represents all the various types that have been mass produced since the mid 19th century. There is great beauty in this simple yet essential tool.
Building a corkscrew collection begins with understanding the many styles that are available. Straight or Direct Pull corkscrews are generally “T” shaped and consist of a simple screw (also called a worm) and a handle for grasping. To uncork a bottle, one must twist the worm into the center of the cork and pull to extract it. There are two types of worms, the Archimedian screw and the helix: The Archimedian screw is a worm that has a center shaft wrapped with a tapered, sharp edged grooved screw. The helix is a thin, gently spiraled, smooth round wire that tapers to a point.
There are lots of variations on direct pull corkscrews including loop and folding handles however the principle is still the same – it takes muscle to remove the cork.
A variation of the direct pull corkscrew is the Assisted Pull – this is a “T” shaped tool that has a button or bell attached to the worm that fits against the lip of the bottle and helps to twist the cork, thereby breaking the seal between it and the bottle neck. The Walker Bell and Williamson Bell are two such examples that were patented by American inventors in the 1890s.
A Spring Assist corkscrew is constructed so that the worm passes through the center of a spring fitted between the handle and a cylindrical frame. The spring assists in the pulling effort of extracting a cork. Spring corkscrews date to 1883 when the design was first patented in Germany by Dunisch & Schoeler.
Torque Corkscrews can be found with both single and double action. Each consists of a “T shaped corkscrew with a loosely attached cylindrical frame that fits over the neck of the bottle. Single action torque screws require continual turning of the handle in one direction to remove the cork. Double action torque corkscrews have a second handle – or toggle – that is turned in the opposite direction once the worm is inserted into the cork.
The modern Screwpull is a fine example of a single action torque corkscrew with a helix that is suited to extracting old and fragile corks. It was designed in the 1970s by Herbert Allen, a Houston space and oil industry engineer who employed the used of a frame that helped center the helix and a continuous turn design that extracted the cork smoothly. The use of Teflon to coat the spiral helix assured that the Screw Pull would enter even the oldest cork effortlessly – and for this reason it is most often used on fragile corks. Screwpull holds the Guinness World Record title for most bottles of wine opened in one minute.
Lever corkscrews are among the easiest types to use because they employ the principle of leverage to extract a cork. The popular Waiter’s Corkscrew, also called a wine key, opens like a jackknife. It has a small blade on one end to cut the foil that protects the cork, a wire helix that opens from the center and a hinged bar on the opposite end that rests against the lip of the bottle to create leverage. Waiter’s corkscrews are often collected for the advertising that can be found on them – there are literally hundreds of thousands of examples available.
Double lever corkscrews are often called Wing Corkscrews because they have arms that raise up when the worm is screwed into the center of a cork. Wing corkscrews have a rack and pinion that connect the levers to the framework. The frame fits against the bottle neck and as the worm is twisted into the cork, the levers raise. Pressing the levers downward extracts the cork in one smooth, easy action. Wing corkscrews can be plain or fancy with filigree arms decorated with grape and foliage motifs and a handle that doubles as a bottle opener. One of the most novel variations of the double lever style is Pierre the Sommelier – designed in 1984 by Italian artist Aldo Colombo.
Compound lever corkscrews are often called Concertina, Lazy Tongs or Hinged Lattice Corkscrews. They feature a worm that passes through the center of a series of levers that are riveted together, so that when pulled, the levers expand and the cork is extracted. The ZigZag is the most widely recognized example – it was developed in France in 1920 and is still in production today. Over time there have been some slight changes to the design that will help the novice collector with dating. The earliest ZigZag is nickel plated steel with an archimedian screw. Models dating after 1928 are similar in design except there is the addition of two bottle cap lifter hooks flanking the oval medallion on the uppermost component. Late 20th century ZigZags are of much lighter construction and are fitted with a wire helix as opposed to the much heavier and thicker Archimedian screw. Because they have been manufactured for 90 years, ZigZags are relatively easy to find. A new reproduction of the 1920s, ZigZag can be had for about $50.
20th century figural and novelty corkscrews are a fun sub-category of this interesting area of collecting. They range from whimsical to naughty, with handles that often resemble animals or people, and screws that opens to create a tail, or suggestive anatomical part as in this novelty corkscrew of a small boy peeing, which is modeled after the famous Brussels , Belgium fountain known as Petit Julien. Who knew getting into a bottle of wine could be so much fun!