October 18, 2013 4:23 pm

Coravin: drinking without pulling the cork

‘Nothing I know of preserves wine in an opened or “accessed” bottle for years as this system does’
An illustration by Ingram Pinn depicting how the Coravin wine access system preserves the freshness of wine vintages©Ingram Pinn

You’ve heard of alpha males? Greg Lambrecht is an alpha-double-plus male. Clean-cut, almost male model looks, 44 but looks barely half that, he starts and runs companies that develop medical inventions. Spinal implants are his current speciality and, when I met him in London last month, he was on his way to South Africa to convince a large insurance company there that the considerable cost of his latest implant was worthy of reimbursement.

Lambrecht started as a (particularly young) nuclear engineer at MIT. After that he headed off to Japan to help with their nuclear fission programme. Halfway through, he realised there was a problem with it, which he discussed with his boss. It transpired they had been hoping their youthful American visitor would solve it.

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Jancis Robinson

So what’s he doing in a wine column? It turns out he has a serious case of wine infatuation. In fact, he told me, “Although I am rarely on the ground for more than two or three days in the same country, my retirement will involve more time with my family and an attempt at an MW, where even failure will be a great learning experience.” Greg Lambrecht fail the Master of Wine exam? I don’t think so.

He may just be on the verge of making a big contribution to the world of wine without a single wine qualification. Over the past 14 years, in his Boston basement, he has slowly been developing a gadget that allows people to sample wine from unopened bottles and, what’s more, over several years. It all began when his wife went off wine after giving birth to their second son. He was a keen wine drinker but not so keen that he could drain a whole bottle every night.

He started to think about how to get wine out of bottles without letting in the oxygen that robs it of freshness and ultimately turns it into undrinkable vinegar. His experience of physics, medicine and patents were all presumably useful in the creation, after 23 prototypes, of Coravin, a stainless steel contraption that looks not unlike a small microscope. It has a long needle which, inserted through the foil and cork, extracts as much or as little wine as you like. The remaining space is filled with inert argon gas from a little replaceable cylinder screwed into the gadget. When the needle is extracted, the springy cork reseals itself and the only trace that remains is a little pinprick in the foil. He is working on a system with an even thinner needle designed for really old wine and its less pliable corks. (It won’t work on composite or synthetic corks.)

I knew all the theory when Lambrecht turned up with two bottles apiece of two wines in order to try to convince me that wine from the just-“accessed” bottle was indistinguishable from the one that he had already “accessed” (his word; he describes Coravin as a “wine access system”).

Once he had unpacked them on to my kitchen table and I had found him six identical glasses (he had not come across the wafer-thin Zaltos before), I obediently turned my back so that I could not see which of the bottles was being poured into which of the six identical glasses he, ever the scientist, insisted upon. For the demonstration he had given me, in advance, a choice of wines from his collection of 1,400 bottles, “most of them accessed”, of which he had an unaccessed control bottle too. I selected a Gigondas from Pallières, as these are quite funky wines that I thought would be a bit more demonstrative than the concentrated Tuscan Cabernet I had chosen for the other trial pair.

I tasted the first six samples, knowing that the result he sought was that they all seemed identical, and immediately felt embarrassed. He’d come all the way across the Atlantic but the wines in glasses two and five were perceptibly different from the other four – rather more evolved and surely from the bottle that had been “accessed”?

Embarrassment was transferred when I spotted that, in fact, the two wines were different bottlings from the same producer and the same vintage, 2007. The Terrasse du Diable had been freshly accessed while the Racines (with actually rather less Grenache and some Syrah so I would have expected it to be a bit more vigorous) had previously been accessed, according to scribbles on the label, in March 2010 and August this year.

Honour was restored to Coravin’s preservative properties, however, with the two bottles of Saeculum Supertuscan 2000, which seemed identical to me, even though one had been accessed in December 2010. Lambrecht then relaxed a little and told me enthusiastically how “every evening I have between one and four glasses of great wine, so I learn four times as fast”. He also confessed that Coravin has partly resulted from his pent-up desire for innovation in medical technology and delight at being less hampered by regulation in the wine sphere.

The Coravin system is available in the US and can be shipped via the Coravin website to 25 countries, including the UK. With two gas capsules (enough for about 15 glasses each, replacements $10.95; the argon has to be imported from Europe) it costs $299 (more outside the US). For individual wine enthusiasts there are certainly much cheaper alternatives but nothing I know of preserves wine in an opened or “accessed” bottle for years as the Coravin system does.

I cannot fault Coravin technically and I can easily see its applications for restaurateurs who would like to offer particularly fine wines by the glass (as our son has been doing with the model I was lent). It will also be of interest to wine students, collectors and those wine enthusiasts who cohabit with teetotallers.

But as Lambrecht explained that when he entertains, he takes guests to his cellar and “I suggest they choose which bottles they want to taste”, my heart slightly sank. I see wine drinking as a truly social activity, with an essential part of its enjoyment the sharing of a whole bottle with friends, seeing how it and they change as glasses and bottles are drained. But then I am a spoilt wine writer.

Read more at JancisRobinson.com. Twitter @JancisRobinson

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Other wine preservation systems

● Canisters of inert gas, at about £15 for more than 100 squirts into an open bottle, work pretty well for at least a week or so. Very easy to use though difficult to check. Around Wine has the best range of wine-related hardware.

● The rubber stopper and plastic pump known as a Vacu Vin costs only about £5 but is not particularly effective in my experience.

Platy airtight pouches at about $140 full price (about one-10th that on Amazon) claim to preserve wine for only a few days or at most weeks, and you have to pour the wine into decidedly inelegant containers.

● The same is true of the much easier-on-the-eye Savino glass cylinder with floating lid, at $60.

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