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Choosing a Corkscrew That Works

Fine Cooking Issue 36
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Because most bottles of wine (those worth drinking, anyway) are sealed with a cork, a corkscrew is pretty much a must-have tool. (Stranded once on a camping trip, I improvised with a screwdriver, pushing the cork into the bottle. It worked, but using a corkscrew is a lot more efficient and elegant, and it’s much safer, too).

In the classes I teach, though, I hear wine pros and novices alike complain about how clumsy they feel using a corkscrew. And I often notice that when it’s time to open a bottle of wine at a dinner party, many people, afraid of looking inept, gratefully hand the task off to someone else.

Using a corkscrew doesn’t have to feel like arm-wrestling; there are many models available that do the job easily and quickly. Here’s some help in finding a corkscrew you’ll like using.

The “waiter’s friend” consists of a simple handle and auger or spiral, a lever, and a short cutting blade. The best examples are made from brushed stainless steel and have a Teflon-coated auger with five turns. The Teflon coating is an important feature, as it eases the spiral more smoothly into the cork, preventing bits of cork from breaking off and falling into the wine (and ending up in your glass). There are many variations on this basic design; some can cost more than $100. I’ve used several of the most expensive models, and I don’t find them that much better than the basic waiter’s friend corkscrews that cost between $10 and $15.

Using a waiter’s friend is easy: the secret is positioning the spiral at the center of the cork and pulling straight up on the cork as you remove it, letting the lever do most of the work (see below). If you pull sideways, you’re much more apt to break the cork.

A “waiter’s friend” style corkscrew is compact and works like a lever.

How to use a waiter’s friend

Position the point of the auger in the center of the cork. Twist the auger two-thirds of the way into the cork.
Set the foot of the lever on the lip of the bottle and gently pull straight up. Don’t pull to the side or the cork may break

A T-shaped corkscrew will always do in a pinch. This type of corkscrew requires tugging straight up with no help from a lever, so it can easily rip out the middle of a cork that isn’t sturdy. And if the cork is especially stubborn, it may even be necessary to hold the bottle between your knees as you pull, which isn’t exactly the most graceful way to open a bottle of wine.

The Ah-So or two-pronged cork puller has two flat prongs that you ease into the bottleneck on either side of the cork. Once the prongs are completely in, you remove the cork by gently rocking the handle back and forth while pulling straight up. The Ah-So is effective and obviates the need to properly position a spiral; it’s a lifesaver if you need to open a very old bottle where the middle of the cork may have disintegrated to the point where it can’t be removed with a waiter’s friend. Cork pullers are great for tamping a cork back into the bottle, too (just nestle the cork between the prongs and insert). A cork puller’s only drawback is that the prongs can break off bits of cork.

A T-shaped corkscrew is cruder than others, but it will do in a pinch.
The Ah-So or two-pronged cork puller works with a gentle rocking motion.

A winged corkscrew is one of the easiest of all corkscrews to use. Just be sure the one you choose is sturdily constructed. Avoid those with especially thick, rounded augers, which can tear apart a cork.

Screwpull makes a couple of what are arguably the finest corkscrews around. The company’s Table Model (about $30) has been called the world’s best corkscrew and for good reason. Its plastic jacket positions the spiral straight up, the coated spiral glides through corks easily, and to open a bottle, all you have to do is twist the handle, with no tugging or pulling needed. I find this model extremely easy to manipulate when opening older bottles that have just been taken from a cellar and need to remain resting in a wine cradle, rather than standing straight up. The Table Model is also very effective for opening older bottles that may have long or fragile corks. It comes with its own foil cutter for removing the capsule (the wrapping on the neck of a wine bottle).

A winged corkscrew is less streamlined but works just fine.
The Screwpull Table Model has a plastic jacket to help align the auger perfectly.

Screwpull’s “Elegance” Leverpull has two arms that grip the neck of the bottle. With an effortless swing of the lever, this model quickly pops even stubborn corks. Don’t be put off by the space-age design: this corkscrew works smoothly and in seconds, and it’s great for opening a lot of bottles at one time. The Leverpull isn’t cheap (about $250), but it’s foolproof and combines sleek design with durability and ease.

You might also consider a cork retriever (about $10), which comes in handy when the cork gets pushed into the bottle (which can happen even to the most seasoned sommelier). Its three long prongs quickly and easily remove an errant cork.

Screwpull’s “Elegance” Leverpull is both high-design and efficient.
A cork retriever is handy for fishing out a cork that’s been pushed into the bottle.

Sources for corkscrews

For a good selection of  cork­screws, try International Wine AccessoriesK&L Wine Merchants, or The Wine Enthusiast.

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