Wine is one of life’s simple pleasures, sure. Wine accouterments — not so simple. Turns out there there are a dizzying number of wine toys, gadgets and accessories marketed to help us enjoy drinking it.
To help get a handle on this, I reached out to the Mount Kisco, N.Y.-based Wine Enthusiast (winenthusiast.com), a leading purveyor of wine accessories, and publisher of The Wine Enthusiast magazine. According to sales director Marshall Tilden III, outside of “wine storage” solutions, the company’s two hottest categories are “wine preservation” and “wine service.”
When it comes to wine preservation, Tilden noted that sales of preservation devices were up 15 percent last year. Especially at the high end of the market, for systems such as Coravin (from $299) and EuroCave Wine Art (from $399).
The expensive Coravin system is a tad unwieldy but offers seemingly great preservation. A metal contraption, vaguely microscope-like in look and feel, with a rather long, slightly scary looking surgical needle, the Coravin enables you to tap into an otherwise sealed wine bottle without popping the cork or introducing additional oxygen. You insert the needle straight through the foil and cork, extract as much wine as desired, while inert argon gas fills the remaining bottle space. When finished, you extract the needle. The naturally springy cork reseals itself, leaving only the tiniest pinprick in the outer foil capsule.
The EuroCave Wine Art preservation system, left. Right, the Zalto stemware set.
The product has garnered ringing endorsements from the usual suspects, such as wine authority Robert Parker and various glossy wine magazines. The Coravin’s argon gas will supposedly preserve the untapped conditions of the wine more or less indefinitely.
The more expensive EuroCave Wine Art preservation device is essentially a combined two-bottle wine fridge and air-extraction preservation system. This rather expensive gadget chills the wines down to the “proper” serving temperature, either 16C or (about 61F) for reds or 8C (about 47F) for whites — not that there is universal agreement on proper temps. The device allows you to set it for two reds or two whites or one of each. It also eliminates oxygen and establishes a vacuum seal on open bottles, preserving freshness for up to 10 days.
The idea here is to help the consumer drink wine at the suitable serving temperature, and then free the consumer to open bottles without fear of having leftover wine spoil through oxidation. After tinkering with it for a time, my biggest takeaway on the Eurocave Wine Art, frankly, is the reminder that I typically wind up drinking many red wines warmer than is ideal.
The Electric Blue Corkscrew, left. Right, the Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator. Below, the Rabbi Black Foil Cutter. All are available at Wine Enthusiast in Mt. Kisco.
“The Eurocave Wine Art is our top seller for the last two years,” says Tilden, “even higher than the Coravin. The serving [temperature] function really gives it that edge … also that whole exploding bottle thing scared some folks away.”
Launched to terrific fanfare in July 2013, Coravin suffered from a handful of exploding bottle incidents and sales were halted and the product was recalled in June 2014. The problem was soon corrected by the inclusion of a protective neoprene sleeve or sheath to be put over the bottles in case of breakage under pressure from the argon gas. Many onlookers thought the problem was likely just user error, but the episode clearly hurt Coravin’s image. Sales remain robust, notes Tilden, and Coravin is still a hot ticket item, but sales — at least via Wine Enthusiast — are not as robust as sales of the EuroCave Wine Art.
Having played with both devices for some time now, I think their utility all depends on one’s drinking habits. If you seek the personal equivalent of restaurant by-the-glass service of expensive wines, and you wish to dip into bottles without having to uncork them or without having to finish them in one sitting, either device works just fine. For many, the Coravin will likely prove to be the much promised game changer, inducing folks to change their drinking habits and tap ever more expensive wines, and more frequently.
I drink a fair amount of affordable, everyday wines, so can’t help but feel silly spending so much to preserve, well, so little. Before taking this $300-$400 plunge, I would urge one to think long and hard about one’s drinking habits — how often, really, are you stuck with leftover wine? How hard is it to serve wine at the “proper” temperature?
A cheaper, fun alternative to either system is the “Electric Blue 1 Wine Opener & Preserver Set” ($69.99) which is, as advertised, a “sleek cylinder” that “features a corkscrew on one end and vacuum pump on the other.” It is essentially the same preservation system as the Eurocave Wine Art, without the bulk of the bottle-fridge temp control features. A tad noisy, it worked very well in my tests. The set includes a six-blade foil cutter, two stoppers, aerating pourer and a recharging stand for the gadget.
When it comes to serving wine, Tilden noted several interesting trends. Though once quite hot, wine aerator devices, like the popular “Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator” ($29.95) — a device which according to its marketing “creates better bouquet, improved flavors and mouth feel, and smoother finish” by exposing more of the surface of the wine to the air – have cooled down considerably. They still sell, but he noted that, since there has not really been any “new” technology or design factor, the buzz has petered out and they no longer fly off the shelf.
Some wine lovers — myself included — consider aerator devices unnecessary tchotchkes, as vigorous swirling in the glass, or decanting offer the exact same aeration. But they continue to make the wine gift rounds, and some folks swear by them.
According to Tilden, another trend is the shift in stemware: “Over the last 2-3 years,” he noted, “Riedel glassware has become a bit passé in favor of the Zalto and the Fusion brands,” which are lighter, thinner and sleeker in appearance. The Fusion is also incredibly break resistant. None of these are cheap, and the Zalto is the one beloved of critics like Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, et al. If you’re in the market for high-end stemware, however, the Fusion edges out the others on price and durability, in my book.
When it comes to cork extraction tools, the lever-style corkscrews are now less fashionable compared to electronic extractors like the “Electric Blue.” Likewise, back in vogue is my perennial favorite, the double-hinged “Waiter’s Corkscrew.” It is also the generally preferred device of wine service professionals the world over. The Wine Enthusiast offers some sleek, high-end and personalizable options by Laguiole, Legnoart and Origine. I still prefer the basic Pulltap model — available for only $10 on Amazon.com.
A more extravagant wine-opening device is the “Champagne Sabre by Karim Rashid for Menu” ($150; menudesignshop.com). Crafted to further the art of Sabrage, the name of the technique for opening champagne with a saber, the Rashid Sabre is a very modernist, cool, slightly less fuddy-duddy option for this essentially show-offy, ceremonial item. The Sabrage technique supposedly began life in 18th-century France with Napoleon Bonaparte’s cavalry officers — which sounds rather more practical and less dangerous to life, limb, light fixture and carpet than doing it at home today with a saber.
Essentially, you smartly rap the blunt side of a saber against the lip of the champagne or champagne-style bottle right where it meets the vertical seam of the bottle, and thereby cause the lip, cork and all, to fly cleanly off the bottle in one piece, as it were. In my tests, the Rashid Sabre worked nicely on both Champagne and Cava, and the break was incredibly clean. OK, so it is probably a remarkably old-school way of opening a champagne bottle in the modern era — but it is fun and cool nonetheless. Best used away from small children and outdoors or at least a good distance from obvious breakables.
Another useful little tool, not exactly “hot” but incredibly useful all the same and one that always sells, is the “Foil Cutter.” A device designed to easily cut through the sometimes damnably difficult foil or plastic capsule that covers the cork. It simply fits over the top of the bottle and cleanly slices through the capsule with a simple squeeze of the sides and a twist. The product runs anywhere from $5 for the “Rabbit Black Velvet Foil Cutter” (at Bed Bath and Beyond) to $25 for the “Personalized Wine Enthusiast 6 Blade Foil Cutter.” Sure, you can as easily attack the capsule with a bread knife or poke at it with the pointy end of a corkscrew, but foil cutters are easier and faster.
There are plenty of other wine toys out there, too. As long as you approach them all with healthy skepticism and have deep pockets, you can’t go too far wrong. ♦