But Can You Sniff The Twist Cap?

So you think you know wine? Let's see if you can tell apart these two wines, which both went on sale in October. One is a $135 bottle of 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, an ultralimited bottling of just 120 cases from PlumpJack Winery, part of a luxury lifestyle conglomerate (wines, restaurants and posh resorts) whose owners include the fabulously wealthy art collector Gordon Getty. The other, a 1998 Cabernet sold under the Alcott Ridge label, is made by the truckload at the E&J Gallo wineworks and sold exclusively, at about $7 a bottle, by that well-known purveyor of motor oil, appliances and fine wines, Wal-Mart.

Now, to make things even easier, here's a hint: one of these bottles has a standard cork, just like that 1945 Petrus you've been eying for about $4,300. The other is sealed with essentially the same device found on a $1.69 bottle of Coke: a twist-off screw top. It is, of course, a trick question, because it is the $135 PlumpJack (which earned a "90+" from the eminent wine critic Robert M. Parker, who found it "a brawny cabernet" and detected flavors of "minerals, licorice and lavender") that bears the plebeian mark of the Industrial Revolution. You might simply dismiss it as a manifestation of PlumpJack's hip-billionaire sensibility, a way to skewer bourgeois wine snobs on their own corkscrews. But in fact the vintners believe screw tops are actually a superior device for a wine that will be at its peak after 2010. The function of a cork is to keep out air, but over time as many as one in 10 will shrink or crack and the wine inside will spoil. A metal screw top (with a foam insert, so the wine doesn't touch the metal itself) will in theory keep an airtight seal indefinitely. "We believe that all high-end wineries will begin experimenting with screw caps," predicts PlumpJack general manager John Conover. Wine-industry sources say that several other prominent California wineries have placed orders for screw-top bottles for part of next year's production. And, says Getty, if the experiment is a failure--well, who is in a better position to shrug off the loss than someone whose fortune comes from oil, not wine?

As for Alcott Ridge, a place name that exists only on wine labels, it was called into existence by a demand from Wal-Mart customers for "a greater selection of wine products at prices they can afford," according John Ryan, senior VP for global sourcing. Its product category--"midpriced corked varietals"--speaks for itself: the cork is a signifier of midpriceness, setting it apart from the budget-bound stuff sold in cartons and in half-gallon jugs for frat parties. The varietals offered are the inevitable Cabernet, Chardonnay and merlot, and for people who need something to drink while they change their oil, white zinfandel. Wine experts have yet to weigh in on Alcott Ridge, but several lay connoisseurs who tasted it last week described it as "sharp" and "aggressive... except it's too thin to be aggressive." And if once in a while a cork goes bad--well, anyone who lays down a case of Wal-Mart's house wine for aging does so, like all connoisseurs, at his own risk.