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Coravin Reviewed: A “Wine Access Technology”

”I'll bet you I can drink wine out of this bottle without removing the cork?” So begins a party trick. The bottle is then turned upside-down, wine poured into the punt and drunk from it as if from a glass. It’s an amusing trick, but Coravin “wine access technology” has stolen the punchline. Now you really can drink the contents of a wine bottle without pulling the cork.

Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht faced a challenge when pregnancy forced his wife into a wine-drinking hiatus. Drinking a full bottle in one evening was no longer an option. How do you enjoy a glass or two of wine from a great bottle without the remaining quantity losing freshness in the follwing days?

There are various solutions to this problem: vacuum and seal, gas and seal, transfer to a smaller bottle, floating discs, etc. None worked to his satisfaction. Not one to settle for an easy but inferior fix, Lambrecht spent a decade inventing and fine-tuning something completely different. With his background in developing medical devices, he had the skillset to succeed.

The end product, Coravin, allows you to pour wine from a cork-sealed bottle without removing the cork. Coravin not only extracts the wine but fills the void with an inert gas. Argon is both perfectly safe and heavier than oxygen. It covers the remaining wine like a protective shield, preventing oxidation and preserving freshness.

Coravin wine access device
The Coravin in its stand. Photo: Fred Swan

I’m skeptical of wine gadgets by nature, especially those getting a lot of hype. I accepted an invitation to Coravin’s Napa Valley launch party in order to check the device out myself.

The device looks a little like one of those “Rabbit” corkpullers. Except Coravin clips onto the bottle and, instead of inserting a corkscrew, pushing down on the top of the device inserts a 17-gauge needle through the cork. The needle is made of surgical steel and coated with a Teflon-like substance for easy insertion.

Once the needle is in, you press a small button on the device to begin the flow of argon. Then, tip the bottle over to pour wine through the integrated spout. The process takes a little coordination but sounds more complicated than it is. Check out this demonstration I filmed.

 

Of course the fellow who performed the demo above works for Coravin. He has used the gizmo hundreds of time. It should look easy when he does it. What about someone trying it for the first time? I coaxed him into letting me wield the gadget myself.

It really is as simple as it looks. Pushing the needle into the cork takes very little pressure. You can easily do it with one finger. Pouring is a little awkward at first, but I didn't spill wine or break any glasses. I did forget to extract the needle before unclipping the Coravin, but even that didn't cause a problem.

So the Coravin is functional. What effect does it have on wine? Brand new wines I tasted at the soirée were perfectly fine coming out of the needle/spout contraption. I also tasted a 2008 Martinelli Chardonnay Zio Tony Vineyard first accessed via Coravin nearly four months prior. I'm not intimately familiar with that particular wine but the argon seemed to have done its job. I didn't note any signs of oxidation or other indications of development one wouldn't expect from a four-year old Russian River Valley Chardonnay.

Peter Granoff, a master sommelier and co-founder of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, has been testing the Coravin for about two years. He told me he's left Coravin-accessed bottles sitting half-filled for as long as a year and not noticed any degradation. "The only time it won't work," he told me, "is if the bottle has a dry, crumbling cork that doesn't reseal around the needle hole." He's only experienced that once.

Coravin has a razor-razorblade business model. The argon gas capsules only hold enough to fully displace about 75 ounces of wine, roughly 15 standard glasses. Replacement capsules cost $9.95 each, assuming you buy them in a 3-pack.

coravin capsules
Coravin argon capsules. Photo: Coravin

That said, if you're storing the bottles upright you don't really need to displace the entire volume of wine you pour. You just need to use enough gas to allow the wine to flow from the bottle. You can probably get 25 or so glasses out of a capsule once you've had a little practice.

If you're going to pony up $300 for wine-pouring thingy, you want it to last. I talked to Mike Rider, vice-president of engineering and operations at Coravin, about maintenance. Here's what I learned:

  • The needles have been tested beyond 1,000 insertions. I think that's enough to keep most people happy for at least three years, probably more.
  • Replacement needles are inexpensive and easy to install.
  • You should rinse the Coravin with warm water after each day of use. Just direct water into the pouring spout.
  • If you've used the Coravin with sweet wine, or have forgotten to clean it for quite a while, you can remove the residue with a little white vinegar.

Among the attendees at Coravin's Napa Valley event was Karen MacNeil, a respected wine educator and author of The Wine Bible. I asked her what she thought of the product. "I just think it's terrific. I love the idea of turning the problem around too," she added. "Instead of finding a way to replace the cork, you just don't remove it. That's the kind of thinking we need to apply to all kinds of problems." Well said.

Here are potential benefits I see for consumers in using a Coravin:

  • You can taste whichever of your wines you like without feeling the need to kill the bottle or the worry of oxidation.
  • Consumers may actually drink a little less because they don't have to worry about "wasting" a partial bottle and because pouring with Coravin takes more conscious thought than doing so from an open bottle.
  • Collectors can check the development status of wine in their cellar without having to consume a full bottle. This should lead to fewer wines ruined by excess aging.
  • Pairing different wines with the various courses of a home meal is more practical for couples and singles.
  • If you have friends whose tastes in wine you don't know, you can let them try a few different things and then open the bottle they like.

I also see benefits for the trade in using Coravin:

  • Restaurants and wine bars can significantly increase by-the-glass selections. That can lift both glass and bottle purchases.
  • Consumers may be more likely to buy expensive bottles at restaurants if there's a try-before-you-buy program. 
  • Restaurants sitting on expensive bottles that don't sell can clear them out with by-the-glass sales over the course of a few weeks.
  • Restaurants can use higher quality wines for their food and wine pairing menus.
  • By-the-glass freshness may improve as wines are less likely to lose oxidize after the first couple of glasses.
  • Coravin is much cheaper than expensive auto-pour-and-gas cabinets.
  • Restaurants can offer "half-bottle" options even if they only have 750ml bottles.
  • Winery and distributor sales people can have fewer wasted bottles after pouring samples for buyers.
  • As a wine reviewer, I can try wine samples and then pass the bottles along to other writers rather than dumping the stuff. That's less wasteful and may allow us all to try and review more wines.

As good as Coravin seems to be, there are a few things you should be aware of:

  • If you put too much gas into a bottle, the wine can get a little frothy. That should settle out over time though.
  • Coravin does not work with pressurized bottles (ex. Champagne, Prosecco, sparkling Moscato). Don't even try it. The pressurization could make it a dangerous experiment and the wine won't flow properly anyway. Don't try this at home.
  • The TSA doesn't allow pressurized gas canisters on airplanes. Don't take your argon capsules with you when you fly.
  • Coravin does not work with screwcap wines or bottles with glass stoppers.
  • The more dense the "cork," the more difficult it is to push in the needle. Coravin will work with rubber and plastic corks but isn't ideal and will wear the needle out more quickly.
  • You don't need to remove the foil capsule on bottles before using Coravin. However, I recommend removing capsules from bottles produced in the early 1990's or before as those may contain lead.
  • If you store your wine on its side, you'll need to use more argon than if you leave the bottle upright. However, leaving the bottle upright for a long time risks the cork getting dry which would increase risks of oxidation.
  • I have not heard from anyone who has tried a Coravin-accessed bottle after more than a year, so we don't know the long term effect on aging.
  • In order to pour wine through Coravin you need to turn the bottle nearly upside-down. If the wine has sediment or tartrate crystals, they may wind up in the glass or clog the needle.

I also see two downsides of Coravin that are actually due to its effectiveness. It's now a lot easier for kids to raid their parents wine collection undetected. Selling counterfeit wine by filling expensive bottles with cheap stuff just got a lot easier to do and harder to spot. This could turn out to be a serious problem for collectors.

Conclusion

The Coravin work as advertised. It allows you to pour wine from a bottle without removing the cork. It keeps the remaining wine fresh by injecting argon gas. If stored properly, wines accessed with Coravin will remain good for an extended period of time.

Using Coravin is easy. Anybody with decent manual dexterity can do it. (You may want to lock bottles away from your underage kids, or lock up the Coravin, lest your collection dwindle without you realizing it.)

Coravin is expensive. But, if it lets a serious wine consumer get better use out of their cellar or reduces their visits to wine bars, amortizing the cost won't be be hard.

The Coravin 1000 kit that includes the device, a stand and two capsules costs $299. Additional capsules are $25 for three. Assuming you and a friend combine to drink three glasses of wine a day, that's about 219 Coravin uses in a year. (Once you've poured three glasses from a bottle using Coravin, you'd drink the rest by pulling the cork.) You'll need at least seven supplemental argon capsules. Your total cost per Coravin glass in the first year would be $1.68 (not including tax and shipping). For subsequent years, your only cost would be the gas.

I may well buy one myself.

 

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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