How to open a wine bottle in spite of a broken cork

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By: Frank Piaskowy

Frank Piaskowy/Flavor 574

When it comes to opening a bottle of wine that is not a screw top, nothing can be more frustrating than having the cork break into pieces when using a corkscrew.

This happened to me last week with a bottle of 2011 Red Newt Cellars dry Riesling that I brought back from the New York Finger Lakes region last year.

I noticed the crumbling begin as the auger, called the “worm,” began penetrating the cork, which prompted me to quickly assess the situation. The bottom of the closure was still intact,  but a second attempt with my wine key only resulted in more pieces.

To prevent any cork from floating in the wine, I had several options.

If I broke off the bottle neck to gain access, there would be a risk of glass shards falling into the wine or even cutting myself in the process. I’ve never intentionally implemented, nor do I recommend, this strategy.

Removing the accessible cork pieces and pushing the lower portion down into the wine was another possibility. But that would require pouring the wine through a funnel with a straining filter. Unfortunately, the floating cork segments could then act as a stopper when pouring and the erratic flow would only make it more difficult to use the funnel without spilling wine.

My solution came in the form of “rabbit ears.” That is the name commonly used for a two-prong cork puller, also known as an “Ah-So”.

  1. I positioned the prongs, or “ears,” away from the crumbled section as much as possible.
  2. By gently rocking the prongs between the neck of the bottle and cork remnant, the puller was pushed down until the base of the handle rested on top of the cork.
  3. I then carefully twisted the remaining cork out of the bottle without any further damage, resulting in wine free of debris.

By reversing the process, a two-prong puller can also be used to recork a bottle.

The device is said to have allowed butlers the pleasure of their employers’ fine wine while replacing the contents with wine of inferior quality and reinserting the cork undetected. Hence, it is also called a butler’s friend.

The history of the corkscrew dates back to 17th century England, when thicker glass bottle manufacturing became available and cork proved to be a better closure to preserve wine. Wooden or glass stoppers with cloth or wax sealing had previously been used.

I typically use a wine key or sommelier knife. It has a folding body similar to a pocket knife. The original German design received a patent in 1882. The double hinged version, which gives greater mechanical advantage making it easier to extract difficult corks, is my preferred opener. Obviously, it didn’t work as expected on this cork.

FYI: The Red Newt Riesling was terrific that evening with my meal of spiced rubbed pork and brown jasmine rice with peppers.

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