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From Issue #42 May 8, 2014

Twist and Shout

Not all corkscrews are created equal.

By Cara Parks Twitter icon 

Wine key

When I was first hired as a waitress, at 20, I also received a crash course in opening a bottle of wine. “Where’s your wine key?” the woman training me asked. Not only did I not have one, I didn’t even know what it was. Most of my college experiences with alcohol had involved beer caps or screw tops, and my parents had always used the two-armed model favored by liquor stores across suburban America.

Karl Wienke patented the wine key, also known as the waiter’s friend, in 1882 in Germany. Unlike other designs of the time, the device folded neatly into itself, the pocketknife of corkscrews. My patient mentor showed me how to use the device’s small blade to slice off the foil and how to hold the bottle in one hand while pulling the cork out with the other, and after countless tableside openings, I began to get the hang of it, no longer going into a flop sweat every time someone wanted a merlot.

Years of waitressing later, I had endless supplies of wine keys; they seem to reproduce when stuffed into the pockets of black aprons. Sense memory would not allow for any other wine-opening tool in my home.

However, a few months ago, at a wine bar in the Bairro Alto section of Lisbon, I watched the owner pry a cork out of a particularly old bottle of port using a two-pronged device with such grace that I assumed he had discovered a vastly superior system. It was only while watching his less experienced associate struggle — and ultimately fail — to use the same opener that I realized I was simply watching a master at work.

Ah So puller

“Ah, yes,” he told me. “These are the only ones I use; they keep an old cork from crumbling.” Later in the night I watched him allow a strapping Australian man attempt to open a bottle he had ordered using the tool, ultimately handing the unopened bottle back over, red-faced, to his slight Portuguese host.

Who could resist such a challenge? I ordered one for myself. This model is sometimes called an Ah So, although I prefer the moniker “butler’s friend.” Unlike the waiter’s friend, helping industrious servers fulfill their duties, the butler’s friend can open a bottle without puncturing the cork, allowing the butler in question to help himself to a swig here or there with no one the wiser.

It’s a simple tool, but it requires more than a little practice to master. As one vineyard notes, “Trying to explain how to use an Ah So in writing is like trying to write instructions for tying a shoelace.” But I was enjoying my new toy, and who doesn’t love a reason to pop open a bottle of Gamay? (Research!) It made me reconsider my commitment to the wine key and only the wine key.

A few months later, at one of Paris’s famed flea markets, my eye was drawn to a metal corkscrew shoved into the back of a wooden box filled with mismatched cutlery. The base looked similar to the winged corkscrew of my youth, minus the wings; instead, a small, tri-tipped metal piece wound up and down a screw-like rod connected to the helix (the curly bit that actually removes the cork).

“Like a propeller?” Donald Bull asked me as I tried to describe the corkscrew over the phone recently. “They were made by a fellow named Jacques Perille in Paris for many, many years, and similar ones have been reproduced,” he tells me. “It’s a typical French corkscrew.”

French corkscrew

If anyone could call up the provenance of international corkscrews off the cuff, it would be Bull, who has written more than a half-dozen books on corkscrews and keeps a collection of 10,000 openers in his home. He started collecting 40 years ago, and his interest “grew from a desire for corkscrews to a passion for corkscrews to an obsession for corkscrews and finally, a total mental disorder.” His conversation is liberally sprinkled with corkscrew puns.

Corkscrews once played a more prominent role than the nearly single-function wine-opening devices of today. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, corkscrews — some as small as an inch long — were used to open everything from Listerine to beer to catsup, Bull says. To fill the demand, dozens of models were patented over the years, from the zig-zag (a tortuous-looking device) to England’s Burgess and Fenton model.

Today, new designs are making de-corking even easier. The screwpull, designed in 1979 by an American named Herbert Allen, is sold by the MOMA Design Store and almost universally lauded for its ease. Corkscrews like the Rabbit, a variation of the original screwpull, make use of mechanical advantage or, more simply, levers (also, a Teflon-coated helix).

Not content with the expensive-but-within-reach Rabbit? Perhaps you’d be more interested in a €50,000 made-to-order titanium corkscrew from Sveid, a Belgian firm catering to, apparently, lunatics. For those somewhere in between, companies such as Code 38 will sell you a traditional wine key blinged out with the latest in design and materials in the $220 to $500 range.

I’ll stick mostly with my humble wine key, collected as a free gift during a recent wine tasting. But I find myself on the hunt for new designs, looking for variations to test. I’m intrigued by that zig-zag, for one. But this way also lies madness. As Bull pointed out, there are dozens of mechanical variations; then add in the figural elements — corkscrews made to resemble parrots, snakes, or, inevitably, genitalia — and the collecting possibilities are endless.

“How many corkscrews do you have?” Bull asks me. I tell him that so far, I have five. “There you go! You’re gonna be hooked. In time, you’ll be as screwy as the rest of us.”

Photos by the author.

Cara Parks has written for the New York Times, Slate, and The New Republic. She is the former deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Next stop: Shanghai.

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