How to Use a Corkscrew

(Originally published July 2001)

A funny thing about Hanes is that he likes to drink wine. What makes this swilling immeasurably easier is an open wine bottle. How does such a thing come to pass, you ask? Why, by the skillful application of a corkscrew! Hanes will now explain how to wield this deadly instrument with cunning and aplomb.

There are many different types of corkscrews and they all perform their own "stupid corkscrew tricks." With all models, the key thing is to free the vino without maiming yourself in the process. The first step is to remove the foil.

Removing the foil is not as easy as it sounds. The best devices for this are the foil cutters that look like little oval pincers and have small circular blades that make a clean cut of the foil -- the apogee of elegance! If you don't have this instrument (they cost around $5), most corkscrews have a small serrated knife with which one may cut and peel off the foil. Hanes is more likely to spontaneously create cold fusion than successfully use one of these knives. If he doesn't draw his own blood, he leaves the edge of the remaining foil so jagged that at least it will keep his friends' hands off the bottle lest they mortally wound themselves. While Hanes realizes that the foil sure is pretty as it gracefully adorns the bottle neck, it is much better to just stick a fingernail under the bottom edge of the foil and rip the whole sucka off. A small loss of colorful pomp, perhaps, but worth the gain of not shedding unnecessary blood. The bitch are those "non-foil foils" that are made of plastic-like substances and like superglued to the bottle -- just grab them in a deathgrip and slowly rotate them back and forth until they give up the ghost and slip off the top.

Whew! Next you gotta make sure that the bottle mouth and cork top are clean. Use a wet dish towel or paper towel to remove any sludge that may have accumulated on the cork during the decades the bottle has been in your family's country estate cellar. This way the wine will not carry any mold or gunk into the wine glass.

Now comes the best part! That's right, folks, time to -- insert the worm! No, you're not gonna use Dennis "The Worm" Rodman's nose ring to remove the cork, they actually call that spirally metal thing you stick in the cork a worm. Hanes couldn't make this up. Anyway, this is the most important piece of the corkscrew and will make the difference between inebriation or existential despair. On cheaper corkscrews the worm is too short (it should be 1 1/2 to 2 inches long), too thick and clunky, or made of a metal that just doesn't smoothly glide into a cork. When purchasing a corkscrew, paying attention to the worm is paramount.

Assuming you have a decent corkscrew, one should take the tip of the worm and push its point into the cork to aid the insertion process. Counter-intuitively, this is not best done with the corkscrew vertical and parallel to the cork. It is best done with just the tip parallel to the cork -- once only the tip is tightly pushed in a quarter inch or so, then you move the whole corkscrew upright to begin twisting. The tip should not come loose in this process and one quick turn of the corkscrew will more then drive the worm deep enough to stick. During this process you can rest the bottle on a flat surface or hold it in your hands, between your legs -- whatever floats your boat and doesn't prevent the worm tip from gaining its sly entry.

Once the worm is fully inserted into the cork (but not coming through the bottom end), you have to put that gym membership to use by extracting the bothersome cork. Here, Hanes should note that different corkscrews use different approaches to creating the force required to remove the cork (roughly like lifting 100 pounds), either a lever whereby a forked piece of metal rests on the bottle lip and through the miracle of leverage pulls the cork out, or torque whereby a turning action slowly pulls the cork out. If you've gotten this far in the process chances are you could just pull the cork off with your teeth. Instead, Hanes will discuss the different corkscrews available and what they offer the wine aficionado.

The most basic corkscrew is called the waiter's corkscrew. This is the one that can vaguely look like a Swiss Army knife, and has its worm coming out of the middle of one side. This type uses leverage to remove the cork. Cheap ones run about $5-$10. More expensive ones, often with teflon coated worms and double level levers (say that 10 times fast), can run up to $20 (Pulltap's is one popular brand). If money is no object, then the BMWs of waiter's corkscrews cost around $75-$150, especially those made by outfits like Château Laguiole, Le Thiers or Messermeister. The waiter's corkscrew is Hanes's preferred type of corkscrew. If one slowly pushes upward on the handle the cork comes out easily and without crumbling. And you sometimes get the cool "popping" sound...

For those of us who (a) are too clumsy to wield a regular waiter's corkscrew or (b) have way too much disposable income, the good Lord has blessed us with the Screwpull® Lever Model corkscrew. This bad boy runs around $140 and is basically a highly designed, souped-up version of the traditional corkscrew (but you get a foil cutter thrown in for free!). It features an easy-to-hold double-pronged grip that clamps down on the bottle neck, and a heavy duty lever that effortlessly swoops down in an arc upon the cork, piercing it with its teflon worm and then returns even more effortlessly in an upward arc, cork impaled and removed. This is pure indulgence! But you could buy lots of primo vino for $140 too. (FYI, a less expensive competitor model call "The Rabbit" by Metrokane can be had for around $70.)

One popular form of corkscrew is the wing corkscrew. These mostly run around $12 and "designer" models can run double that. Much as Hanes loves pretty things, these corkscrews blow. While they also employ the physical laws of leverage, they just don't work well. The idea is that the circular metal ring holds the bottle top in place as you turn a key, driving the worm into the bottle (and slowly pushing the two "wings" upward). Once fully inserted, you push down on its two wings thus pulling the cork out. First, usually the cheap plastic grommet that fits inside the metal ring of the corkscrew usually falls out after like three uses. Second, these corkscrews almost never get the cork all the way out, necessitating wiggling the cork and corkscrew together until the remaining third of the cork finally comes out. Boo! Third, of all corkscrew types this one is most likely to mangle or break the cork and leave little bits of cork floating in your wine. Hanes implores you to give this corkscrew its wings and let it fly, fly away.

There are lots of brands of torque corkscrews that work reasonably well and involve covering the bottle top with a modern plastic sheath-like corkscrew and turning a handle clockwise, driving the worm in and eventually the cork out. These are much more preferable than wing corkscrews but seem less aesthetically pleasing to Hanes than a good waiter's corkscrew. But to each their own! Screwpull® makes one called "The Original Table Model" and costs around $20. But there are other brands (Aupener, etc.) that have much fancier design and more visual appeal and use cool colors and such -- this balances out the missing colorful foil now sitting in your trashcan.

For very old corks that might crumble from the violence of being removed or for corks wedged in very tightly, they say the best corkscrew to use is the "Ah So" or two-pronged corkscrew, which normally runs around $5. This model does not have a worm so it is called a corkscrew out of kindness. It consists of two prongs one slightly longer than the other. The idea is that you insert the longer prong between the cork and bottle, slowly working it in a little bit. Then you bend the handle over the cork to insert the other prong on the opposite side. Once both prongs are in, you're supposed to work them back and forth until the prongs are in fully and the handle touches the bottle top. Supposedly, you then just slowly but firmly twist the handle and pull upwards and the cork comes out. Yeah, right! Hanes has never gotten this to work, albeit he will admit that he has seen others do it. But he has also seen David Copperfield on TV and he didn't fall for that either. If you can successfully use an "Ah So" then bring it over with a bottle of 1947 Pétrus and prove it to Hanes! Otherwise, the "Ah So" is great for threatening misbehaving guests...

A few more words on related topics. The above bit o' knowledge is all well and good if the bottle is sealed normally with foil or has a flange top with a small, easily pierced disk on top. But what if the bottle is sealed totally with wax? For most of these bottles a hacksaw is as appropriate as a corkscrew knife. Sadly, Hanes must report that there is little consensus on the best method to break through the wax to the cork. Some recommend using a sturdier knife, some hitting the wax with a hammer if it is brittle enough to break, some think holding it under hot water will soften it up enough to cut. Hell, Hanes has seen a person use coarse sandpaper on the wax. The temptation has to be to just stick the worm through the wax and into the cork, making a holy mess of it all. Short of using a blowtorch, the best Hanes can say is that you need to be prepared to employ all of these techniques. The last wax-sealed bottle Hanes attacked was laid on its side and ferociously sawed upon for ten minutes as sweat dripped onto the bottle label.

Champagne and other sparkling wine bottle corks offer another challenge. No corkscrew is necessary but one still needs to use care and skill to remove the cork. Remove the foil and wire. Hold the bottle at an angle -- away from you and anyone else! -- and grasp the cork in the palm of your hand, with your thumb firmly around it. Here is where Hanes always made a mistake. To remove the cork you twist the bottle and NOT the cork! The cork and your hand should remain stationary as the bottle is twisted by your other hand. This should result in a crisp popping sound, minimal froth and no damage to the Rembrandt on the wall three feet away.

A neat little gadget Hanes has come across is the "cork retriever." For around $5, this device will reach into the bottle, grab the cork and pull it out. It has three prongs that are as thin as the ones on the "Ah So" corkscrew and they are pulled taut around the cork before you pull the beast out. While not necessary during more casual times, removing a floating cork can be essential at fancy affairs. Like the ones you don't invite Hanes to...

Lastly, Hanes has to comment on scary corkscrew collectors. In the process of researching this topic Hanes has seen some obsessed people out there with a sordid fixation on corkscrews of all types, be they antique or contemporary, in good working order or museum-grade only. Hey, people, wake up! Sucking on a corkscrew won't get you drunk! All you need is one good corkscrew and the money spent on amassing 1,001 corkscrews is better spent on something like, why, like... 2000 Bordeaux futures! Now, THAT'S the ticket!