The device looks like something a doctor might stick in your ear to take your temperature. Yet it is the sommelier's new favorite toy. It's called Coravin, and it could revolutionize wine by-the-glass service in restaurants -- at least for the big-spending crowd.
Introduced in the summer, it quickly became popular among sommeliers at some of New York's fancier restaurants. James Horn, wine director at Kapnos, chef Mike Isabella's new Greek-inspired eatery, claims to have been the first in Washington to get one. At least two others have followed.
Horn presents a half-empty bottle of Chateau Musar 1999, one of several vintages he offers of a red from Lebanon with a cultish following, and points to the intact foil capsule and cork. He places the Coravin over the bottle's neck and pushes the handle, inserting a long, thin needle through the foil and cork into the wine.
"I first opened -- I mean, extracted -- this wine a month ago," he says, pouring a sample into a glass. It tastes fresh and lively, with hints of earth and mushrooms. Nothing like a 14-year-old wine that's been open for a month.
Here's how it works. As soon as we pull a cork or twist off a screw cap, the wine is exposed to oxygen and begins a slow transformation that ends inevitably in spoilage. Wine buffs have tried various gewgaws to preserve wine for days or weeks after opening. We use vacuum pumps to suck air from the bottle, and we squirt in a little heavier-than-air inert gas, such as argon, to separate the wine from its nemesis. Many restaurants invest in expensive preservation systems that keep opened wine chilled and gassed in museum-like display cases.
The genius of the Coravin is that you never pull the cork, so the wine is not exposed to air. The needle extracts wine while replacing it with argon. When the needle is withdrawn, the cork expands and reseals, at least in theory. The bottle can be returned to the cellar. When the next glass is extracted -- days, weeks, even months later -- it should taste as fresh as the first.
Restaurants can now offer customers a taste or a full glass of expensive and rare wines without the risk of throwing most of the bottle away. And the device is relatively cheap: The Coravin costs about $300, and replacement argon cartridges cost $10. That's why somms are so giddy.
"This gives our guests the opportunity to try something they could never have at home," Horn says. "Where else could someone try three ounces of a Speri 1990 Amarone, instead of buying it at retail for a few hundred dollars or committing to a bottle on a restaurant list at $800 or more?" (That three-ounce pour, about half a glass, will cost you $48 at Kapnos.)
Graffiato, Isabella's flagship restaurant, used to require a two-glass minimum on wines costing $25 or more per glass, but that requirement was dropped when the restaurant bought a Coravin. At Jose Andres' Minibar and Barmini, wine director Lucas Paya is offering rare wines not by the ounce, but by the milliliter.
"These wines range in price from $140 to $2,400 per bottle," Paya explained via email. "We use the Coravin and a scale to pour a precise amount, as a single drop can cost several dollars." Chateau d'Yquem 2003 is available for $1.14 per milliliter: 75 milliliters (about 2.5 ounces), one-tenth of a bottle, costs $85.50.
The Coravin obviously would not work on wines with screw caps or rubber corks, but those aren't the types of wines the device is designed for. Its success does depend on the cork's being in good condition, so it can retain its seal after being punctured. It also raises the specter of fraud: If you can empty a bottle without removing the cork, what's to stop someone from refilling it and passing it off as the original?
Not with the Coravin, says company co-founder Josh Makower. The needle leaves a perceptible mark in the foil capsule, and the device is designed only to remove wine, not insert it, he says.
"Coravin is not a good tool for counterfeiters, and they will have to stick with the methods they've been using for years before Coravin was ever available," Makower says.