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posted: 7/16/2014 5:30 AM

To solve the problem of breaking bottles, Coravin has a trick up its sleeve

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By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post

Coravin was an immediate sensation when it hit the market last year, a revolutionary way of preserving leftover wine. Via a thin needle inserted through the foil capsule and the cork, Coravin extracts wine from the bottle, replacing it with inert argon gas to protect the remaining wine. Theoretically, a bottle could last indefinitely, with each glass tasting as fresh as the first.

Coravin was designed to allow collectors to stretch their rare wines over several occasions, but it quickly became the favorite toy of sommeliers. Suddenly restaurants could offer premium, expensive wines by the glass without fear of wasting most of the bottle.

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Until bottles began breaking.

The company started hearing early this year of bottles cracking while the device was extracting wine. "We have now received 13 reports of wine bottles breaking, including four in which the bottles cracked and leaked, eight in which the bottles broke in two pieces, and one in which the bottle burst into four pieces, resulting in an injury," the company said in a letter to customers posted June 25.

The process of extracting the wine creates a slight increase in pressure inside the bottle, and damaged or defective bottles could break. The company had an outside expert examine the broken bottles and the Coravin devices involved, and they determined that the bottles either were defective or had been damaged previously, Howard Leyda, vice president of marketing for Coravin, said in an email. All of the devices were working correctly, he added.

"The expert was able to reassemble the bottles, examine the edges, and determine that there had been pre-existing damage or flaws in those bottles that encouraged the crack to propagate when the bottle was pressurized with Coravin," Leyda said. "All the issues were related to damaged or defective bottles."

None of the incidents happened in restaurants, Leyda said. The injured person, a collector, suffered a cut lip and two chipped teeth and has recovered, he added.

The company reported the incidents to the Consumer Product Safety Commission in late May and temporarily halted sales of the $300 device. The June 25 notice was technically a "recall to repair," alerting customers that they would receive a "remedy kit" containing a Neoprene sleeve to protect the bottle -- or at least the Coravin user -- while extracting wine.

The company expects to resume selling Coravins in mid-July, after current owners have received the remedy kits. The kits also include warning labels for the devices and updated instructions on how to use them. The sleeves, labels and instructions will be included with new purchases.

"Always use a Coravin wine bottle sleeve while accessing and pouring wine with the Coravin system," the company notice said. "Keep in mind that the sleeve can be removed as soon as you are finished accessing and pouring, and is not required for the storage of the bottle."

Because the zippered sleeves fit snugly on a bottle and are meant to prevent leakage, Internet wags promptly chortled about practicing safe Coravin.

"A giant bottle 'condom' is all the Coravin needs to be safe," WineSearcher.com proclaimed.

The reports of damaged bottles, which the company first alerted customers about in February, do not seem to have dampened enthusiasm for Coravins in the Washington area.

Coravin's inventor, Greg Lambrecht, held a demonstration class at G restaurant in June, complete with the protective sleeve. James Horn, wine director for G and its siblings Graffiato and Kapnos, was one of the first in D.C. to buy a Coravin last year, and he intends to keep using it, the restaurant's publicist said. But they no longer are bringing it out to use at the table.

So some of the device's cachet may be lost. Julian Mayor, sommelier at Bourbon Steak in Washington, said he would continue to use his Coravin, but not tableside, to guard against diners being splashed with leaked wine or hit by broken bottles.

"Even after we do receive the sleeve, we will still pour away from the tables," Mayor said. "It used to be a showpiece for tableside service, but not anymore."

• McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter @dmwine

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