How do you open wine when the cork is damaged? Do you just keep churning away with the same corkscrew that caused the problem (or more likely the operator of the corkscrew who really caused the problem)? Do you resort to another tool that might work better? The answer is surprisingly simple if you apply a little common sense.
Before understanding how to remove a damaged cork, it’s probably best to understand a little about corks in general. First, they are more temperamental than a bride’s mother on a wedding day. Corks are made of very soft wood which is why they’re used. Cork can be compressed so that even one slightly larger than the opening of the wine bottle can be squeezed so that it tightly fits the neck of the bottle creating a seal. That’s the good part, but along with that comes a bunch of baggage.
Corks are made out of wood assuming we are not talking about the new synthetic ones that have the bounce of a super ball and the half-life of Uranium. I know it doesn’t feel like wood, but real cork is actually the a layer of bark from the cork tree and just like any other wood, it is subject to drying out. That is why it is so important to store wine laying down. The wine stays in contact with the cork and keeps it moist. Even good cork that has been kept moist will eventually dry over a number of years, usually 10 or more. Dry corks can easily result in the two most common types of problems in opening wine. The first – corks that don’t have enough integrity to hold the worm of the corkscrew which just makes a ever expanding hole in the cork while it is still firmly seated in the bottle. The second – the dreaded broken cork where half of the cork is attached to the corkscrew and the other half is still in the bottle. Oh…and one more point…a cork doesn’t have to be dry to end up broken. It’s easy to break cork if you are not paying attention and bend it while you are trying to take it out.
Let’s assume that your best laid plans didn’t work out and you’ve now damaged the cork so badly, that the wine can’t be opened with a standard corkscrew for fear of drilling all the way through the cork and pushing pieces of it into the wine. Avoid this at all costs. Orange Juice is supposed to have pulp – wine isn’t. Drilling a large hole is great if you are looking for oil – not so much if you are trying to open a wine bottle. It doesn’t matter if the cork is just dry or if you’ve broken it off in the bottle. Either way, you have a problem. Once you’ve reconciled yourself to needing an alternative plan to get to your wine, proceed to step one of removing problem corks.
Hide the evidence if you did it, or if a friend did it, begin copious amounts of verbal abuse immediately. Step one completed? Good – now let’s move to step two.
Examine the cork. If the entire length of the cork is still present but you’ve managed to drill a hole in it, the best tool to use is an Ah-So.
Why is it called an Ah-So? I have no idea. The Ah-so has two thin prongs that can be inserted on each side of the cork, between the cork and the bottle. Insert the long prong first and then the shorter one and slowly wiggle the Ah-so from side to side while gently pushing it farther down into the wine bottle along the sides of the cork. If you are doing it right and the cork is cooperating, you should be able to push the Ah-so all the way down until the handle is resting on the top of the wine bottle without pushing the cork further into the bottle. Now slowly turn the Ah-So while gently pulling straight up. Hopefully, as the Ah-So is coming out of the bottle, it is dragging the cork with it. If not, use your thumb and index finger to squeeze the prongs of the Ah-So more tightly against the cork and continue to pull up while turning it slowly. This should work most of the time. If not, go to step three where one of the wine equivalents of power tools come into play.
Assuming the cork still won’t come out and you haven’t drilled a hole all the way though it, the next tool to try uses air pressure and a needle. For the power tool aficionados in the audience, I suppose you could call this a pneumatic wine opener but in reality, it’s just a small, glorified bike pump.
The principal is simple. Insert the needle all the way through the cork and into the bottle of wine and then pump the handle pushing more air into the bottle. As the pressure in the bottle increases, it begins to push the cork out of the bottle. Only pump enough air in so that the cork is out enough to grab it with your hands and finish pulling it straight out. Continuing to pump in more air makes quick work of removing the cork but also does a great job of making a fountain out of your prized wine. Remember where we cautioned against creating a hole all the way through the cork? This tool is why. If the cork has a hole all the way through it, you can’t create more pressure in the bottle to push it out.
Only after these methods have been tried and failed should you consider pushing the cork into the bottle. Remember that if you do this, and there is no hole in or around the cork to relieve the pressure that builds inside the bottle, you’ll create a fountain that looks like the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. If you think you got abused by your friends for screwing up the cork in the first place, wait until you shoot a couple of glasses of wine out of a bottle, spraying everyone and everything in site. By the way, speaking from personal experience, wine is a pain in the ass to clean off of the ceiling.
If you have to resort to one of these techniques for opening a damaged cork, send us a comment and let us know which method worked best for you.