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Object lesson No 65

Do you lurk in the kitchen at parties? Well, I know why. It's because you're waiting for someone else to open the next bottle of wine. You may know your Chardonnay from your Sauvignon Blanc, but you can't always access the stuff. Admit it. A mangled cork in the neck of a Grand Cru is not a barrel of laughs.

As is so often the case, the Romans had it sorted. They knew wine improved with age so long as it was in an airtight container. They used clay amphorae, often sealed with cork and wax, only decanting wine into glass to serve. With the fall of the empire this knowledge drained away. Bottles were fragile, expensive and couldn't be sealed properly. Wine was drunk pretty much as soon as it was made, proving there's nothing new about beaujolais nouveau.

Then, in 1635, Sir Kenelm Digby, a buccaneering Englishman lusted after by Queen Marie de Medici, produced a bottle strong enough to drive a cork into. Wine could be matured again - so long as people could remove the stopper. For this they used "steel worms" inspired by the bulletscrew, a device for cleaning muskets. By 1720, the word corkscrew was in common use, with the first patent granted in 1795 to an English vicar, the Reverend Samuel Henshall. P> Along came the Victorians who spotted the potential for convergence technology. Where we are now sold washing machines with internet access (just you wait), they combined their "worms" with nutmeg graters, cheese tasters and even ear pickers. Nice.

Now consider how the worm turns. A good one should be at least two inches long, resemble twisted wire rather than a drill bit, have rounded edges and end in a sharp point. Such a worm will glide through the cork, the point leading the way for the rest of the helix, in contrast to drill-bit devices, which tear their way through.

Popular designs today include "direct pull" - for show-offs able to break the compressed cork's grip, estimated to be the equivalent of lifting 100lb. Levered devices include those two-handled Angel of the North jobs, while hypodermics blow gas into the bottle and hermaphroditic screws obligingly remove the cork from the wine and themselves from the cork.

Finally, for anyone still lurking in the kitchen, here's some advice from Craig Goldwyn, editor of the US Wine amp; Dine Online website. "Prepare yourself mentally. Breathe deeply, and repeat three times, 'I am smarter than the cork'."

Stephanie Northen

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