At your next dinner party, if you feel the back of your neck starting to burn as you open that 1975 Gruaud Larose with a plastic $1.99 screw pull stamped "Eddie's Liquors," you might want to think about a serious upgrade.
An antique corkscrew is always a showstopper—it can be as elegant as the wine (or even work as a diversion when the wine itself isn't so haute). Prices can be lofty: A 1743 English silver pocket corkscrew inscribed by Queen Alexandra (wife of King Edward VII) was sold in 1997 for $30,000. These sought-after examples, however, are usually innovations that proved inefficient and were quickly rendered obsolete by Darwinian competition. (The 1868 Twigg often pushed the cork into the bottle. Nevertheless, one recently sold for $4,000.) Less rare, more modestly priced corkscrews worked quite well in their time, and they still do.
"You have to open a lot of bottles to wear out a good worm," says top corkscrew dealer André Burgos, referring to the metal spiral that pierces the cork. An expert at discriminating between tools that are good for daily use and those that are better ogled behind glass, he travels constantly, hunting down rarities as much for pleasure as for profit. Burgos offers select items at Italian Wine Merchants (a gallerylike Manhattan shop part-owned by noted chef Mario Batali), but his finest pieces are at an appointment-only showroom at his home in Warwick, New York.
Here, one can't help but admire the graceful 19th-century straight pulls. They're Spartan—just a handle and a worm—and most require a little brute force. An 1898 Williamson has a rich rosewood handle and a bell cap on its shaft that catches the lip of the bottle as the worm descends into the cork, providing for a smooth extraction. A Humason & Beckley, from New Britain, Connecticut, is a little rarer, its turned-wood handle festooned with a label brush and a foil cutter shaped like a hawk's bill.
Burgos knows he's biased, but he prefers the simpler French corkscrews. "The French have been making wine so long they ought to know how to open their bottles," he says. "And there's a warmth to the French straight pulls." He points to a cabinetful, and it's true—they have the most elegant handles, with bone inlays and lots of sexy curves. Mechanical corkscrews are more playful in their ingenuity, with levers and ratchets and rack-and-pinion systems. A chunky Argentinean double-lever, from the thirties, has cool machine-age lines that essentially make it a piece of modern art.
Burgos fits a chilled bottle of Lugana into a giant brass bar-mounted screw and opens it with one smooth pull on the lever. If you get the corkscrew bug, Burgos is encouraging. "Join a club," he says. "Pen collectors, stamp collectors, the others—they're just no fun. Corkscrew collectors are people who like to drink wine and enjoy life."
André Burgos, Warwick, NY; 914-986-0141. Web site: www.andreburgos.com. Italian Wine Merchants, 108 East 16th St.; 212-473-2323.