“You have to wonder, how many bottles of wine has this corkscrew opened through the years? And on what interesting occasions? And for whom?”
Contemplating a vintage corkscrew, Josef L’Africain knows what fuels our fascination with antiques. The Maine wine merchant is also an expert in all types of gadgets used through the centuries to open wine. These items led their own lives well before they met us—and we can only guess at what those lives might have been.
Among an array of vintage items that have served as bar ware or wine-cellar gadgets in the past, corkscrews remain fascinating to wine-and-spirits collectors. They’re great to have in our cellars and at our bars as either decorative items or assistants to be put to good use.
While Don Cochran makes his living selling modern wine-racking systems, he treasures the antique wine rack a customer gave him. “It’s wood and has rollers on it,” he says. “[It] was probably built in the 1800s and later used in a Manhattan speakeasy.”
In addition to racks, barrels, bottles and posters, other such collectibles include classic decanters, funnels, wine baskets, flasks, shakers and strainers, cradles, and brandy warmers—plus tastevins, shallow pure-silver saucers used for tasting. Wine producer and collector Brock Vinton has some small barrels in his cellar that once held Beaujolais. Barry Roseman has antique French posters decorating his wine cave.
A category that should get increasing attention in the coming post-Riedel era is sets of wine crystal, including classics like the ornate Waterford and the sylph-like Orrefors. In previous centuries, when wine was sipped and not slurped, many collectors searched out wine glasses that were considered traditional to some regions. Here are some examples:
Sets of these types are often available at estate sales and auctions, especially in the interior of Chester County. Some of the more interesting decanters are hand-blown ones, a favorite sales item at the many glass factories that once dotted the Delaware Valley and along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Flasks, ice buckets, funnels, tastevins and candle holders (once used to help see sediment in the neck of a wine when it was being decanted in a dark cellar) are often of more value and interest if they are made of silver.
But the corkscrew category is the easiest place to get started in adding a touch to a cellar or bar. That’s because there were so many of them made in every wine-drinking country, and because old ones are relatively easy to find.
In fact, there are even museums dedicated to the diminutive devices. If you’re ever touring in Rioja, Spain, be sure to stop at the fascinating Vivanco museum outside Brionnes, where there’s also an excellent winery and restaurant. Among the other wine-related artifacts, it has a collection of thousands of corkscrews. L’Africain notes that there’s also a museum in Romania that has “about 25,000” of them.
“The corkscrews that someone is most likely to find at a flea market on the East Coast are those made starting in the 1890s by three producers: Willamson, Walker and Clough,” says L’Africain, adding that the ones by Clough were made of a single piece of wire and difficult to use. “Mostly, though, they were well made—and a lot of them were made.”
The Williamson was simplicity itself— a small, rounded wood handle vertically connected to a worm (screw) with a small metal cap at its top, with no leverage at all. The Walker was similar, but with a more ornate cap. With the Clough puller, there is no handle at all, just a finger ring for pulling that’s an extension of the worm.
Among the rarer corkscrews out there are those manufactured by Humason & Beckley, says L’Africain. They had a non-folding foil cutter on one end of the handle. On the other was a brush to wipe away any debris from the neck of the bottle.
Of course, a huge variety of vintage corkscrews are available on websites such as eBay and Etsy. But L’Africain also recommends checking out more informational sources like Collectorcorkscrews.com and his own site, Corkscrewsonline.com. “They’re a twice-a-year auction site,” he says of the former. “But they will let you check what something is worth.” Note: The site only deals in corkscrews valued at more than $100.
Returning to his meditation on corkscrews and the fun of guessing where they came from, L’Africain pauses, then says, “That’s what I hate about bottles with screw caps.