Victoria Daskal looks at how the simple corkscrew has been transformed into a high-end precision tool for sommeliers
I remember the moment,” says Jeff Toering, “like it was yesterday. I had just sold my company [Athlegen] and had plenty of time to consider the next move. With my previous experience in aircraft engineering, I was pretty much looking at the world through a product design and manufacture lens. It was just a question of what product? The moment came when I was dining in a Sydney restaurant. I had lashed out and ordered a better-than-usual bottle of wine that I was excited to try, and then the sommelier whipped out a plastic, cheap-looking waiter’s friend and made a mess of the opening.” That was the moment, Toering reveals, that inspired him to design Code38.
The result? A corkscrew—or as he calls it, a wine knife—called Code38, which many top sommeliers say is a game-changing tool in their business. And non-professional wine enthusiasts are following suit, relatively undeterred by the $410 price tag.
Toering’s research-and-development phase was an around-the-world trip “where I basically dined and purchased corkscrews. I wanted to know what was being used out there in the world of wine service, what was good and bad, and what I might design differently.”
He discovered that most of the products dominating the restaurant scene were either the cheap, branded giveaway/throwaway variety or, at the other end of the scale, beautifully crafted specimens from Laguiole. Fascinated with their product, Toering imported a range of Laguiole corkscrews and identified what he believed to be their strengths and weaknesses. “Laguiole has a superb helix but an incredibly difficult action,” he concluded.
Toering’s mission was to produce an industry tool that was beautiful in design, intuitive to use, and made to last a lifetime within a commercial environment. “After quite some time, I produced a singular working prototype that I then carted in and out of restaurants with a questionnaire sheet. We’re talking the early 2000s here, when somms weren’t quite the rockstars they are today. The feedback indicated that there was a need for a highly functional, extreme-quality tool for people taking wine service seriously, and so the Code38 got the green light.”
Fast-forward to the present, when Code38 is now distributed around the world, with the USA and Asia currently showing strongest demand. Production remains relatively small-scale, however, since it still takes two and a half days to make one Code38. The helix is custommade in France, the main body is formed from a specially tough stainless-steel alloy by a small company in New Zealand, and all of the hand-finishing and assembly is done by Toering at his home in Byron Bay, Australia.
“The true value of the Code38 only really becomes apparent once you’ve opened some wine with it. It will become even more apparent over time, with tens of thousands of bottles opened under the belt,” explains Toering. Indeed, many of the sommeliers who might now be considered of “rockstar status” concur.
Having used it to open between 50 and 100 bottles a day, they offer their praise and advice for future prototypes. “It was love at first sight,” gushes Frederic Marti, head sommelier at Typing Room in London. “I used a lot of Laguioles before, but this is much better. It is perfect to handle and can open any kind of cork.
A lot of my guests ask me where I got it from and love the way the blade comes out. They actually ask to try and feel it.” Rajat Parr, wine director at Michael Mina restaurant group in the US, agrees: “It is the best! Laguiole is the only other one worth mentioning. It feels right and works great for older bottles with crumbling corks.” He has one tiny niggle: “Perhaps the blade could be sharper.”
Klearhos Kanellakis, sommelier at private-member wine club 67 Pall Mall in London, divulges that “some sommeliers believe that it’s just another expensive corkscrew with nice design, and it has the disadvantage of having only one scale rather than the more normal two. But I think that if they use it they will change their mind. It is much stronger and more reliable; it requires much less effort.”
UK distributor Daniel Primack quells concerns over the single-scale design, explaining that the brilliance of the corkscrew is its perfect angles— specifically between the lever and the helix. “It maintains a vertical force as the cork is pulled, resulting in less cork breakage and fewer wrist injuries.” Both are very important factors for a busy sommelier, but Primack insists that private customers represent half of his sales. This follows a similar pattern to Coravin, which he estimates as being 60 percent domestic use.
Returning to the cost, Toering accepts that the $410 (£350) price point can be a barrier, given that most people don’t think of corkscrews as high-end luxury goods. “Many people fall over at the price, but if they are serious about wine, and especially if they’re involved with the service of wine, then I’d invite them to put the cost aside for a moment and try one out. They might be surprised how different the experience can be.”