At first glance, Los Olivos, California, looks like a Hollywood set, a backdrop for every film or television series in need of a Mayberry setting. Instead, this burg of 2,000 people that sits in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, is a wine lovers gift basket of creative restaurants and tasting rooms representing the region’s many vineyards.
I recently attended a wedding in Los Olivos and had time to take a stroll down main street soaking in the sunshine and inviting aromas wafting from restaurants lining downtown. Sometimes such walks uncover hidden gems, and such was the case as I stepped into Pumacasu, a small shop devoted to antique corkscrews and other wine collectibles.
The destination is the brainchild of Argentinean immigrant Carlos Cerecedo, a 70-something curator of antique corkscrews and their provenance. Step into his shop and you enter his world of Paul Harvey like reminiscences and historic wine anecdotes. When it comes to learning the rest of the wine story, Cerecedo is your man. Lord only knows how many bar bets he’s won over the years.
As interesting as wine history might be, it’s Cerecedo’s passion for the niche world of the collectible corkscrew that first captivates you. Could this really be a thing, I think to myself as he seems to be auditioning for a bit role in a Sideways sequel. He begins a sort of performance where he plays a dual role of both the wine aficionado and the novice.
“Do you know why wine producers put foil over their corks?” says Cerecedo, apparently speaking to his alter ego.
“I dunno, you silly fool, why?” he answers himself.
“Because it keeps the insects and mice from chewing their way into the cork and ruining the wine. As late as the mid-17th century, French vintners used oil-soaked rags stuffed into the bottles instead of corks and the bottles were stored standing up. Many believe it was the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon who first used cork in wine bottles. To keep the cork from drying out and decomposing, however, the bottles were stored on their sides, exposing the corks to insects and vermin,” says Cerecedo, punctuating the performance with a canned look of surprise followed by a wink and a smile.
With the use of cork in wine bottles came the need to extract it. Thus began the era of corkscrew development that was limited only by artistic and engineering creativity. As with many collectibles, it’s the provenance that is most captivating. While helping establish a collectible’s authenticity, the stories behind the corkscrews are what draw you in as you have now discovered the perfect gift for the wine lover (or wine snob) in your life. There’s something especially delicious about showing up to a self-proclaimed wine expert’s party with a vintage corkscrew, quizzing him about obscure wine trivia, and educating him in front of other guests.
As I sifted through Cerecedo’s shop, my eyes landed on an especially interesting corkscrew made of bone and badger hair, a design patented by Sir Edward Thomason in 1802. The clever device worms into the cork and, as you continue to twist the handle, it reverses itself and extracts the cork. Continue turning and it removes the cork from the worm.
“Why do you suppose they used bone and badger hair?” asks Cerecedo, beginning another of his impromptu dual performances.
“I dunno you silly fool, why?”
“Because the wine bottles were often very dusty and instead of using water to wash it—which might have been contaminated with diseases—they used the badger hair (which has antiseptic properties…hence its use in applying shaving cream) to remove the dust. Too, the bone handle was less apt to hold bacteria than wood, so it was considered a safer way to open a bottle of wine during a period when epidemics were more common.”
The most expensive antique corkscrew ever sold was a simple 19th Century design made from 800-year-old materials from the Old London Bridge when it was dismantled. It sold at auction in Essex, England, for more than $60,000.
The first corkscrew was likely an English invention, and the inaugural patent for one was issued to Reverend Samuel Henshall in 1795. The corkscrew design was a copy of gun worms used in the 1600s to remove unspent charges jammed in a musket’s barrel.
Step into Cerecedo’s Pumacasu and you’ll learn all this and plenty more. You might even become a helixophile…that’s someone who collects corkscrews, of course.