HEY come in all shapes and sizes. Most often, they can be found stuffed into kitchen drawers alongside potato mashers, melon ballers and other seldom-used essentials of the kitchen. Wine lovers take them for granted, except when nobody can find one. Call a Boy Scout! He's sure to be prepared with a handy multifunction pocket knife that includes one.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The $220 Code-38 wine knife.
I'm talking, of course, about corkscrews, which, regardless of the screw cap, remain indispensable for achieving access to the wine within. But would you pay $410 for one?
Oh, please, why even ask? In an era when people pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of mediocre Champagne, not to mention thousands for a bottle at auction, who would begrudge the Code-38 wine knife from Australia its retail price of $220 to $410? No, it's not made of gold.
The fact is most people pay corkscrews little mind. They're perfectly content with the gimme corkscrew from the local wine shop; or the cheap double-winged corkscrew, in which you squeeze the arms together to extract the cork; or even the Swiss army knife. Ambitious types can find battery-operated corkscrews or tapered yet cumbersome models the size of restaurant pepper mills, which operate not on the principle of twisting the worm into the cork, but with a press and a pull.
In restaurants the world over, sommeliers, those exacting, extracting professionals, rely overwhelmingly on a simple, handy device known as the waiter's friend or, sometimes, as the wine key. Essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork and a hinged fulcrum for resistance, the waiter's friend has largely stood the test of time, with modest tweaks and improvements, since it was patented in Germany in 1882. Basic versions go for less than $10.
No product, though, no matter how successful, is immune to the fertile imagination of industrial designers. Enter the Code-38, in which the waiter's friend is re-engineered, using the highest principles of design and top-flight materials. What does that get you?
Well, when I pick up my standby home corkscrew, a Pulltap's double-hinged waiter's friend, I'm not wowed by the black plastic handle, flimsy metal fulcrum and serrated foil cutter. It works fine, but I confess I don't feel much of anything about it. When it breaks, I have others lined up ready to go.
The Code-38, by contrast, offers the satisfying, solid heft of a fine tool. It feels good in the hand, like a well-balanced kitchen knife, and it inspires a sort of confidence that I had been unaware of lacking. The basic $220 model, which I bought and tested for several weeks, is made of solid stainless steel, with a thick, strong worm. The foil blade is a curved steel arc that can be opened with one hand and resharpened on a stone.
The fulcrum is smooth and shiny. It's a single-hinge design rather than the double-hinge I have on my Pulltap's. The double-hinge is intended as a safety net for amateurs like me, who can't always get the corkscrew in the right spot for a smooth, continuous extraction. Instead, the double-hinge allows you to pull a cork part way out, and then re-set the fulcrum to complete the maneuver.
The Code-38's single-hinge, though, is so precisely engineered that I have yet to meet the cork I could not extract effortlessly, while (in my would-be sommelier's imagination) bantering wittily with the table in front of me and simultaneously surveying the rest of the dining room for trouble.
That's the basic $220 model. For $410, you can have the Code-38 Pro Stealth, the flagship model, "a complete blend of blasted textures and vaporized titanium-based finishes," as the Web catalog puts it.
Ah, well, a fellow can dream. Of course, it's fine for me, a writer with a (limited) expense account, to sing the praises of the Code-38. What would a professional say?
I lent mine to Michael Madrigale, the sommelier at Bar Boulud, a wine-oriented bistro near Lincoln Center. He liked it well enough, especially the way it felt in the hand, but paused when I told him what it cost.
"What, $220?" he said. "It's like the $200 hamburger. It's like reinventing something that's already perfect."
He added that he was quite happy with his waiter's friend, a French model, the Cartailler-Deluc, which sells for under $30. Like me, he also has backups on hand.
Not all professionals were as unappreciative. Chaad Thomas, a partner in U.S. Wine Imports and a former sommelier in Ann Arbor, Mich., read about the Code-38 on an Internet chat board and was so intrigued that he wrote to the designer, Jeffrey Toering, who sent him one to try.
"It's a gorgeous piece," he told me. "It was superb to be able to extend the knife with just one hand. You could use it really quickly, and it's very durable. As a sommelier, I would actually wear wine keys out."
He said he plans to buy 10 or so to offer to top clients.
It's not that the world of cork extractors has lacked high-end devices, or even expensive waiter's friends. Laguiole, a French cutlery brand, has been renowned for its corkscrews for more than a century. Its waiter's friends are lovely designs in an older, more ornate style than the minimalist Code-38. Laguiole also fills custom orders. Aldo Sohm, the sommelier at Le Bernardin in New York, designed a personalized Laguiole with an Austrian flag design, which also sells for $220. It's an elegant corkscrew, and works beautifully, though it differs from the Code-38 in materials and in its serrated knife, which is more difficult to extend with one hand.
What drives a man to try to create the perfect corkscrew? Mr. Toering, the designer, was not in the wine business. He had learned about design as an instrument fitter in the Australian Air Force, which he likened to being a watchmaker, and he previously designed a portable massage table. The idea for the Code-38 came to him in a restaurant in the 1990s.
"I had ordered a nice bottle of something and was observing the waiter's removal of the cork," he said in an e-mail from Australia. "He was using a cheap plastic wine key. It was in this moment that it occurred to me that the caliber of corkscrew did not match the level of the wine or the restaurant."
So began an odyssey of trial and error, of testing designs and materials, and comparing sources. He inspected worms from around the world before settling on one made in France. Along the way he became the Australian distributor for Laguiole, but he had concerns about its durability in the heavy-duty use of the restaurant world.
"I have designed the product to withstand continual use over many years," he said. "I've been testing prototypes of the product for over five years and many thousands of bottles, and all I've seen is the odd bent spiral, which is more a matter of technique than the product's ability to survive the professional hospitality environment." He says the Code-38 is "fully rebuildable" and covered by a lifetime warranty.
Mr. Toering assembles each one individually in his workshop. So far, he says, he has sold 137 Code-38s, each one to a sommelier (and apparently one wine writer). It's not a lot, but he says the response has been great.
"I think the Laguiole and similar products from that region are brilliant, and I'd like to think that the Code-38 can sit among them as an equal," he said. "In our world of cheap throwaway products, it's just nice to use something that has been designed and made without consideration for just meeting a price point."