I hope I’m assuming correctly, but I’m imagining that you’ve got the smaller, lighter-weight red metal corker with adjustable spring-loaded bottle base and plastic jaws, sometimes called a “Portuguese” corker. These are decent corkers for a home winemaker with not much volume to bottle, but they can have their issues. Before I get into that, let’s talk about your corks.
Possible issues you may be having with the corks:
- Be sure your corks are fresh, and not old and dried out. Yes, corks are essentially plugs of dried-out tree bark but you don’t want them to be too dry. Be sure that they are new from a cork supplier (if you buy them in large quantities) and if purchased from a winemaking or brewing supply shop, that they are from a shop with enough turnover to keep fresh corks on hand. Ask the shop folks how long ago they opened the bag of corks — the cork companies typically sell them in sealed bags of 1,000 or 2,000 — and it’s important they sealed the bag up right away after opening it. If not, ask for corks from a fresh bag. New corks are important because they come from the manufacturer with the correct moisture content to ensure that, when they are compressed with your corker jaws, they re-expand correctly into the neck of the bottle. Corks that are old and dry are brittle and, as you intimate in your question, can break and chip off in ways that are not desired. Dry corks are a problem that be can be exacerbated by corker jaws that may be out of alignment.
- Make sure that you are using standard wine corks. The Portuguese-style corker is a one-trick pony. It only does the standard #8 or #9 cork (with some effort) well. Be sure you’re not trying to use larger corks. Spraying corks just prior to use with something like vodka or a sulfite solution can help provide a little lubrication to help you get the corks in and will provide some anti-microbial effects.
Possible issue with the corker:
- If your corks are perfect, are the right size, and you think you might be having issues with the corker, I always recommend getting in touch with the shop from which you bought it. Hopefully you’ll be able to find someone there with experience repairing and adjusting the corker and who can take an in-person look at what you think the problem might be. Since we’re doing this via long distance troubleshooting (hi there!) following are a couple of ideas on what might be wrong with your corker.
- You may need new jaws. The jaws — which, when the handle is pulled down, pinch together to squeeze the cork allowing it to be forced into your wine bottle — are made of plastic and just aren’t as strong as the brass jaws common in more expensive, durable corkers. Especially if you bought your corker used, it may be time for new corker jaws.
- Your jaws may need adjusting because one or more may be out of alignment and so may not be “pinching” the cork correctly. You should be able to get in there and re-set the jaws in case something has gotten in the way of them closing correctly, or of one being out of alignment. If you have the model I think you do, remove the two bolts on the sides of the corker head and lift off the top plate. As you remove the jaws, which are underneath, be sure to take note of the orientation of the jaws and the springs so you can put them back in the same position. Remove the old jaws, insert the new ones in the same manner and replace the top plates and bolts.
A Corker ConundrumIn general, I’m not a huge fan of the “Portuguese floor corker” because the jaws are plastic and the action is just single-lever. It doesn’t allow for much wiggle room when dealing with uneven or different-sized cork and bottle configurations. A step up is a corker with brass jaws, (sometimes called an “Italian” corker, sounds like an excuse for an EU soccer match!), which I find to be a little bit more forgiving and longer-lasting than a model with plastic jaws. The brass jaws are extremely sturdy and do a great job of compressing the corks. When you’re bottling a lot of wine, having an easy-to-use corker can really save time and make the job so much easier. I hope either a jaw adjustment or jaw replacement helps! When in doubt, please do contact your friendly neighborhood winemaking supply store or the shop from which you purchased your corker.