A wonderful thing, the law of unintended consequences. Who would have thought that the screw top wine bottle, increasingly favoured by Australian and New Zealand wine makers in particular for its practicality at protecting the vintage, would double as a social leveller and rich source of amusement?
The genius of the screw top is that it confounds two deeply-reinforced instincts:
1. If you have taken something from a bottle that has a top, you screw it back on. This is held to by all but the most slovenly, especially in company. After all, you don't want the sauce, olive oil, whisky, or whatever, to get spilt, or for the dust and mites to get in and start corrupting the contents. Screwing the top back on is an unconscious reaction that you don't even think about.
2. A wine bottle, once opened and left on the table, can be grabbed and poured from at any stage. The habits are ingrained in the choreography of civilized socialising: the casual pick up of the bottle, the lean across to serve someone else before yourself, the elegant pour, and the twist to avoid drips.
So it's all set up for the following scenario, which is now frequently played out in social gatherings. Whoever has last taken wine instinctively screws the top back on. Later, someone grabs the bottle and makes to pour. Perhaps still immersed in conversation, it's several seconds before they register that no wine is coming out - and several more before they understand why. Meanwhile, the others around the table, who can see that the top is screwed on, are gifted with a long moment of delicious dramatic irony.
It would look lame and predictable if you tried to make it a stage direction, but in real life it's pretty funny.
The best part about this faux pas is that nobody is immune. In fact, those of us who habitually do and say clumsy, gauche things are a bit more careful about things like pouring wine and unlikely to fall victim more than once. It's those used to being at social ease who are at greater risk of coming a cropper in public.
Do you have one of those workplaces where the great and good will occasionally socialise with the more plebian? You'll all be sitting around having a few wines after work, all apparently egalitarian, though everyone will know who'll be telling the funny stories and who will be laughing sycophantically.
In these situations it's the great and the good - most likely to be distracted by their own conversation, most likely to be casual and unselfconscious about pouring the wine - who are most likely to be snared by the screw top trap.
And even if you can see right away that it's going to happen, your very deference prevents you from making too strident a warning. I mean, what are you going to do? Leap up and shout "Don't do it! The top's on!" What, you take him or her for a fool?
No, the best you can do is maybe rise an eyebrow meaningfully at the bottle, perhaps mumble "aah, the top" when the wine pouring movement looks inevitable and the cap remains screwed on. But you think he or she is going to be taking much notice of your subtle gestures or murmured comments? You are only a relatively lowly member of a larger audience.
Sadly, he or she is destined to continue, with confident, deliberate movements, to attempt an impossible pour, and in doing so look like a bit of a clown. And the ensuing laughter will contain only the mildest schadenfreude -- it's the perfect scenario, where someone's bubble is punctured without physical or mental harm.
Rarely can an instrument of product quality control have become such a subtle tool of comic subversion.