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Pull the cork on corks

20 comments

Most consumers don’t know it, but the Portuguese cork industry is one of the most ferociously defensive businesses around. For decades, they’ve had this massive P.R. army extolling the virtues of cork, warding off every conceivable attack. Even before there were viable alternatives to cork, their minions were assuring us that no effort was being spared in the cork forests to keep animals from peeing on the bark. As for cork’s TCA rate, well, it was miniscule, and getting lower all the time. That this did not accord with the experience of critics, including me, who were getting taint rates of about 5%, was irrelevant. The cork industry wanted everyone to know that they were on the side of the angels.

Then alternative closures started appearing, and the cork industry had to re-double its efforts to stay relevant. About that time, I started getting regular invitations to visit Portugal, courtesy of the cork manufacturers. Hell, every writer/critic did. (For the record, I’ve never accepted a junket.) I guess the idea was that a free vacation in Europe would warm our hearts and make us write nice things about cork.

corktrees

Now, the industry has a new argument: It’s greener than any other closure! That’s according to this study that “clearly shows the environmental superiority of natural cork stoppers over alternative wine closures,” in its own words. Specifically, the study looked at the carbon footprint created over a 100-year life cycle of cork stoppers, compared to plastic stoppers and screwtops. It found that corks have 1/9th the CO2 emissions of plastic stoppers, and 1/24th the CO2 emissions of screwtops. The study was paid for by Corticeira Amorim, the world’s biggest wine cork company.

Look, when you’re reduced to hyping that over a 100-year cycle, corks emit less CO2 than other types of closures, you’ve basically admitted you’ve lost the argument. That’s cork’s claim to fame? I don’t think that dog will hunt. The cork people are going to have to come up with better rationales than that. I mean, we’re all green nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that everything we buy and use has to be calculated to the Nth degree to figure out its carbon footprint. That’s a kind of green fascism we ought to avoid.

There are lots of reasons to move beyond cork. Here are two: screwtops are less intimidating to millions of people who don’t want to struggle with a device just in order to open a bottle. And a screwtop will never taint a wine with TCA. Cork is an anachronism — a seventeenth century artifact like the spinning wheel. We don’t need it anymore.

But we do need bling, don’t we?

On the other hand, here’s the world famous coutourier, Karl Lagerfeld, telling the New York Times: “This whole [economic] crisis is like a big spring housecleaning — both moral and physical… Bling is over. Red carpetry covered with rhinestones is out. I call it ‘the new modesty.’ ”

karll

No bling for Karl

  1. Hmm…well, as someone who has a large wine collection, I’m not 100% sold yet on non-cork closures. To date, there is not enough research to say what happens to wines designed for longer aging – which is specifically the types of bottles we collect. Of course I don’t care if rose, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc come with screw cap closures – we’ll be drinking those within 3-5 years anyway. But burgundies, northern/southern rhones and Germain Rieslings that are designed to age for 20+years? I don’t think so.

  2. Steve,

    I feel exactly the same. Also, let me add that cork companies talk about carbon footprint but not about other environmental aspects such as the pollution that cork manufacturing generates or the fact that aluminum is the most recyclable component on earth while cork is not (at this point it is mainly a collection problem that ReCork is trying to address in the USA). I would love for the cork industry to change their tune a bit and be objective for a change.

    That being said, I am sad for the thousands acres of cork trees that are in Portugal and for the people that make a living from this crop. The cork manufacturers are not helping out by trying to save their bacon on lousy arguments rather than finding alternative uses for the bark. Feels a bit like the US auto industry not catching the hybrid bus; watch my word, next they will ask for a bail out to the Portuguese governement.

  3. Steve:

    Though I question whether the current style of high-end Cabernet production allows for real ageability anyway, has the screwcap’s efficacy for wines meant to be drunk down the road been answered to your satisfaction yet?

    I am so close to my own tipping point on this issue especially when I consider my own bias against the built-in notion that age-worthy wines are inherently better than wines meant to be drunk in the mid-term and when I consider the unfortunate consumer (my own included, alas) that spends significant money on wine only to find the bottle ruined by TCA.

    Is the screwcap the future for even the highest priced wines? Can you be totally unaffected in your tasting/rating and wine-buying by the closure?

    Steven Mirassou

  4. Ricky-Bobby says:

    With all due respect. Maybe we should stop using glass. The first century B.C. technology is a little out dated as well. Tetra-Pak all around. Pulling a mylar strip should be easy enough.

  5. First the wax and now the natural corks.

    Consider that bag in box may be even more friendly than the
    screw offs but we don’t see a lot of them being cellared, either.

    What’s next in the name of eliminating struggle? Perhaps a pressurized
    I.V. so one does not have to struggle lifting (let alone washing)a glass?

    “(For the record, I’ve never accepted a junket.)”
    Okay, so I cancelled the black SUV from PETA.

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    The other night we pulled the cork on two wines from 1959 for a woman who had turned 50 that day. The wines remarkable. The Grand Puy-Lacoste was distinctly claret, bright in color, soft and silky. The Louis Martini Reserve was distinctly Cabernet; even more, it was typical of a L.M. wine of that era. The care that was taken by the server to carefully extract the corks and decant the wines added a drama, ceremony, tradition, and richness to the experience.

    There is no evidence that the wines would be in this condition after 49 years in a screw cap bottle. There is ample evidence there would have been no ceremony, sense of tradition or of time passed had it been a metal screw cap.

    The other day in a restaurant I saw two women’s reaction to the closure on their NZ Sauvignon blanc as the server unceremoniously twisted the screw cap. It was obvious they expected and wanted a cork. Their reaction was “what kind of cheap crap did we just order?”

    There is no evidence that the customer wants wine sealed with a screw cap. The fact that there are far more plastic stoppers tinted to look like cork, than screwcaps, should be ample evidence. If you look into those who have switched to plastic stoppers (the majority who eschew cork) the reason is economic, not wine quality. Plastic stopper are well documented to be inferior to screw caps as well as corks in protecting wine. But they are cheap.

    I wouldn’t pooh-pooh the environmental impact. If the cork forests are converted to any other form of agriculture there is a significant carbon impact, not unlike the removal of rain forest to grow corn.

    The solution, in my mind, is removing taint from cork closures. The industry has made great strides in recent years. So much so, I think it is in danger of becoming a non issue.

  7. Ricky-Bobby, you made me laugh!

  8. Steven, I have additional problems with aging wine than just TCA-tainted corks. The main one is that in my experience,
    older wines are almost invariably disappointments. I’m glad Morton Leslie had those 2 great red wines from 1959, but it’s little short of a miracle that one of them wasn’t dead, if not both of them.

  9. Nicolas, in a way the cork farmers are like our coal workers in the Appalaichin Mountains. Everybody agrees that coal is a nasty technology that destroys the environment in uniquely damaging ways, but one of the reasons the government never does anything against coal is to protect all those jobs.

  10. Steve,

    Agreed.

    Like Ricky Bobby’s comment a lot. Let’s just pipe our dwelling with “red” and “white” – Wine on tap!

  11. I, speaking with over 41 years of being in the wholesale end of this wine business and have watched it’s growth from being a niche in off sale locations to being the dominant factor in stores.
    I see nothing wrong with the trend to screw caps. The average customer who walks thru the retailers door is going to buy a wine that more than likely will consumed within 48 hours and are looking to spend anywhere from 7 bucks to 15 dollars or so on wine. They don’t care if its corked or screw capped. As a matter of fact, if they are comparing equal items, they will probably select the latter. It’s wonderful to have these esoteric views of wine, but it is first and foremost a business and whatever you as a winery owner can do to move that bottle off the shelf and into the consumer’s hand should be one of your goals. Screw caps on the other hand will probably never get on high end Napa or Sonoma wines and that’s OK. Maybe by reducing the demand on cork winemakers can be assured the corks they do use will be of the highest quality.
    That’s my opinion and I am sticking to it.

  12. JD in Napa says:

    Speaking from the consumer side (although I’m not the “average consumer” to whom Jim refers, above), I am tired of corked (TCA) wines. From where I stand, I cannot agree with Morton’s perspective that taint is “in danger of becoming a non issue”. And my disagreement is reinforced every time I open a bottle with the taint. Like last night’s Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino: corked. Not happy with that, or with the 99 Whitehall Lane Reserve Cab at Christmas time: corked. Or the Biale Zin at was corked. And the list goes on.

    I am not among the tiny tiny percentage of people who purchase wines to lay down for decades, and I don’t see that this little group should dictate the style of closures on the wines we purchase. I agree with Steve’s perspective that you are just as likely to have a scanky 40 year old wine as you are to have a memorable experience (based on the many 20-30 year old wines that my friends have served).

    Screwcap me, baby!

  13. I share everyone’s disappointment with corked wines.
    Whenever I encounter a corked wine, I put the cork back in and take it back to the store where I get a new bottle at no extra charge.
    Is this an uncommon thing?

  14. Steven.

    I would like to make 2 comments.
    Firstly, in any balanced argument , you should always put both sides of the story. I think you have neglected to comment about the continuing matter of sulphidic characters forming under the reductive conditions of screwcaps on many screwcapped wines.
    This seems to be conveniently over-looked as a ‘non-fault’ by those extolling the virtues of screwcap only.
    Secondly , your comment “The study was paid for by Corticeira Amorim, the world’s biggest wine cork company” makes it sound as though the auditing company was ‘influenced’ in some way. Of course a cork company would pay for the study. Do you expect that an alternative closure supplier would pay for it knowing what the outcome would be ? Are you questioning the integrity of Price Waterhouse because it reads that way to me.

  15. Steve: First, I agree with you that the reporting community has been slow to write about the reductive quality of screwtops. A big part of the reason is that we’re not scientists and the studies on this have been too complex for most of us to follow. Speaking for myself, I wish I were more on top of this, but I don’t think anyone else is. As for your second question, of course I don’t question Price Waterhouse’s credibility, any more than I would question a news publication’s susceptibility to being influenced by an advertiser. That doesn’t happen, does it?

  16. Hi Arthur, it’s probably not uncommon among wine savvy people like you. I always worry about the millions of Americans who buy corked wine and, not knowing what it is, formulate hatreds against the varietal, producer, region or vintage the wine came from. Or all 4. That is what’s bringing the American auto industry down.

  17. SJ,

    I’d like to comment about your statement re: sulphidic wines under screw caps. The problem was brought to the forefront with the seminal AWRI study – noting that these was an overbearing issue with wines under this closure, and one that needs addressing.

    Winemakers are certainly familiar with the issue and do take ‘action’ prior to bottling to minimize this potential issue – just as they do potential problems with ANY closure.

    Truth be told that the sulphidic issues that were brought to light in that study were due to faulty winemaking in the first place – not necessarily due to the closure. The wine in question in the study was ‘known’ to have sulphidic issues to begin with that were ‘covered up’ with copper prior to bottling. These issues were ‘unmasked’ with time in the bottle . . .

    I have asked and continue to ask not only my colleagues but consumers as a whole if they are coming across systemic issues of ‘sulphidic issues’ with screw cap wines, and the answer has always been, and continues to be, no.

    This is NOT to say that the problem may not exist – but plase show me systemic examples of it taking place in real world situations . . . I’m all ears.

    Cheers!

  18. Hi Larry.

    Thanks for your responses ; at least the dialogue is open.

    Re your comments ” Winemakers are certainly familiar with the issue and do take ‘action’ prior to bottling to minimize this potential issue – just as they do potential problems with ANY closure” ; I would be interested to learn more about the action that is taken prior to bottling with screwcap.
    Can you enlighten us please ?

    Cheers , SJ.

  19. Hi Steve.

    Appreciated your feedback.
    I understand what you are saying about the ‘influences’ that may occur.
    Important to note that carbon footprinting and greenhouse gas emission studies are now assesssed against specific standards.

    Cheers , SJ

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