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The closure wars: a report from the front lines

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I don’t often wander into the area of bottle closures, which aside from one’s personal preferences involves vastly complex issues of wine chemistry, engineering, physics and so forth. I’m on record as having said only a few things about closures: I hate those plastic, injection-molded “corks” that are difficult to pull out and then swell up so that you can’t reinsert them. I extra hate that hard plastic capsule that’s supposed to be “wax” but requires a chisel to remove (and at some risk to the health of one’s hand). I have nothing for or against natural corks, except when they’re tainted. And screwtops don’t bother me in the least.

Beyond that, the whole closure thing has been MEGO for me. Obviously, though, for the wine industry, it’s a major preoccupation.

I was invited to lunch (at Pican, Oakland’s prime source of cholesterol) by two folks from Nomacorc, a North Carolina-based company that makes a polyethylene “cork.” The only reason I accepted was because I realized I needed to know more about this world of closures. So here’s what I learned. This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc.

The firm began in 1999. Nomacorc currently stoppers 45% of all U.S. bottled wines, selling 700 million stoppers annually in this country. This is mainly due to their success with brands like Gnarly Head, Kendall-Jackson, Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Woodbridge, Clos du Bois and other widely distributed brands. These brands at first was hesitant to embrace a non-cork stopper, but once a “critical mass” was reached, it made it easier for others to buy Nomacorc. (“If K-J is using it, I guess we can, too.”)

My hosts were Katie Myers, a P.R. manager from New York, and Mark Coleman, a sales manager from Sonoma. Their job, of course, was to persuade me of Nomacorc’s superior qualities. We all know that natural cork has its problems. The taint rate, while lower than it used to be, still occurs with regularity, sometimes in expensive bottles. Screwtops have their own challenges: namely, oxidative and reductive wines. Katie told me (I can’t vouch for it) that even in screwtop-crazy Australia, producers are having second thoughts, and are looking to alternatives like Nomacorc, which claims to have made huge advances in “oxygen management.”

Both Katie and Mark explained that Nomacorc now produces stoppers with four different OTRs (oxygen transfer rates), meaning that each type allows a different amount of oxygen to get into the bottle over time–a constant rate that can be measured, as opposed to the inconstant transfer rate of corks, no two of which are alike since it’s a natural product. Since whites are less tolerant of oxygen, a producer might prefer a Nomacorc with a lower OTR, whereas reds, which can benefit from a little oxygen, might do better with a higher OTR. (Screwtops, of course, allow no oxygen in or out.)

But it’s not that simple, as a tasting showed. We had two Hungarian Sauvignon Blancs. Both were identical, made the same way, and bottled at the same time. The only difference was the OTR of their Nomacorks. My hosts asked me to try them both and say what I thought. Wine #1 was fresh, clean and fruity; I liked it. Wine #2 was darker, heavier, softer, more honeyed. It did not strike me as quite fresh. When I told them my results, they smiled. Wine #1 used a Nomacorc with a lower OTR.

I personally didn’t care for wine #2, but I could see how somebody else might prefer it. Mark explained that a producer might bottle a single wine with two different Nomacorcs, for shipment to different markets. The Chinese palate, for example, might prefer the softer, heavier wine #2, whereas an American palate might prefer #1.

I asked Katie and Mark the biggest problems they run into in persuading producers to use Nomacork, and they replied “legacy problems” and “the perception issue.” The latter is that so many people perceive anything but a natural cork as cheap and inferior. The former refers to the fact that plastic closures have had a dreadful time in the States, and despite quality improvements (in things like ease of extraction and reinsertion), people still remember the problems of old. In our conversation there inevitably arose the topic of marketing. Marketing and sales managers are notorious for being frightened of change and innovation. Even if a winemaker, fed up with natural cork, wants to shift to, say, Nomacorc, a marketing or sales person might forbid it, on the grounds the wine would no longer be sellable because of “the perception problem.” Katie in particular smiled as she explained that a large part of her job is persuading such managers to overcome their doubts; as Mark put it, “Marketing is scared of their own shadow.”

I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t care how a winery closes its wines, as long as my peeves outlined in the first paragraph are satisfied. But I came away from my lunch at Pican more aware of how complicated the world of closures is, and how irrational consumer attitudes can be. I also came away stuffed. Pulled pork sandwich on a Kaiser role, hush puppies, homemade potato chips, deviled eggs. Highly recommended.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on reader comments, I understand that some screwtops do allow for OTR. I was going by my understanding of what the Nomacorc people told me.

  1. Steve, a screw top with a saranex liner has about the same OTR as a very good cork.

  2. Screwcaps, of course, *DO* allow oxygen diffusion. The OTR just happens to be very low and depends on the liner. To quote Jamie Goode’s 2009 article on the subject: “The tin/saran liner allows very little oxygen transmission, while the Saranex-only liner allows a little bit more.”

    Read more at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=66003&ftitle=OXYGEN%20%20%26%20WINE
    Copyright © Wines & Vines

  3. Having sold synthetic corks as a competitor to Nomacorc for 10 years I can tell you the main reason any winery uses synthetic corks is that they are cheap! Nomacorc has driven all the other synthetic cork producers out of business by saturating the market with cheap (under 10 cents each)plugs of plastic. Granted cork has its drawbacks but the real roadblock to innovation in closures is the closed mind set attitude of most traditional wine producers. Synthetic corks have proved to be short term solutions at best with volume driven by low cost. There are alternatives that work better, have lower, more regulated OTR and provide much better shelf life than Nomacorc. Screw Caps with designated OTR liners exist as do ZORK Closures, both of which have lower OTR than Nomacorc, are easier to insert and remove and look a lot better. A hunk of plastic is still just a hunk of plastic when you hide it in the bottle in place of a natural cork. What message is the winemaker really sending to his customer by using Nomacorc? One word…CHEAP!

  4. I think that Nomacorc’s efforts in reducing the oxygen rate of their closures is laudable, and I think their focus on oxygen is a primary reason for their success in almost dominating the synthetic cork category (alongside very good product quality, good service, and competitive pricing)

    My company produces the moderate oxygen screwcaps mentioned above, (thank you google alerts for bringing my attention to the post!) We have tested Nomacorc’s products in the lab (using the excellent nomasense oxygen meter they were wise enough to bring to the US market)

    The result is that the Nomacorcs were surprisingly good at providing a constant rate of oxygen – far far more consistant than corks – which could be very low oxygen, very high, or anywhere in-between.

    But this is where the devil-in-the-details rears it’s head. Nomacorc has done a great job reducing the oxygen rate of their closures, but even their “tightest” closure still admits too much oxygen into the bottle if you want that bottle to have a shelf life over a year or so.

    Given that most wines are consumed quite young, I think that is okay – but people who use synthetic closures should be giving a “consume by” date on the label. It might be true that 85% or more wine is consumed within the first year – but that 15% that is not? If there is a synthetic cork in it, there is a very high chance that the wine will be over the hill. For a product that the consumer does not expect to be perishable and if anything will get better with time – that is unacceptable.

    Given that the cork is covered with a foil that keeps the consumer from even seeing if they are dealing with a synthetic closure, the best thing to do would be to call attention to the wine’s intended shelf life so that the consumer knows what they are getting.

    Regarding current screwcaps with oxygen, that is a bit of mis-information that needs to be corrected. Outside of the liners my company (VinPerfect) produces, there are only two screwcap options – Saran / Tin or Saranex.

    Saran Tin is quite good at keeping oxygen out – and it is very consistant. We have tested it internally, and others who have tested it have the same result: ZERO oxygen.

    Saranex liners are the ones that people often say allow a moderate amount of oxygen in – but that is a distortion of marketing. The truth is that Saranex liners are highly inconsistant. When they are consistant, they are almost as tight as the tin liners – but then there are a huge number of outliers where the oxygen performance is quite variable.

    Cap companies that sell Saranex liners take the average of these results and state it as the oxygen rate for the liner in general – but that is an abuse of statistics. Few if any bottles will actually experience that oxygen rate – the rest will be higher or lower.

    Still, Saranex is way way more consistant than cork – so lets keep things in perspective.

    VinPerfect’s screwcaps are alone in the ability to consistently admit small amounts of oxygen in the range of oxygen permeation that is important for wine: .15 to .5mg of oxygen per Liter per year. That is far less than Nomacorc’s products – and significantly more than the existing screwcap wines.

    Still, as the post suggests, oxygen rates after bottling are at the end of the day a stylistic tool. Different winemakers will have different desires for the development of their wine in the bottle. If the marketing people insist on a user experience that involves a corkscrew, then Nomacork’s products are your best bet.

    What we have seen more and more however, is that the customer doesnt care about the closure. The marketing studies done all point to a snob factor only – which is that people only prefer cork when they are giving a bottle as a gift, or opening it in front of people they want to impress. – that is, they are afraid of being SEEN as cheap with a non-cork closure. But that is a quite different statement than saying they actually prefer cork.

    Once wine marketers understand that, we will see a tipping point phenomenon in this country – one that countries like Australia, New Zealand, Austria and the UK have already experienced – once the fear of non-cork goes away, then wine producers rush to the product that simply does the best job of protecting wine quality – and that is the screwcap. Even though the current screwcaps do not let sufficient oxygen in, they are still the least-worst closure option. And VinPerfect has solved that last remaining issue.

    I applaud Nomacorc for their focus on oxygen in the marketplace. It is the key issue in winemaking, and they have deserved the success they have earned. What place a synthetic cork has in a marketplace that no longer has any affinity to real cork is what will be interesting to watch.

  5. Was ist ‘MEGO?”

  6. MEGO is “my eyes glaze over,” i.e. boredom.

  7. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: Then you must have loved Mr. Keller’s comment…

  8. : >

  9. Erika Szymanski says:

    Timothy, your monoblog seems to imply that zero OTR is a good thing. Isn’t one of the points that Nomacorc is making (and, for that matter, the natural cork people) that some oxygen (“nano-oxygenation” according to some currently trendy parlance) during aging is necessary to avoid reductive aromas and desirable to improve tannins, color, aroma, etc.? I wouldn’t think that zero OTR would be very desirable for anything save short-term wine storage for wines that aren’t expected to age well in the traditional sense. If I recall correctly, that was the general gist of the 2001 AWRI closures study, though I’ll admit to not having returned to reread the article to check.

  10. marketing is not the only reason people prefer natural cork.

    cork is a renewable resource, because it is harvested from the bark of a tree, therefore corks can be produced for centuries from the same tree.

    corks are a natural product (as i said, made from tree bark), while screw caps are synthetic, made from a blend of chemicals. not exactly ideal for an industry that uses terms like “organic”, “biodynamic”, and “natural”. really not ideal for anyone who cares about their carbon footprint.

    cork is compostable. synthetic corks and screwcaps end up in a landfill.

    corks are traditional. while that doesn’t matter to everyone, for a lot of people, tradition matters.

    corks are classy. its no fun unscrewing a bottle of wine at a candle lit dinner.

    i am not a salesperson, but i am a winemaker, a wine lover, and a hopeless romantic. while i think screw caps and synthetic corks are fine (especially for cheap wine), i strongly prefer a cork on a nice bottle of wine. no OTR statistics or corkage rates will change my opinion

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