Wine Makers Consider a New Twist

By Pat Agnew

NAPA, California, December 20, 2000 (ENS) - Once upon a wine, a screw cap meant labels like "Night Train" and "Cannonball Express," brown bags and drinking in the alley.

In the world of damask and silver, corks were the only acceptable closure for wine.

Now, the winds of change are blowing out of that alley as wine connoisseurs and wine makers choose up sides in the cork vs. screw cap controversy.

Vintners, writers, and drinkers have all gotten into the act. Information, pro and con, is plentiful. What do you need to consider before you select a bottle to serve and enjoy?

corks First, why is there a cork in that bottle, anyhow? A tradition that dates back to the fifth century is hard to change. The Greeks used corks to seal wine, sometimes adding a layer of resin to improve the seal. Of course, they also transported it in amphora on ships rowed by galley slaves, and both those traditions have been abandoned.

Cork is the bark of a tree that grows in the western Mediterranean area. Premier wine producing regions developed in countries with Mediterranean coastlines, France and Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece. In ancient times, trade flourished in the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean, and cork was easy to get. The technology that could replace corks was centuries away.

But today the use of screw caps or other alternatives to cork appears environmentally friendly. Although cork is a renewable resource, it doesn't renew very quickly.


Cork is the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus Suber) which grows in specific regions of the Western Mediterranean. (Photo courtesy Cork Supply USA)
Cork trees are finicky, slow growing, evergreen oaks that thrive in specific parts of the Western Mediterranean, mostly in Portugal, and only in these regions. They require a lot of sunlight and a highly unusual combination of low rainfall and somewhat high humidity.

Cork trees have two layers of bark and cork is made from the outer layer, carefully removed so as not to damage the inner layer and kill the tree. It is not until the third harvest, when the tree is 52 years old, that the regularity of size and density of cells makes the bark suitable for wine bottle usage. The quality and thickness of the bark vary with growing conditions.

Attempts to grow cork trees in North and South America, Russia and Japan have not been successful.

Throughout history, alternatives to corks have been tried. Wine corks fell from favor in medieval times, replaced by plugs of cloth or leather. Glass stoppers, ground to fit the neck of each individual bottle followed. These did not remain popular since it was tricky to get them out without breaking the bottle. Cork reappeared as the stopper of choice in the 17th century.


Fine French red wine breathes before a tasting. (Photo courtesy
With the popularity of cork came the development of the ritual dear to the heart of movie directors, wine stewards and drinkers with the purchasing power to command it. The ritual begins with the careful perusal of the wine list, the presentation, with a proper flourish, of the bottle, so that the label might be inspected, followed by the expert drawing of the cork at tableside, so the host knows the bottle was not switched.

The cork is offered to be sniffed critically by the purchaser and a sip is poured for consideration. But the truth is that sniffing the cork is like kicking the tires, it tells nothing.

What happens if the cork breaks, crumbles, slides into the neck of the bottle out of reach? Of course, the establishment will take it back - but the management won't like it. What if it's the last bottle of that vintage in the cellar? You must choose all over again, and you won't like that. The only winners will be those who strain the cork out of the wine and drink it in the kitchen, or the alley. And if the failure of the cork tainted the wine, everybody loses.


1999 Pinot Noir grapes growing at Clos Pepe Vineyards, Lompoc, California (Photo courtesy Clos Pepe Vineyards)
The wine industry has estimated that as high as eight percent of bottled one, or one bottle out of every 12 bottle case, is affected with corkiness, which causes wine to taste moldy or musty. It can happen to a $7 bottle of California wine, or the vintage that you mortgaged the house to buy.

Proponents argue that the use of metal screw caps would solve these problems. Caps are user friendly and they do not taint the contents of the bottles.

Polls conducted in three countries indicate that Americans, who howl to the heavens when the trappings of their lives are not easy to use, are no better than the French or the British about the idea of changing from wine corks to screw caps. Tradition is the reason the majority in each country give for favoring corks.

Clearly they have never gone on a romantic picnic, and left the corkscrew behind. Wresting the cork from a bottle of Vouvray with a Swiss Army knife lacks the cachet of tradition. Although, even there wine tradition had an impact. Swiss Army knives once had a corkscrew on those issued to officers, and none on those issued to enlisted troops.


Nomacorc, a highly elastic polymer based, medium density, chemically inert, extruded still wine closure. (Photo courtesy Nomacorc)
In addition to screw caps, synthetic alternatives to natural cork are being developed. Several years ago, five prominent California wineries - Beringer, Clos du Bois, Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi and Sebastiani - formed a consortium to created Neocork Technologies, which came up with some prototypes.

To date none of the partners have used them, but according to a report last year in the consumer magazine "Wine Spectator," Sebastiani plans in the near future to release some 500,000 cases sealed with a Neocork product.

One winery that uses synthetic corks exclusively is St. Francis Vineyards in Sonoma County.

Plumpjack winery in Oakville, California bottled half of its 300 cases of 1997 Reserve with screw caps. A case of this wine, half with corks, half with caps, sold for $50,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in June.

Cork oaks may not be able to grow bark quickly enough to keep up with the growing global population of wine drinkers. So synthetic corks serve to relieve the pressure on the cork trees of the Mediterranean.