Putting a Cap on Wine Corks

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Krista Kennell / Corbis

Wine bottle with screw top

In the opening shots of "Vive Le Screwcap," Bonny Doon Vineyard's online video extolling the virtues of screwcapped wine, a faceless sommelier prepares for an evening at work, fastening his flashy cufflinks in a dimly lit boudoir. He reaches into a drawer full of corkscrews, scoops them up, and casts them into the trash. "Le cork est mort! (The cork is dead!)," the sommelier proclaims in a campy French accent. "Vive le screwcap!"

Camp and bad French aside, the lighthearted marketing video articulates a watershed moment in the global wine industry: after hundreds of years of tradition, more and more winemakers are turning away from cork closures — and oenophiles are finally getting used to the idea. Bonny Doon, a boutique winery south of San Francisco, had used Portuguese cork for 19 years, but was losing 0.5% to 2% of its wine to "taint" — the unmistakably moldy or musty smell and taste of a contaminated wine, caused by a compound called TCA, which is sometimes found in cork. So, the winery decided to make a change in 2002. "It's not a lot, but it's enough," says Burke Owens, Bonny Doon's marketing director, of the switch to screwcaps. As the sommelier puts it: "The days of the cork are numbered."

Mediterranean cork producers would probably not appreciate his sentiment. Their product, which has been plugging bottles at least since the days of ancient Pompeii, has gone unchallenged for centuries as the world's favorite wine stopper. But like many long-lived gastronomic rites, the custom ran into trouble when globalization kicked into high gear. In the 1990s, world wine production exploded, and to meet demand, cork makers started shipping products that, to many, weren't up to snuff. Increased concern about cork taint led wineries like Bonny Doon to look for new ways to seal their wares. Between 2000 and 2005, the global demand for wine corks dropped about 20%, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report.

The cork industry has been scrambling to pick up the pieces. Amorim, the world's largest cork-stopper producer, based in Portugal, where more than 30% of the world's cork is grown, has invested $58 million in improving its operations since 2000. But there are more than 600 cork producers in Portugal alone, and quality control is a challenge. "My enemy is not an [aluminum] wine-stopper," says Carlos de Jesus, Amorim's marketing and communications director. "My problem is a cork stopper that ends up at your table tomorrow and it could stink. The guy making bad quality stoppers is what we worry about." De Jesus says winemakers' strong reaction to cork after the taint problems was all wrong; yes, perhaps the cork industry, which more or less enjoyed a world monopoly on its product until about the last decade, had grown complacent and needed reform. But the material itself should not take the blame, he says: "Cork has given us all the great wines in the world."

Likewise, humans have lent the cork crop a big helping hand. The cork oak tree, whose thick, regenerating bark is shaved off to make cork, covers about 10,400 sq. mi. (2.7 million hectares) in its native Mediterranean habitats of Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Tunisia and France. Yielding cork oaks aren't ever cut down; once a decade or so, their thick bark is harvested in huge strips from the trunk of the tree. Today, the survival of cultivated cork forests, many of which are on private land, depends on their worth. If nobody is buying cork, landowners will use the farmland for something else.

Enter the conservationists. As wineries began ramping up experimentation with new closures, WWF launched a program in 2004 encouraging consumers to "choose cork" to protect the forests, the biodiversity they support and the thousands of rural jobs they create. The organization estimates that the cork industry employs roughly 100,000 people today, some 37,000 of which are directly involved in harvesting. In a May 2006 report, "Cork Screwed?," WWF suggests that if the wine market continues to grow and cork demand continues to decline, the number of harvesters could drop to about 2,400 by 2015, and leave up to 75% of the Mediterranean's cork forest landscapes unmanaged and susceptible to threats like fires, overgrazing, and clearing.

Cork advocates are also hoping their cause will benefit from consumers' recent green awakening: the WWF has hooked up with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international group that promotes good forest management and gives well-managed forests and their products a stamp of approval. This fall, the first FSC-certified corks will appear on the U.S. market from Willamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon. The tactic may very well appeal to screwcap-averse American wine drinkers. In a 2004 study, 62% of Americans surveyed said "cheap" was the first word that came to mind when they thought about screwcapped wines. Americans — along with Canadians, Danes and Germans — have been slow to give up the "pop" of their wine-drinking experience. But in other countries, notably the U.K., the acceptance of the screwcap has shot up. "Boy, has it risen," says Paul Medder, project manager at the British market research firm Wine Intelligence. He says that while most people will always have an affinity for cork, if the wineries are shipping something else and supermarkets are stocking it, people will buy it. "When it gets driven by distribution and what the retailers put on the shelves, people get used to it," he says.

Screwcap proponents would argue that cork’s unpredictability has driven this trend. Taint is part of this, but so is another factor: oxygen. A typical wine cork contains millions of air-filled cells, but because every cork is different, some winemakers think they cause inconsistent aging of the wine. Screwcaps let in less air, and since their cellular composition is man-made, adopters like Bonny Doon say the caps offer a more controlled oxidation process that allows wine to age as the winemaker intended. (Plastic corks, meanwhile, still control a larger corner of the alternative-stopper market than screwcaps, but they're getting edged out.)

Players in the wine industry say cork producers are delivering a better product today than they were 10 years ago. "Everybody would agree there's been an improvement," says Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Wine Growers, where 90% of the domestic market is screwcapped. But, he says, business is business. "I think if the cork forests need to be protected, it's through protecting the cork forests — not forcing wine producers to buy a particular type of closure."

The cork industry, which still dominates the world wine market — cork stoppers are atop 80% of wine bottles — disagrees. Amorim's De Jesus says that because so much of the cork industry’s revenue comes from stoppers, the whole production line would break down without the stopper business. And if the industry chain breaks down, so does forest management. Amorim was the first stopper company to become FSC-certified, and the company believes that the promotion of cork as a naturally sustainable product will turn consumers onto the fact that buying their bottle of wine for dinner could leave a positive environmental footprint. Along with the WWF and companies like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Amorim actively promotes the cork industry's green merits — its contribution to carbon dioxide sequestration, preserving biodiversity and combating desertification. "Can you contribute to a better world and a better wine? If the answer is yes, then what is there to discuss?" De Jesus says.