Put a Cork In It

On May 8, 2007, in Food and Drink, by peterb

Wine is a funny business. There are plenty of tangible resources that go into producing the bottle of wine that lands on your kitchen table: land, grapes, yeast, glass, and so on. And there are plenty of intangibles that go into making a good wine: knowledge, patience, and most importantly, process. But many people (or at least, many Americans) who buy wine are really trying to buy something else: romance.

This puts the industry in the odd position of trying to protect the public from finding out what really makes great wine. Yes, there are still artesianal wine makers (and home-vintners) for whom the process is messy, uncontrolled, and in the hands of lady luck. But by and large anyone who has managed to get a bottle on a retail shelf (much less get a bottle on a retail shelf on another continent) has done so through, first and foremost, good business practices. That means a devotion to market research and sales, and it means a devotion to careful, scientific, controlled processes in the creation of the product.

At the end of the process, if you have a truly great wine, you put it in a bottle, and then — because you are selling romance, not wine — you screw up your product by sticking a piece of wood in the neck of the bottle. You then ship the wine around the world. Eventually, I buy the wine, by which point the piece of wood you used as a stopper has rotted, and I have paid $30 for an undrinkable bottle of corked wine.

Cork industry advocates claim that only about 1% of all wines sold with natural corks are “corked”. Anyone who buys a lot of wine knows that this is a damnable lie. A study by the Wine Spectator found a much higher rate of 7%, which is more in line with my experience. Of course, your experiences will depend on how much wine you buy, where from, how it is stored, and what vintage. But the paradoxical end of this is: the more expensive the wine you buy is, the greater the likelihood that it is already ruined by the time you purchase it. When I am in the store holding an expensive wine that I’ve never tried before, in the back of my mind is the thought “What happens if I spend $70 on this, and it’s corked?”

People more organized than I might say “Just bring it back to the store!” Fat chance. That might work well enough if you grab the offending bottle on your way out the door to dinner, but if you have even a modest wine cellar, or buy things mail order, the chances that you can do this reliably are slim, and the psychic transaction cost is high.

There is no technical roadblock to reducing the amount of fine wine that is ruined. The solution is clear: stop sticking stupid, rot-prone pieces of wood in the bottle. There are any number of reasonable ways to address the problem. Crown caps or screw caps are the best solution: cheap, easy to use, and they do the job perfectly. The silly synthetic corks work well, too, although I’m not convinced they’re worth the trouble.

I’m well aware that the use of natural corks is not going to stop any time soon. Despite that, I have to point out that by choosing to put a natural cork in your wine, you’re making a clear statement about what you think about your wine, and about the people who drink it: you think they deserve mediocrity.

Maybe if enough people realize that, the natural cork will stop seeming romantic, and will simply be seen for what it is: a shabby artifice.


11 Responses to “Put a Cork In It”

  1. bbum says:

    Dead on, dude. Same goes for Tequila. Corked tequila sucks.

    Certain kinds of synthetics are an awesome alternative to corks while preserving that corkscrew opening moment of utter manliness.

    Actually, synthetic corks are likely superior to screwtops as pressure changes in contents can stress a screwtop to the point of allowing air or moisture to pass. For tequila, though, a corkscrew requiring cork sucks unless you really are going to finish that bottle in one sitting.

    I shall be bottling my tequila this weekend and I will be using flip tops on 500ml cobalt blue bottles (with some really neat labels). A nice alternative to a synthetic cork or screwtop, I’m hoping.

  2. CRM says:

    The last sensibly scientific article I read about this issue said that synthetic corks let in too much air to be used for wine that’s going to be aged over 5 years or so.

    Good quality screw tops tested allowed exactly the same amount of air as natural corks, and were found to be superior in every way. Too bad they’re so unromantic.

  3. WCE says:

    Ok, since this is what I do for a living, I can’t let this pass without comment. (Lengthy comment it turns out.)

    First, you’re right, I don’t blame you for being pissed off at corked wine. You don’t deserve it, and I assure you, no responsible winery wants that to happen to anyone.

    (You also generously give the industry credit for being shrewd marketers and savvy business people. Except for the big labels, this is less true than you might imagine. The big companies are industrial food production companies who happen to make wine. The smaller ones (and they might make a lot of wine) are wine people. Wine people want to make wine, and drink wine. Do they like marketing studies? Not so much.)

    I think what you’re saying is right, to a point. Cork taint is real, it’s a problem, and it ruins good wine. But don’t for one minute think cork is cheaper than a screw cap or crown cap. It’s not. Romance is one reason cork is largely in use, as is tradition and inertia. But there is another, positive, reason to use cork.

    Screw caps solve the cork taint problem, but for serious red wines they create another one – aging of wine requires some slow micro-oxygenation. Cork provides this, screw caps don’t. Wines under screw caps don’t change, forever. Well they do, but not in a positive way, generally. They get “dumber”.

    Nothing provides proper aging better than good cork (according to existing research at any rate). If you’ve ever had a great wine that aged to something, well, let’s eschew reviewer talk, and say, aged to something rare, fine and astonishing, then you might consider the payoff worth the risk. But getting that amazing aged wine either means paying up at the right restaurant, or buying cases (or at least a half dozen bottles) of the wine and storing it correctly and patiently, while still sampling from year to year to see how it’s coming.

    Most people can’t afford to play that game, and are rightly disappointed when their one shot at it goes wrong. But I’m not at all sure a screw cap can provide that experience. So cork/other closure is a tougher decision for a winery making high end reds that you might think.

    So cork isn’t only romance, it has a real role to play in the development of wine. But since around 75% of wine is drunk the night it is bought, 75% of wines could carry a screw cap with no problem. I have no problem with that, and for something that should be drunk young, like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, it’s an excellent idea. (I like what Napa’s Plumpjack did, offering the same wine with cork, or with screwcap. I don’t know if they still do that, it might be all screwcap now, as it was solidly preferred.)

    As for anyone using cork not giving a damn, and thinking their customers deserve mediocrity, I’m going to have to, ah, strenously disagree. People who use very cheap cork don’t care much, I’ll grant you. But there are now cork treatment processes in use that reduce cork taint to well below 1% (2% is as high as cork haters can get it). They cost more, so in wine with low margins, they aren’t used.

    This isn’t as well reported, as the current campaign against cork in consumer circles seems to be about 4 years behind industry technology and trends. Screw caps were a source of raging controversy in the industry about 5-6 years ago. They are now a fait accompli, and consumer backlash against them has been much lower than anticipated – but more so in more expensive wines ($12+).

    Less expensive wines suffer a very “downmarket” perception without a cork (ironically, they need the screw cap more). Only Australia and New Zealand really offer screw caps across their price ranges, and they seem to be doing ok, so maybe the “downmarket” perception will change.

    Back to corks. Cork taint is generally not random. Statistically it appears in a random 1%-7% of all cork. But up close, it appears in some lots of cork in much higher percentages, and at near zero percent in other lots and quality levels.

    A winery can trial batches of cork for taint and reject those which test poorly. If you buy the best cork from tested batches you generally get cork that is FAR less tainted that average, (let alone cheaper) cork. (These corks tend to be bigger as well, allowing them to resist deterioration for, on average 25-80 years – possibly longer if properly stored. ) Between treated cork and trialing specific lots it’s quite possible to almost eliminate cork taint entirely.

    Many wineries will replace your wine if it is corked. They honestly don’t want you to have a bad experience, one, because they really do care about the wine they make and that you drink, and also because you’ll never buy their wine again, and you’ll probably tell others not to as well. I agree it’s a pain in the ass, but please don’t make it out that they don’t care. They may have different, non-marketing/romance related ideas about cork than you do though.

    It may sound hard to believe, but there are famous (and expensive) producers who just don’t want to spend up for good cork, just like they don’t want to spend up for good oak.

    I know this is a wall of text, but here are a couple of other interesting things to consider.

    1. How little romance is too little for you? Is wine quality ALL you care about? If so, the industry will happily sell you wine in tetra pak (same stuff as kids’ juice packs). It is a virtually flawless storage medium (no aging as before but still). It won’t break, rot, or allow any contamination. It’s cheaper than a bottle with a screwcap. It would lower shipping costs, as it packs with no gaps into a rectilinear space, and can even do without a paper or wooden carton with proper shrink wrapping. So if you want your Cheval Blanc or Stags Leap in a tetra pak, speak up. Maybe the romance of a bottle is irrestible. I know it is to me. Also I think glass allows for the purest taste…

    The bag in a box method is good too – you can take a glass of wine with no oxidation cost on the rest of the wine. It stays airtight in its bag. It’s perfect for “one glass with dinner” type wines.

    2. Cork gets blamed for a lot of other sins. Corked wine has a taste, a very nasty taste, all its own. Often though, you’ll find a corked wine has some other very specific faults like oxidation (that sherry-like taste) that indicate cork failure was just PART of what went wrong with that bottle.

    But most people don’t know the cork taint taste as opposed to other wine faults. Many people will often assume that a wine with: brettanomyces, oxidation, bacterial spoilage from bad malolactic fermentation, too much sulfur, etc etc etc is corked. Not saying the readers here don’t know the taste, but many people who cry “cork!” don’t realize the problem could be something else. (Generally producers who regularly have the above faults don’t give much of a crap about their cork, either. I’m looking at you, France. Don’t slink away there Italy, I mean, you, too.)

    Winemakers don’t ever say “My winery has ‘bret’and it is hard as hell to get rid of, and so I’m going to blame the corks. As far as you know, that wine was corked. Damned Portugese!”

    This goes for distributors and retailers too. They routinely treat fine wine like crap, exposing it to all sorts of extremes of heat and cold, bashing it around, and leaving it upright on shelves in direct sunlight for months on end.

    Guess what gets blamed when there is a problem? A screw cap might have avoided some of those issues, but not all. Bad treatment often leads to cork failure which can lead to cork taint. And then you have to ask, should the closure on a bottle be required to make up for mistreatment by others in some (though by no means all) cases of cork taint?

    In the case of a very fine wine, the whole “chain of custody” has to be good for the bottle to make it to you in reasonable shape.

    And shippers, don’t get me started about shippers and importers…

    Ok, that’s my little rant, thanks for reading.


  4. Julie says:

    Interesting. I drink rather a lot of wine, and have never had a “corked” bottle. Once I had a cork break, but it was still removable, and the break was due to a lousy cork pull. Sure it’s not your technique? ;)
    But seriously, I do believe that cork is on its way out. More CA wineries, at least, even good ones, are starting to use screwcaps.

  5. WCE says:

    CRM- That isn’t what I’ve been seeing regarding air coming in from screwcaps vs. corks. The last couple of things I read (I’ll hunt around for cites) suggest quite the opposite.

  6. WCE says:

    One other thing – we produce only reds, and so I unfairly wrote as though those were the only wines with cork/aging considerations. Many fine whites, such as top rieslings, face these issues too. Sorry to leave them out.

  7. peterb says:


    Thank you for the thoughtful, detailed response. I’ll fess up straight away that the direct address at the end of the article (“you think they deserve mediocrity”) was a cheap shot: I blame the rage engendered by yet another bottle of corked wine. For that, I apologize.

    I also agree with you that small producers of wine are in a tight spot in terms of how they package and market their product. I don’t agree with you that there aren’t reasonable solutions to the problem, and I think wine producers need to be leaders, not followers.

    Your “Why not drink box wine?” comment is interesting. I think that, amusingly, the box wine manufacturers are actually ahead of the technological curve with respect to guaranteeing the integrity of their product. The success of Bronco Wine Group’s Charles Shaw wine (aka “Two Buck Chuck”) attests to this. It’s not simply that it’s cheap — I don’t see people lining up to buy cases of Night Train — but that it is cheap while guaranteeing a certain baseline quality. Box wine carries connotations of certain flavor profiles that many consumers don’t want, but these are obviously stylistic choices, not requirements.

    As you note, screwcaps were introduced on the value end of the wine market, and the world didn’t end. Personally, I’d be perfectly happy to use a screwcap on any wine that doesn’t require significant cellaring, which is to say, most wine.

    I agree with you that wine can (and does) go bad in many ways that don’t involve corking. At the same time, corking is a particularly galling type of failure because it is so damn preventable. Let’s re-cast the problem in a different light: suppose a small component in your fermentation tanks randomly caused 5% of your batches to go bad. Would you let that continue indefinitely? Not in a million years: you’d seek out an implement a better solution to the problem within weeks.

    The only reason cork spoilage is a continuing problem is because the cost is bourne exclusively by the consumer, which is to say, me. I’m sure you’re a caring vintner who would absolutely replace any bottle of corked wine brought to your attention by a customer. I’m also equally sure that for every 100 (hypothetical) bottles of corked wine you (or any other producer) sells, only 1 consumer bothers to contact you, because it’s simply too much trouble.

    The cost to the industry of corking is subtle, and can’t be measured in dollars-of-bottles-returned. It’s not simply that a corked bottle of wine makes me less likely to drink that wine again. It’s that every corked bottle of wine makes me less likely to risk my money on any sufficiently expensive new wines. If you are an small independent producer without an established name, this should frighten you.

    Many wines are chosen by educated consumers who have tasted and researched wines before buying them. I don’t think corking changes those purchases. But many are chosen by people who simply see something on the shelf and say “Well, what the hell. It’s a little pricy, but I’ll give it a shot.” When you add an extra 5% to that risk profile, you lose some of those consumers. I’m one of them. So the thing to understand here is that the other guy’s cheap corks are hurting your business. And that’s why everyone in your industry needs to be working hard to solve this problem.

  8. WCE says:

    Hi Peter,

    I think your most recent comments are right on target. The USA is predicted to be the world’s largest wine market by 2010 (and by some measures its close now). If we know anything about markets in the USA, it’s that competition is fierce and choices are manifold. I don’t think it will be possible to market wine without a far more reliable closure in the near future.

    I also think that within 5-10 years a closure that largely pleases everyone will appear – new designs on agglomerate corks allowing aging without taint, screwcaps that allow aging, perfectly treated cork, a micro-vented tetra pak maybe. It might be that there are several solutions that all work, and it becomes a matter of taste (I think this will prove to be the case).

    The cat is out of the bag on cork taint (thanks in part to a ferociously bad run of cork in the mid to late 90s when cork production couldn’t keep up with worldwide demand for various reasons) and we will see something to solve it. I do think steps are in place already which will reduce it immensely anyway. But you are right, a solution to this problem is needed, and right away.

    And yes, we’re a small independent producer, and we think we make lovely wines that stand out from the crowd. It does scare me that a cork could turn someone away from trying my wine, or even a wine like mine. Most vintners truly want to get to the best answer. Right now, given that our wines are, in fact, meant for aging, I think it’s cork (with the provisos of my earlier post). If some other solution offers the characteristics we’re looking for we’ll change.

    As for bag in box, or tetra pak wines on the lower end of the market, why not indeed? But I do believe that tradition and romance have their place, and there is nothing wrong with that. People seek out, and pay for, all sorts of intangible characteristics in nearly all the products they buy, irrespective of what the thing truly is in a reductionist sense.

    That part of the thrill and pleasure of wine comes from looking at a well-presented bottle, and pulling the cork, doesn’t bother me a bit. But like you, I would love to see that initial trepidation on the first pour and sniff replaced by nothing but happy anticipation.

  9. drgerg says:

    WTF is an “artesianal wine maker”? Does the wine bubble up out of the ground or just the grapes?

  10. peterb says:

    What, you don’t watch late-night infomercials?

  11. Chris Hanon says:

    You know, wine that uses synthetic corks just won’t have that rich, warm sound that analogue equipment has. But you can at least improve the synthetic “stairstep” effect a little bit by lining the edge of the label with a green marker. Try it!