Put a Cork In It

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.