Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Question of Corks

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that I’m not much of an adherent to the school of writing short, quippy posts. That said, I do occasionally rant as much as the next food and wine blogger. Lately though, I’ve found myself inclined to take on some larger topics, from an exploration of Burgundy, including a brief discussion of oxidation, to the culture of wine shopping and the frightening combination of “enjoying” wine with a smoke.. Should we bloggers be leaving the big issues only to the “big guys?” That wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?

If there’s a topic that has been bandied about in the wine world more than any other in the past few years, it must be the issues surrounding TCA and the continuing use of natural corks. One of those arenas where science meets ritual, the cork question has captured the attention of just about everyone who is remotely interested in wine. We’ve all heard the debates about the pros and cons of various closure types; even I’ve lent my voice to the discussion, as featured in an article by Rob Kalesse in this year’s annual bar issue of Delaware’s Spark Magazine. The question – What’s up with corks and screw caps? – comes up at just about every tasting event or class I conduct and has become a near daily query in the course of working a wine shop floor. The answer is simple: screwcaps are the wave of the future.

As simple as the solution seems, a comment or article crops up once in a while that is either so egregious or so insidious that it grabs my attention, practically forcing a response. The egregious examples are obviously the easy targets, so let’s start there. While skimming the letters to the editor in the June 15, 2007 edition of Wine Spectator, my jaw dropped in disbelief when I read a submission from a reader in Florida:

“I’ve never detected TCA, although… I’m sure I’ve had tainted wine. It would be interesting to know how many consumers, even serious wine snobs, can detect TCA. I find the whole TCA scare a bit alarmist.”

This is tantamount to a reversal of Descartes’ “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). If I haven’t experienced it, it must not exist! Sorry, but that’s not how it works. TCA, the taint which can result from the cleaning processes inherent in the production of natural cork closures, is inescapable, certainly affecting 5% at minimum of all bottles sealed with cork. A taster’s lack of experience with how to detect it does not make its “scare” any less real.

It’s the insidious takes on the cork issue, by nature harder to spot, that tend to stick with me the longest and really get under my skin. They’re often written by major wine personalities or published in widely circulated magazines. What makes them insidious is that misinformation or plain wrong-headedness is often couched in the context of a well-written or otherwise smart piece. The most recent article which really made me itch was “Searching for Closure” by Anthony Dias Blue in his “From the Editor” column in Patterson’s The Tasting Panel Magazine (August 2007). Patterson’s is not exactly a household name or a major wine journal; it’s essentially an industry insider vehicle for trade advertising and small tidbits of news and editorial content. It shows up in the mail at work and I’ll leaf through it during the occasional quiet moment. Anthony Dias Blue, however, is unquestionably one of the most prominent personalities in today’s wine world.

ADB’s piece, like any good editorial, is meant to inspire thought and rebuttal. It starts out brightly, as he observes some improvements over the last year or two in the quality of natural cork on the general market. Complaints by consumers and winemakers seem to have gotten back to the cork industry which in turn has raised the bar on quality control. Perhaps this does account for my rather modest approximation of a 5% rate of cork taint, as that statistic seemed much closer to 10% not long ago. He also rightly recognizes that cork taint will never be eradicated as long as natural cork continues to be used.

Mr. Blue gets a bit more daring when turning his attention to synthetic corks. Whether produced from cellulose or foam bases, he decries their use as cheapening the perception of the wines they seal, pointing out along the way some of their faults and the quality problems inherent to their use. I was right along with him up to and including this point. I can see only two real reasons to use synthetic corks, neither of them good.

  • First, some wineries wish to avoid the inherent problems with natural cork yet balk at the investment necessary to convert bottling line equipment and supplies to a screwcap system; it’s economically short sighted but at least understandable.
  • Second, and more bothersome, is a common fear that conversion to screwcaps will hurt sales. Wineries of all sizes seem to be holding their breath, waiting for more famous, more “important” wineries to take the plunge first. As Mr. Blue concludes his piece, “It’s time to be a leader not a follower.”

It’s in the editorial space between the discussion of synthetic corks and his finale that Anthony’s path goes astray. In his own words,

“The screwcap or twist-off is the best of all closures. It is virtually impervious to TCA, it is hygienic, it is streamlined and easy to use and it re-closes effortlessly…. Nevertheless, anyone who thinks the whole wine industry is going to embrace the screwcap needs a reality check. Can you see Château Margaux in screwcap? Not likely. The natural cork is still a superb wine stopper. If there was no such thing as TCA we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I have a solution…. I would like to see a third to a half of all wines under screwcap…. All wines that are destined to be consumed within a year or two should be in twist-offs. If you are making Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc… or any number of other wines that should be consumed young, you should be ashamed of yourself if you are using natural corks.”

On the surface, his argument seems on point (aside from the inclusion of Riesling in his list of short-lived wines). He’s right about TCA and natural corks; without the issue of taint, there would be little reason to change. And he’s right not to expect the entire industry to change, at least not rapidly. But he falls prey to the all too common opinion that screwcaps are not viable for age worthy wines. Mr. Blue also succumbs to the same cultural perception he’s trying to dispel – that screwcaps aren’t suitable for expensive wines – even though he does later champion Michel LaRoche for using them on his Grand Cru Chablis. Why shouldn’t Château Margaux use screwcaps? Sure, there are still century old bottles of Château Margaux which have been sleeping in collectors’ cellars for far longer than the history of the modern Stelvin enclosure. But who’s to say that those bottles aren’t corked? Cork taint does not go away as wine ages. It only becomes more heartbreaking when the wine is finally opened. Furthermore, is the risk of TCA somehow more acceptable when you’ve spent $500 and upwards on that special bottle? Why ask for insurance only when buying your everyday wines?

It’s been a long time since the ivory towers of Bordeaux’s top classified growths have led the field in any area other than outrageous price escalation. To echo Mr. Blue’s conclusion, why shouldn’t they be the leaders when it comes to a clear and simple choice?


Terence said...

Grazie for the link, buddy. You're on my blogroll now too. Cheers.

David McDuff said...

Prego, Terry. Thanks for the reciprocation.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for this great article. I agree, until we get rid of our preconcieved notion that screwcaps aren't for 'fine' wines, the stelvin closure will not be widely accepted by wine drinkers.
Albany, NY

David McDuff said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Kathleen. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

Screw caps and recycled tires are missing the key aesthetic of pulling a real, organic cork from a bottle of wine and having it sit beside you for the dinner. I still treat drinking wine as a bit of a special event, albeit a daily one, that I look forward to and enjoy partly by its mood. Unscrewing a metal cap from the top of my bottle means that I've lost something, admittedly small, from each and every bottle opening. So, while for the past several months I have lost 5% of my bottles to taint, moving to screw caps means I lose 1% of every single one.


David McDuff said...

You're getting sentimental on me there, Sean. Seriously, there is something to be said for the ritual comfort of pulling a cork, examining its textures and reading the winery's inscriptions. But for me, that 1% loss you note with the twist of every screwcap is more than worth it as an insurance policy against opening a corked bottle.

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