Turn of the Screw, Part II

As the death of the cork is announced, we go to where it is born

What the cork forests don't allow for are buses, like the one I boarded with a group of fourteen or so wine critics and journalists from South Africa (all in favor of screwcaps, say ja). As the coach lurched and swayed its way through the 1200-hectare forest owned by fifth-generation cork farmer Almeida Garrett at about two miles per hour, I had terrible visions of being crushed in a bus crash, a single American grape under a tangled bunch of very large Afrikaaners (man, but do they grow them big down there). But, I could picture my husband eulogizing at the funeral, at least she died for romance.

Of course if public image of the cork doesn't improve, romance, sentimentality, and tradition may be the only pitches left for the cork producers. And they don't make very persuasive arguments to those in the wine industry who are rallying for contamination-free closures like the crown and the Stelvin screwcap. Hue Harriman, board member of the South Florida chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, snorts, "We don't drive buggies anymore, so to say that cork is traditional is silly ... when champagne is first bottled, it is closed with a crown cap -- sometimes for many years!"

He's right, of course, in an industrial-revolution sort of way. But those of us with a fondness for cottage industries can relate to the cork harvester, who has been "quite trained not to damage the bark," Garrett says. It is his -- and yes, he's always a "he" -- art form. Cork harvesters work in pairs, wielding a uniquely wedge-shaped axe that Garrett calls a "hammer." Much like lumberjacks, they scramble up and around a tree, alternately striking the bark firmly enough to sink the blade through the two-inch-thick layer but not deep enough to slit the wood underneath. They can hit the tree no matter where they perch, from any angle, as if they're performing tricks on a par with playing the piano with one's toes -- over their heads, under their armpits, between their legs, making the male Afrikaaners wince more than once.

Jeremy Eaton

The results of all that precision-cutting are planks about four or five feet long that are torn off the tree with a slight groaning sound. The planks are tossed to the ground and the men continue up the tree, completing each one in an average of fifteen minutes. If trees had therapists, they'd probably relate to them the following emotions, equivalent to a freshly shaved sheepdog, at being so summarily stripped: embarrassment, bewilderment, and maybe just a hint of resentment.

"It's always a stress on the tree," Garrett admits. "A small stress, but still a stress." Bark removal does not, however, kill or endanger the tree. In fact, the bark regenerates, a process that begins immediately. The date the cork is harvested is marked on the tree, whose angry color fades into polished gray as the years go by and the bark rebuilds. The tree we watched being stripped was last harvested in 1993.

After the planks are removed from the tree, they're rated, stacked, and sold to various manufacturers. Inferior cork goes to school classroom walls and shoe factories; the better stuff winds up drying out for at least six months before the next stage of the process. How the cork is treated from there composes a large part of APCOR's mission, which is not only to lower TCA-taint levels through quality production but to make consumers aware of that reduction, currently estimated at about .8 percent.

Those stats are obviously at odds with those spouted off by the proponents of screwcaps. In its newsletter Cork Supply News, Cork Supply USA says the "answer [is] obvious -- it is a consistent sampling error." In other words, the taint only appears to be a certain percentage to wine writers and critics. Since they frequently test bottles from small-production facilities and mass-scale wineries at the same tasting, the variables are uncontrolled and the ratios incomparable.

Still challenges like the one that Cork Supply USA issued to the Wine Spectator -- whose writer Jim Laube is pro-screwcap -- to visit cork facilities and verify measures of TCA-related taint with chemical proof, have only added more compounds to the fire. Bonny Doon's response to the APCOR campaign is particularly revealing: "[APCOR] has in numerous recent print advertisements invited interested parties to step up and debate the merits of the various closure systems. While we at Bonny Doon Vineyard personally believe that their invitation to enjoin the debate is precipitated by the fact that they currently have 3 1/2 legs in the tar pit, we are nevertheless quite willing to offer a spirited contribution to the ongoing discussion."

Speaking from the depths of the pit, Falcone of Norman's believes that Bonny Doon may prove to be an aberration: "In Europe, the old families are completely opposed to the idea of screwcaps. They count on the oxidation that only a cork can give. As [American] consumers, we follow the European tradition of drinking wine. We learn from France and Italy and Spain. We look for beauty and romance." Unlike consumers from Australia or South Africa, he notes, whose wine culture has long included such innovations as the plastic "bag-in-a-box" wine container. Ja.

Next week: Portugal's response to the industry threat: too little, too late? Plus, how the "death of the cork" campaign could affect both the Portuguese economy and Miami drinking habits: South Florida distributors are all for it.

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