Final Episode: Taming of the Screw

Will Americans betray their cork and turn to the screw?

And at the end of the day, should Portugal really want to save this industry? The plants do provide jobs: Vinocor, which has the capacity to produce three million corks per day in a single plant, has 400 employees from Portugal alone. The forests also provide conservation arenas for endangered species, such as the roe deer and the red partridge, and cork, it must be noted, is an organic renewable resource. The Stelvin screwcap isn't exactly biodegradable, and some recycling companies don't accept it along with glass and paper.

But natural cork stoppers are not exactly a money-maker for all involved. Cork harvesters can only wield their hammers from May through September, when the tree is in a growing stage and the bark is dry enough to fall away from the trunk easily. They also work under contractors, whom the farmer hires. They are the equivalent of Homestead's migrant Mexican avocado pickers. Can you say subsistence wages?

For another thing, a tree must be at least 25 years old before it is large enough to harvest for the first time. This batch is called virgin cork and is used for corkboards and shoes -- it's not yet the right quality for cork stoppers. Neither is the second harvest, nine full years later. Which means that the first time cork can be turned into stoppers is when the tree produces a third crop at 43 years of age. Imagine waiting that long for a crop of corn or beans.

Jeremy Eaton

Still for the cork industry to perish completely, several variables must be met: American winemakers would have to make the initial investment involved in changing the shape of the bottle in order to accommodate screwcaps. The American consumer's aesthetics would have to be similarly revised, a possibility if you consider that even the wine-drinkers in the Loire Valley are now being re-educated to go pro-screwcap. (Sauvion, take heed.) And the Chinese would have to stop playing badminton, 'cause their love for the game alone could keep Portuguese farmers putting a cork in it.

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