Final Episode: Taming of the Screw

Will Americans betray their cork and turn to the screw?

For perhaps the tenth time in the last month, I opened a bottle of tainted wine a few nights ago. The 2001 Sauvion Pouilly-Fumé, a generally reliable white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in the Loire Valley, had clearly gone off. The cause, most likely, was either oxidation or a cork contaminated with 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA). Most of us who diagnose bad wine by taste but aren't handy with a chemistry set assume the latter. Regardless, who absorbs the cost of the undrinkable bottle, which retails for $14.99?

I do. But if I weren't too lazy, er, too busy, to return the wine to the retailer where I bought it, the compensation dominoes would be set into motion: I'd get my money back. The retailer would get his money back from the distributor. The distributor would get his money back from the winemaker. And the winemaker would curse the cork factories.

Actually the process is a bit more complicated than that. Eric Hemer, education director for Southern Wine and Spirits in Florida, informs me that distributors usually make up-front arrangements akin to life insurance -- pay now to defray funeral costs later. A prenegotiated amount of returns, whether they're caused by cork-taint, breakage, or simply from wine being left out on runways too long or delivered in unrefrigerated trucks, is figured into the contracts between winemaker and supplier. It's a fact of doing business that the industry has dealt with for centuries. But never more so than now, and folks are blaming the cork producers.

"The biggest loss is the customer who might not order [or purchase] that wine again," Hemer says. "The sad truth about corked wines is that the majority of consumers don't ever realize why they don't like a certain bottle of wine. They won't realize that it was the cork that was tainted, and not the Mondavi Fumé Blanc, for example. What they'll remember is that they didn't like the way this wine tasted." He concludes, "Corked wines are the silent killer of the wine industry."

The main reason that we've been popping open a seemingly extraordinary amount of tainted bottles is also industry-inherent. In the early 1990s wine consumption rose drastically (cheers), as did production (hurrahs). But more wineries demanding more corks led to inferior quality being shipped (boos). Factories weren't monitored, the cork harvest wasn't being protected, and conditions were hardly sterile. And because wine is aged, bottled, and then aged some more, we only started to see these bad corks show up in large batches a few years ago (hisses). Most likely we won't notice a reduction of taint until more recent vintages are released -- and that's if indeed the cork industry has managed to clean itself up.

The numbers might support the Portuguese Cork Association's (APCOR) general assertions that TCA-contaminated corks have been reduced enough to achieve an all-time low. In fact a just-released British study suggests the stat is .6 percent. Claudia Falley, who represents Portuguese cork company Amorim, says a perfect cork is only two years away.

Vinocor, also a heavily invested player in the cork market, concurs. Vinocor South plant manager Américo Lopes de Azevedo reports that his company aims "to be 100 percent contamination-free." He credits the industry in general, which he notes "seems to be self-regulating. Everything is computerized. Warehouses are fully automated. Fiber technology can detect bad corks."

In addition to new boiling systems, inclined cement floors to promote sterility and flush out rainwater, and carefully arranged piles of bark to allow for optimal, drying wind-flow, Vinocor even maintains a database to record information about individual piles, which in reality seem as haphazard as crudely oversized Pick-Up Stix. "For each pile it is necessary to report the source of the raw material, the week, the date [of harvest] -- we maintain this information to guarantee and identify raw material," he says. "In this way, it is possible to link [a batch of] bad cork to a particular farm." Eliminate problems like yellow stain and insect infestation at the source and troubleshoot with standardized manufacturing practices, the inference is, there's no way not to provide a risk-free product.

Unfortunately the public won't see those projected pristine corks in domestic bottles until at least 2006 -- and that's if the two-year prediction pans out, and they're exported in time to cap the 2004/5 releases with them. That gives Stelvin screwcaps a good three years to make a national impact, an extremely concrete possibility given the 80,000 cases of just-released Bonny Doon wines, for one example. Our domestic distributors, like Nanci Rosenfeld, who works for Prestige, seem ecstatic about the possibility. "As someone who sells Bonny Doon wines, who has just introduced a screwcap for their Big House Red and Big House White Wines, I think that screwcaps are brilliant. It's great for picnics, parties, boats, romantic beach walks.... [And] with Florida being the first market to get them, we have the honor of starting the trend."

Frankly I think the very nature of Portugal will allow screwcap proponents plenty of time to establish precedence. While generous and well-intentioned, the Portuguese often have a disturbing problem with estimations. If they tell you it takes two hours to have dinner somewhere, double it. If they figure it's about a hundred miles to a destination, triple it. You can't even believe them when they say they have 200 or so recipes for bacalão (salt cod) -- after only four days in the country, it seemed like they had exponentially more on hand.

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.

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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