Corks

When it comes to closures, the media is a powerful thing…

There has been a rigid dichotomy between the views of the ideal wine closure for longer than you think. The screwcap as we know it has been in existence for five decades but the Behemoth multi-million dollar marketing machine that is the cork industry remains: the funding figures larger, and elaborate campaigns more prolific than ever. Despite trials, research and practice quashing the propounded downfalls of the screwcap over the years – one major misconception being that wines cannot age under screwcap, there is still an unremitting one-sided battle. The screwcap producers remain passive, while the cork industry campaigns with bellicosity.

The reluctant, chiefly unconvinced mass of consumers and winemakers who fail to see the detriment the antiquated cork closure causes to their wine are fueled by the cork industry’s propaganda and misinformation. Cork persists, preserving the fear of change and illiberalism in wine. Isn’t the wine industry meant to be progressive?

Cork taint remains a conspicuous issue, whether it be TCA taint or simple contamination by leached cork or wood flavour into the wine. The incidence of taint is inarguable as it depends upon individual TCA detection levels. No magic percentage can be placed on contamination rates of wine under cork – some experienced hands in the industry voice they see as many as 1 in 3 bottles affected by cork closures. The damage becomes more apparent when you know the wine intimately. In recent times the rebuttal about cork taint has fallen quiet. Instead there’s a new regime, and every ounce of energy is going into it….

You would not have been able to avoid the cork industry’s most recent attempt to preserve their imperiled closure division. It’s pervasive, morally questionable and ultimately inaccurate. It turns on the in vogue theme of environmental conservation, made interesting by the odd health scare thrown in here and there.

“I love natural cork” and “100% Cork” are preached taglines of movements that embody one branch of a €20 million Portugese government and cork industry funded campaign. Appealing only emotively and hitting hard on environmental ethics the campaign (in its various regional forms) states that cork is the greenest and best closure available, damning the rest. One glance at the headlines promoted here seem entirely catastrophic for screwcap and alternative closures.

The foundational basis of the campaign is a study on the ‘greenness’ of cork closures and their touted quality of being the ‘ONLY’ all-natural and totally recyclable wine closure. But what is not considered by the study’s originator, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (evidently commissioned by the largest cork producer Amorim in October 2008), is the fact that nearly every single cork closed wine bottle is actually encased in a tin or polylaminate capsule. Can you imagine the devastating effect this has on the environment? It is essentially two closures for one bottle: the outermost layer being necessary to hide the bark cork inside. This forms a necessary part of the closure so must be included in the calculation of environmental impact.

The weight of these capsules are heavier than screwcaps, adding to the carbon footprint of shipping. This is before even considering the cork’s necessarily larger area required in the shipping container, relative to the screwcap. The tin or polylaminate cover is not only hiding the bark cork inside the bottle, but is ensuring people do not sort through the stock to find the best looking cork, leaving faulty-looking ones behind. As this potentially poses a huge problem for the producer and retailer, the capsule becomes indispensable. It is the capsule that essentially comprises what the entirety of the screwcap is. And yet we are still told cork closures are greener?

None of the wine wastage caused by defective corks is counted in the campaign’s environmental tally, and it is alluded to that somehow the cork harvesting is essential to the biodiversity of the cork forests. It is a direct attack mounted at the screwcap and alternative closure industry, having the realization that cork can no longer ‘win’ on a technical basis for performance.

These little oopsies aside, you cannot help but wonder how frustrating it must be for those wine producers who have adopted the modern screwcap closure by choice, as they must field spurious accusations from those dogmatic proponents of the cork industry, and bust myths about both closures personally. Reiterating the exasperating ordeal – the cork industry rallies while the screwcap industry lies quiet.

This information imbalance confuses us as consumers as we struggle with our artificially manufactured environmental conscience and health paranoia. In turn the invented campaign liberates wine producers who use cork, giving them arguments and sponsored data that is implied to be independent to use in support of their continued cork consumption. The other plus for the cork industry is that this campaign gives journalists something to write about. It’s an edgy, neon-light headline that guarantees a print-run, and it’s aimed at journalists who are not going to check their facts.

It is important to understand the effect the cork industry is having on this discussion, in a philosophical mindset. Do you ask yourself the same “is this green enough?” question when purchasing your Coca-Cola, jar of jam or bottle of water? I suspect not – though these items are frequently made out of the same material as screwcaps. All these everyday items have evolved, adopting modern closures because they are more effective than the antiquated cork. I guarantee that if you were to seal your water bottle with a cork you would get a very distinctive and unpleasant musty, woody taint. I encourage you to try this for yourself, then think about what it is doing to every bottle of wine sealed this way.

Even though corks are biodegradable, they are still sitting in landfills taking up space. But while no one can deny screw caps are not doing the same, contrary to what is circulated, they ARE readily recyclable. Screwcap producers however need to get their act together and unify with a solution to enable simple recycling of aluminum screwcaps. Aluminum is a recycling avenue which is already well established, unlike that of cork which needs an entirely separate channel.

“This is not a philosophical fight; it is sadly one where marketing funding rules supreme.”

The €20 million figure of funding is not exhaustive, for a vast amount of money has been spent by privately-held companies in recent years to promote the virtues of its product. This is not a philosophical fight; it is sadly one where marketing funding rules supreme.

It is a battle that is rearing its head now more than ever. It is conspicuous in marketing strategies of the main cork entities, who utilise state and fame to promote cork on these unfounded principles. One example is APCOR’s recruitment of the UK’s Lord David Puttnam to act as a spokesman. And who could forget Jilly Goolden, another ‘cork spokesperson’, straddling a giant cork in London in 2010 in an apparent bid by the cork industry to focus on the UK. Amorim opines the UK are a ‘poorly informed market’, yet their marketing strategy here has morphed into something purely emotive – appealing to ‘traditionalism’ and ‘environmentalism’ to garner support for the closure. I would suggest that the UK are quite the opposite – they are one of the leading informed wine markets in the world.

Aside from insinuating that buying screwcaps is killing the planet, the industry has also claimed that screwcaps cause cancer, and most recently clearly aims to align itself with the movement of ‘natural wines’ – which could not be further away from the ideal closure for proclaimed zero SO2 addition wines. In fact, screwcap is the best closure option for these types of wines due to its low-oxygen transmission rates. But again this is a nonsensical philosophy issue, and another story.

Essentially this environmental tact is a very simple but unfounded argument being propagated by the cork industry because they have failed in every other aspect of performance relative to the screwcap. It is one that promulgates that cork is the best closure because it is better for the environment and better for you – however it is an argument that is simplified to the point of inaccuracy, the product of crucial oversights and desperation due to losing market share.

Non-Conflict Statement: I have no interest in any company directly associated or related to the closure industries, nor any relationship with persons involved in the closure industries.