Six years after Randall Grahm, the owner of Bonny Doon winery, held an elaborate mock funeral in New York City to celebrate the death of the cork, many people still refuse to accept screw caps. Others don’t even seem to understand them: I once met someone who tried to open a screw cap with a corkscrew. But screw caps are popping up on more and more bottles as wineries look for alternatives to the good old cork. Which leads us to ask, Is the cork really dead? Should it be?
The biggest problem with cork is its susceptibility to contamination by a chemical known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a.k.a. TCA, a.k.a. “cork taint.” Wines so tainted are referred to as being “corked,” and they smell and taste kind of like old tennis shoes. Estimates of how many total bottles of wine are corked vary from 2 to 10 percent. That’s not much if you’re just a casual wine drinker, but if you’re in the business, one corked wine is one too many. The amount of corkiness a particular bottle may show varies, and some people seem to be better at detecting it than others, so if you’re happily drinking a wine and someone pronounces it corked, don’t feel too bad. It won’t hurt you, but know that the next bottle will taste much better.
Four’s a crowd: Will the screw cap and the glass stopper and the Zork soon make the cork obsolete?
Faulty corks can also leak, letting in air and causing the wine to oxidize. Proponents of cork claim that minute seepage of air is crucial to wine’s ability to age properly, something that won’t happen with airtight screw caps. This, however, is debatable, as studies have shown that wine ages anaerobically and that a properly fitting cork is airtight. The jury is still out on this one, but common sense tells us that the precise purpose of any closure is to keep air out and wine in.
Enter the screw cap. Screw caps mean no more corked wines, and they won’t dry out, crack, or otherwise let in oxygen. The biggest downside to screw caps is what I call “hobo-taint.” Many wine drinkers turn their noses up at what they presume indicates inferior wine. This is absurd. A few seconds’ reflection is all that’s needed to realize that how a wine is packaged has no logical connection to its quality. A rose by any other name, etcetera etcetera.
But is cork dead? Not yet. There are people out there giving renewed attention to cork quality, including the development of TCA-free corks. And there’s the image question to consider. Despite the introduction of a few cool looking alterna-closures like the Zork and the glass stopper, the cork has at least one advantage that’s very au courant: It’s green, baby! Cork comes from the bark of living cork trees, about six million acres of which grow worldwide. Every nine years, the bark is stripped off and then grows back. Cork is sustainable, renewable and recyclable. Not so the screw cap. And without the wine industry, those cork trees might very well be lost.
So, despite Randall Grahm, don’t write off the cork just yet. In 2002, as word was spreading that cork was dead, the Portuguese cork industry started fighting back. According to a Wines & Vines article from that year, the Cork Information Bureau (go ahead and laugh) started sending “international wine journalists on cork-focused trips to Portugal.” That’s right, cork junkets. See how glamorous this job is!