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'Cork Wars' Are Stopping Up the Wine Industry

Hate those new plastic wine corks? So do many environmentalists, who say that eco-friendly cork farming is under attack from the plastic industry, supermarket chains and the likes of Bill Gates.
 
 
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The rarefied world of wine enthusiasts is all so very civilized. Public spats simply are not done. Name-calling and hair-pulling are the sole province of beer drinkers (the swine).

Well, until recently. These days, golden goblets and long-stemmed flutes alike are roiling with turbulence. The unseemly bickering centers on an unlikely lightning rod: the wine cork.

An odd group of wine enthusiasts, supermarket chains, the plastic industry and the likes of Bill Gates have declared the death of cork. In opposition, a hodge-podge of pro-cork interests -- ranging from wine purists to environmentalists to subsistence farmers to the government of Portugal -- are rallying to cork's defense. Or, to frame it as the combatants have: the greedy, lying anti-cork jihad bent on destroying the habitat of endangered species against the greedy, lying natural cork crusaders bent on destroying the world's finest wines. Let's just say there is very little middle ground here.

It all stems from an affliction, found in both the expensive varietals and the cheap table wines, called "cork taint." A "corked" wine, according to experts, tastes cardboardy, "cheesy," musty, or flat. But no one is really sure how or why some corks become tainted. The taint itself can be traced to a chemical called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which gets into the cork somewhere along the production line, and then reacts with the wine. Some speculate that the chemical is left over from excessive pesticides use by cork farmers in the 1960s and 1970s; others say it is from sloppy use of chlorine "washes" to disinfect the corks before they are shipped to bottlers; another theory has the source as a byproduct of a fungus found in cork bark. In any case, trace TCA is a common environmental pollutant not limited to cork, but that's where it's creating the biggest problems.

A rather vocal segment of the wine connoisseur crowd insists that natural cork wine stoppers tainted with TCA are responsible for anywhere from two percent to ten percent of all wine bottles being spoiled. Winemakers lose money every year to cork taint; supermarkets also suffer when consumers return bad wine, or stop buying wine after a bad-cork experience. Consumers -- most of whom don't bother returning a corked bottle to a retailer or a vintner -- also certainly lose. So, too, do natural cork manufacturers who, in at least one case, have been sued for spoilage caused by cork taint.

Some winemakers and wine experts say the only solution to the problem is to phase out natural cork, and replace it with synthetic bottle stoppers made of plastic or even screwcaps (like the one on that bottle of cheapo white zinfandel in your fridge). The eccentric Bonny Doon boutique winery near Santa Cruz, Calif. now plugs every single one of its bottles with synthetic corks. Just last year a major Napa Valley winemaker, PlumpJack Vineyards (co-owned by billionaire Gordon Getty and San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom) sealed its entire 1997 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon ($135 a bottle) with metal screwtops. Dozens of wineries in Australia and new Zealand quickly followed suit.

The creeping acceptance of plastic corks, however, is more than a matter of wine quality; it may spell the end for several endangered species of animals, as well as an ancient way of life in Spain and Portugal, where most cork is grown.

Cork oak forests on the Iberian peninsula constitute some of the very last remaining habitat of the endangered Iberian lynx and Imperial eagle. Led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK, the pro-cork environmental faction claims that if plastic corks gain much of a foothold in the market -- and at this rate it seems inevitable that they will -- the price of natural cork will plummet and the cork oak forests will fall into disuse, and likely be replaced with less ecologically sound timber plantations, such as pine or eucalyptus, or by housing developments and theme parks.

The environmentalists -- with enthusiastic support from cork farmers and the government of Portugal -- further claim that cork farming is one of the very few remaining industrial farming endeavors which is truly sustainable. To harvest cork, the bark is stripped off the tree just once every nine years. A cork oak generally lives for 150-200 years on an active plantation. Farmers here have passed down their tradition for centuries, and now face having nothing to pass on to the next generation.

Besides, say natural cork's defenders, cork taint is too poorly understood to be pinned on cork farmers. The plastic cork companies are simply trying to create a scandal where there is none. And it is no coincidence, they say, that the plastic industry in America is behind the push to replace cork. Almost all synthetic bottle stoppers are produced in the US, and the top gun in the multi-million-dollar industry is a Seattle-area private firm called Supremecorq, which is rumored to have Microsoft monopolist Bill Gates as its star investor. A consortium of California wine makers is backing Neocork, a plastic cork research and development group headed up by Dow Chemical Company (makers of Agent Orange, pesticides and PVC plastics).

On the other side, plastic cork enthusiasts say this is all a disinformation campaign by greedy cork farmers who brought the problem upon themselves. They say the declining quality of natural cork is due to overstripping of trees and indiscriminate use of pesticides and disinfectants by cork farmers and cork manufacturers.

So who's right? It's almost impossible to be sure. What we can be certain of is that the plastic cork manufacturers won a major coup in convincing two of the biggest grocery chains in Britain -- Safeway Incs UK and Marks & Spencer -- to institute the natural cork ban. Britain is the single largest importer of wine in the world, so when its wine merchants say jump, vintners the world over ask how high. Since the rule was adopted, plastic stoppers have surged in use; these days, about one in 20 bottles of wine is bunged with a synthetic stopper or a screwtop; in the UK the number is closer to one in three.

But the plastic cork makers also may have gotten too cocky with their victory: When customers at UK grocers complained about the plastic corks they were finding in their bottles of Bordeaux, they received form letters in response chock-a-block with falsehoods about corks and cork taint. A spokesman for Safeway told one complaining customer that the chain had switched because Portuguese cork farmers were "greedy," overstripping trees hazing wild pigs in the cork forests, and generally raping the landscape. He added that plastic corks would actually help save the world's cork forests.

Opponents say this is a disinformation campaign orchestrated by US multinationals who have taken UK grocers for a ride. Cork forestry expert Dr. Luis Palma, for example, says it is physically impossible to overstrip a cork oak. "The regular stripping of cork oaks improves the vigor of the trees," he told the Lisbon Observer. "The bark will not come off if it is not ready, so it is impossible to strip too often." Geoffrey Kelly of the Portuguese Cork Association says that Safeway's claim to be saving cork forests with plastic stoppers is counterintuitive. "The main threat to the survival of the cork forests of Portugal comes from the supermarket groups such as Safeway. By forcing wine producers to use plastic instead of natural cork stoppers, the supermarkets are removing the main economic benefit that sustains the forests and encourages more trees to be planted."

Marks & Spencer was also caught misleading at least one customer who complained. A letter from the company to a consumer in Norfolk, obtained by the Alentejo (Portugal) Guardian, falsely claimed that natural cork infests wine with bacteria (in fact, "cork taint" is a chemical phenomenon of indeterminate origins), and that cork farming is environmentally unsound because cork trees must be cut down (they don't).

In addition, some wine experts say the "cork taint" issue as whole is a red herring, and that many wines identified as "corked" are in fact suffering from oxidation, storage problems, bacterial or fungal infections in aging barrels, or other factors unrelated to TCA. Sometimes, a bad bottle of wine is just a bad bottle of wine. Furthermore, TCA -- a common environmental pollutant -- has been detected in plastic-stoppered and screwcapped wines, as well as bottled water. In other words, the natural cork may be an unlucky scapegoat.

And plastic stoppers and screwcaps can, according to who you ask, also create their own problems. Detractors say plastic stoppers can impart a plasticky flavor to wine, or that they do not let wine breathe enough to age properly, or conversely, that they let wines breath too much, and cause a kind of spoilage called oxidation. But maybe the biggest and most practical knock on plastic corks is that they are next to impossible to get back into the bottle once they're out. Most plastic corks are also non-biodegradable and non-recyclable.

And of course there is the "experience" argument; the prospect of opening a nice bottle of pinot noir by twisting off a cap makes the stiff upper lips of more than a few wine snobs quiver. Even for casual wine drinkers, something feels wrong when you open a wine bottle and don't get the satisfying "thok" as the stopper comes out, when you can't smell that cork. And what of tradition? It was the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon who first used cork to close his bottles of sparkling wine in the 17th century (before that, wine makers used oiled rags).

But, says New Zealand vintner Michael Brajkovich (who switched to screwcaps from cork last year), the wine experience has nothing to do with the makeup of its closure. He told the online newsletter CorkWatch, "To us, the romance of wine arises from the sensual pleasure of its aromas, flavors and textures, not from the smelly piece of bark inserted in the bottle neck."

Brooke Shelby Biggs (brooke@anitaroddick.com) is a freelance writer and editor of AnitaRoddick.com.