October 3, 2007
What's inside the wine bottle is what counts, of course, but debate continues to rage within the industry over the question of how that bottle should be stoppered. Now, into the fray comes a voice of reason outlining the problems and the challenges that preserving wine poses.
In his new book, "To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science and the Battle for the Wine Bottle" (Scribner, $26), to be released Tuesday, George M. Taber takes on each of the options: natural cork, composite cork, plastic cork, metal screw caps, crown caps (like those on soda or beer bottles), glass tops and even something called the Zork, which is a plastic stopper secured to the bottle by a long "tail" wrapped around the bottle neck.
Cork still dominates the world wine-closure market but Taber notes all these options mean no one product will ever enjoy the monopoly that cork had. At stake are billions of dollars worth of wine, winemaker reputations and, ultimately, money in your wallet.
"During the past fifteen years, the pioneers of plastic corks and screw caps have turned the wine world upside down simply by providing alternatives and opening a much needed discussion about closures," he writes. "It is too early to know where the business will end up, but ... [p]eople now have a choice, and the consumer is king."
Certainly, all these closures seek to answer the age-old question of how to keep wine drinkable once you've made it. But none is flawless and therein lies the trouble that has plagued the wine industry for years.
"I went into it saying there was no such thing as a perfect closure and I came out saying there's no perfect closure," said Taber in a telephone interview from his Block Island home off the coast of Rhode Island. "It's a consumer dilemma that needs to play out."
Imperfect closures are certainly a headache for consumers, especially those who shell out big bucks for wines, store them lovingly for years, and then whip them out at an important occasion only to find the wine DOA -- dead on arrival.
Also stung are the winemakers, who risk losing hard-won reputations on bum bottles. Wine stores and supermarkets have to deal with angry customers returning bottles and demanding repayment. The stores get reimbursed, but what a pain in the neck. And the fortunes of the various closure producers, whose industry now generates some $4 billion annually, ride on how successful their products are.
Cork, the traditional closure used for centuries, is made from the bark of the cork tree, with Portugal the major supplier. Taber concedes there's a certain romance to cork despite the fuss of opening (anyone who has had a cork drop into the bottle or snap in half while it was being extracted understands). Cork failure was always a problem, too, but it seemed manageable until the 1980s when the numbers of tainted cork began to rise dramatically. Scientists identified the culprit as a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloranisole, or TCA for short. This taint is what leaves wine tasting like wet, moldy cardboard. TCA contamination has ruined from 3 to 5 percent of all bottles with cork and spurred the quest to find an alternative.
There have been problems with these other closures. Bottles stopped with plastic corks are very difficult to open. What's worse they can fail, allowing the wine to oxidize with time. Taber puts the problem bluntly: "If a wine with a plastic cork stays around more than a couple of years, it's likely to be oxidized."
Screw caps have proven very popular with some winemakers, especially in New Zealand and Australia, but remain controversial, especially used with red wines destined for long cellaring. That's because airtight screw caps can trigger something called "reduction," which gives wines a sulphury barnyard smell. Screw cap producers are working to create a cap that will replicate the infinitesimal exchange of air allowed by cork, which is vital to the aging process. Winemakers, in turn, are working to make their wines less susceptible to reduction in the bottle. (Howard Silverman of Howard's Wine Cellar said decanting the wine will help dissipate the aroma.)
The cork forces haven't been sitting around either. After years of ignoring the problem, the Portuguese began pouring money into research to save their business. Whether they'll be able to turn out a better cork that lowers the percentage of tainted bottles to an acceptable level remains to be seen.
Taber remains steadfastly neutral on closures, with the possible exception of plastic corks.
"They're not working as well," he said. "Nature is still better than man in making a cork like a cork ... I don't see many redeeming qualities to the plastic cork except lower cost."
Wine industry leaders, however, are decidedly biased one way or the other, especially when it comes to cork versus screw caps. Taber writes that the conflict has become "both emotional and vicious," with much name-calling, finger-pointing and "charges of payoffs ... tossed around like confetti with no supporting evidence."
Taber is well-qualified to tell the story. He was the Time magazine correspondent on the scene in Paris for the 1976 blind tasting that proved American wines could not only hold their own but beat the best of the French. His 2005 book on the tasting, "Judgment of Paris," is the theme for two movies now in preproduction.
What does Taber choose when he goes wine shopping? Depends on what he's looking for -- and that's something all of us should keep in mind. He may have poured an Alsatian riesling bottled under a screw cap for his 40th wedding anniversary recently, but he'd be "personally reluctant" to hold a primo cabernet sauvignon in a screw cap bottle for a decade. In that case, give him a natural cork.
"I will continue to drink wine with both closures," he said, noting there's one thing all in the great closure controversy will agree on.
"I don't think anybody wants wine to become a routine drink," Taber said. "The rituals and the customs all go together in the wine experience and cork is a part of that experience. But you shouldn't risk losing a $200 bottle of wine."