All Screwed Up: The Wine Closure Debate Stagnates

Corks vs Screw Caps Pic

Cork vs Screw Cap: Where do you stand?

Hearing the intro to a radio show segment last week on NPR’s All Things Considered regarding the screw cap revolution had my ears perked way up. I have been an advocate of this handsome alternative to the traditional cork closure on wine bottles since its emergence on more serious wines, circa 2000, and was excited to hear how many more had joined my camp. But apparently my reasons for screw cap allegiance differ in theme from that of my fellow allies, and miss the mark entirely when considering the arguments conjured up by my cork-loyal adversaries.

You see, that radio segment that began on a note of eager anticipation ultimately disappointed me. As it meandered through all the predictable reservations people have with screw caps (their association with cheap jug wine, the loss of elegance, the absence of the “pop” sound), and merely touched upon their positive aspects (mainly the convenience factor), it ignored entirely my biggest complaint about natural cork closures— the resulting cork taint.

Mixed Signals

This cork taint, known more formally as TCA— a bacteria that can grow inside the pores of natural corks, it is responsible for decimating the aroma and taste of wines at the rate of 1.5 bottles per case, and growing. Instantly recognizable as a moldy basement/wet cardboard assault on the senses, the wines that exhibit it are referred to as “corked”. The problem is price-indiscriminate, and is the reason why I find myself pouring as many as 5 bottles per month down the drain.

Deborah blogged about this phenomenon on LearnVest back in 2010, wherein she indicated how a high-end Napa Valley producer, who grew tired of their wines becoming flawed by corks, went ahead and put a Stelvin brand screw cap on their hundred-dollar Cabernet. They were aware of the problem, and they were progressive. But from a marketing standpoint, they were taking a huge risk, as it has become clear that the consumer is still somewhat in protest of the cap. This was further highlighted in the NPR segment, when it was demonstrated that even industry people, including a top NYC restaurant wine director, cannot deny the lack of charm in presenting a wine without a conventional cork finish. What they’re clearly ignoring is that the true wine experience has less to do with packaging, and more to do with what ends up in the glass, and on your palate, particularly when you’re spending a sizeable dollar.

Shove a Cork in It

After spending enough time in the retail wine business, I began to deduce that the average consumer is not aware of, or not acutely sensitive to cork taint in the way that industry folk are. The evidence rests in the disproportionally small number of cork taint-related product returns vs. volume sold. For instance, in any given year, the number of corked bottles I personally returned would approximately equal the number returned by all of my customers combined. The conclusion: people are drinking corked wine. Which brings to mind the notion that…if they’re alright with it, why should I try to change them? It’s obviously the passionate perfectionist in me who gets vociferous on the issue, wanting people to get the proper impression when sipping beautiful nectar. But perhaps my argument is fruitless, and should be stuffed back into the bottle to develop more. Furthermore, it could be threatening to the Portuguese cork tree industry and the people whose livelihoods depend upon its prosperity each time I, or anyone else, takes a jab at the product.

What do you think of the NPR coverage, and Deborah’s blog post? And where do you stand in the screw cap/cork/Zork/synth cork/Alcoa glass seal debate? My mind is wide open.

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