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Is Cork Still The Top Topper? Amid Image, Function and Environmental Concerns, Debate over Wine Closures Continues

Posted on  | August 1, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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To uncork, or to unscrew? That is a question that continues to stir up waves in the wine industry. As cork taint prompted many winemakers to explore alternative closures in the 1990s, screwcaps and synthetic corks have became more widespread. The impact was certainly felt: Between 2000 and 2005, the global demand for wine corks dropped about 20%, according to a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report. But factors such as environmental impact, the aging of wine under screwcap, branding and consumer attitudes are reshaping the conversation, and the $4 billion closure market remains divided.

Overall, cork still reigns. And according to Peter Weber of the Cork Quality Council, cork is on the rise. “We’ve seen a pretty solid increase in the percentage of cork finished wines in the ‘premium’ segment of domestic production. For us, that is wine brands averaging over $6,” he says. The council asserts sales for the 4-week period ending January 7, 2012, showed the highest percent of business mix in favor of cork closures seen during a two-year survey of sales by closure.  The 2012 figure was 62%; over the same period in 2010 it was 53%.

There are several levels of natural cork and the price depends on the type of cork. Cork is recyclable and biodegradable as well as a renewable resource; the outer bark is stripped from cork oak trees and regenerates without damage to the tree. Cork taint, however, remains a problem. And while many factors can contribute to it, cork usually takes the blame.

Sir George Fistonich, founder and owner of Villa Maria Estates in New Zealand, notes that their move to screwcap was directly related to cork taint. “The decision to seal all Villa Maria wines with screwcaps was made in 2001 as an estimated 1.4 billion bottles of wine globally were ruined by cork taint each year at the time; [it was] a risk to wine quality that we were no longer prepared to tolerate,” he says.

Perhaps even more significantly, Villa Maria had plenty of company in abandoning cork. The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, launched in 2001, boasted 50+ members. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cork-finished New Zealand wine in the U.S. Fistonich has had nothing but positive experiences with screwcaps, including aging. He says, “Numerous comparison tastings of aged wines sealed with screwcap versus cork highlighted the inconsistency of wines aging under cork, with oxidation and cork-taint being the main issues. Screwcaps remove these variables, ensuring consistency and quality of our wines.”


Synthetic cork producers also point to cork taint. “The average rate of cork taint is still around 3%,” says Jeff Slater, global director of marketing for Nomacorc. “The oxidation or reduction issue is another 3%, so that’s an almost 6% failure rate. What industry accepts a 6% failure rate?” Nomacorc, a synthetic cork producer, accounts for more than half of the world’s synthetic closure market; as of May 2010 more than one in ten 750ml wine bottles sold worldwide were sealed with a Nomacorc. Started in 2000 by a Belgian entrepreneur and wine lover, the firm’s recyclable “corc” is made from a low-density LTDE plastic, used in milk cartons and dry cleaning bags. Ultimately Slater accepts that cork will remain the dominant closure. “People still like the romance and ceremony of opening the bottle,” he says.

Glass stoppers are a newer entry to the closure arena. The glass stopper is sealed with resin and is recyclable, and the price is similar to a top-quality natural cork. While common in Germany and Austria, the 2003 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa was the first wine in the world to be sealed with the Alcoa Vino Seal (also known as Vino Lok), and the winery continues to use what they call “glass corks.” Calera Wine Co. of Hollister, CA, also uses the Vino Seal for some of their bottlings.

One of the latest additions to the cork-alternative lineup is the Zork closure from Australia. Invented in 2002, the Zork is made of polyethylene and has a round top with a short stopper plunger that can be pulled out by hand, avoiding the need for a corkscrew. It’s 100 percent recyclable and reusable; the company also touts the “pop” that the closure gives off when opened. The cost is comparable to screwcaps, according to the manufacturer, and the Zork can be applied using standard bottling equipment with some part adjustments. (The Zork SPK closure, for sparkling wines, was released in 2010, but has not yet reached the U.S.)

In 2009 Don Sebastiani & Sons of Sonoma, became the first American wine producer to use the Zork, for their Project Paso wines, and in 2012 they will close about 3 million bottles of Project Paso and Pepperwood Grove wines with the Zork, according to Donny Sebastiani, president and CEO of Don Sebastiani & Sons. “The cost is more or less a push,” says Sebastiani. “The decision to move to Zork was based on offering unique benefits to the consumer, not on saving costs. It’s better than cork because first, there is no potential for cork taint; second, it’s easier to open and reseal; third, it does not require a corkscrew to open; and fourth, it doesn’t break or crumble.”


One new aspect of the cork issue in the past five years is the green marketing movement. Environmental awareness among consumers has been growing and “green strategies” are common among corporations. As backlash against cork grew, the cork industry began an eco-friendly marketing campaign in 2010, funded by the Portuguese government, Portuguese Cork Council and the Cork Quality Council. In 2009 the Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council began recognizing wineries that use cork from “responsibly managed” cork forests.

But the environment doesn’t seem to be a major factor for winemakers, nor does cost. The cost of mid-range natural corks and synthetics are relatively comparable, and screwcaps are less expensive than both after the initial investment in a screwcap bottling machine, says Co Dinn, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars in Washington State. For most, winemaker opinion and marketing strategy are the deciding factors in choice of closure.

After facing problems with natural cork in the ’80s and ’90s, Hogue started using synthetic corks in 1997. However, says Dinn, “We found over time we saw premature aging, oxidation, and difficulty with extraction.” So in 2001 Hogue put together a study to compare cork and screwcap and tasted the wines for three years. “It became apparent that screwcaps were best for our wine, both red and whites,” says Dinn. Dinn has no regrets about Hogue’s  decision to replace the synthetic corks with screwcaps beginning with the 2004 vintage.

For Lisa Ehrlich, VP of marketing for Purple Wine Company in California, the closure decision is a mix of environmental and marketing considerations, and cork dominates. About 5 to 8 percent of their approximately 1 million case production is under screwcap and the remaining production is closed with natural cork. “The price/value ratio for cork is great and it seems like the corks we use are incredibly reliable,” says Ehrlich. “We get really good feedback from our trade customers. One of the key pieces is that our trade customers aren’t asking for synthetics. We tend to listen to distributors and key retailers and how things are working for them.” But Ehrlich would consider synthetic corks for certain brands. “If I had a project that I thought synthetics would work for—to do a color or something fun—then I would request it,” she says.


Consumer attitude towards alternative closures is starting to shift, as well. A 2012 study by Merrill Research and Nomacorc of core wine consumers (defined as drinking one bottle per week, and representing 93 percent of all wine purchases) showed a more open attitude toward other closures. The research showed that the type of closure is not driving their purchase; the difference in closure performance is not well understood; wines under screwcap are seen as cheap wine; and natural cork is seen as appropriate for a “special” wine.

But the Cork Quality Council points to a 2011 study conducted by Sensory & Consumer Insights which found that when asked how likely they would be to purchase wine according to closure type, 94% of consumers surveyed indicated they would be more likely to purchase wine with a natural cork, 72% said they would purchase wines with a synthetic closure, and only 45% indicated a willingness to buy wines with screwcaps.

It’s not just American producers confronting the pros and cons of various closures. The acceptance of screwcaps in Australia rivals that of New Zealand. Interestingly, Penfolds of Australia announced in May that they would offer a choice of cork or screwcap (previously their entire production except Grange was under screwcap), citing damaged wine being returned from export markets.

While alternative closures are a welcome option for New World producers, many Old World wine regions remain committed to cork, and some are prohibited from using anything but. For example, by law, Italy’s DOC wines must be sealed with cork. One high-profile Burgundy producer to make a shift, Domaine Laroche, has bottled its Chablis wines for the U.S. market under screwcap since the 2003 vintage, and has been tracking aging variation of the wines.


On-premise reaction to non-cork closures seems to depend on the type of customer being served. Elli Benchimol, beverage director for Chef Geoff’s, with four locations in the Washington, D.C. area, sees different reactions depending on restaurant location. “The D.C. customers are mostly students and theater-goers and are super open. We offer some very fun, eclectic by-the-glass offerings and I love screwcaps,” says Benchimol. “If I am choosing between two wines for my by-the-glass program of equal quality and price, I will take the screwcap over the cork closure in a second. It saves crucial time for my bartenders at the service bar and that’s a hospitality issue.” But at another location, with more sophisticated clients, Benchimol sees more resistance. “The baby-boomer generation, those approaching retirement, and those getting into wine as collectors still have the view that Stelvin closures mean that a wine is cheap,” she says. “It’s not the case, but it isn’t our job as sommeliers to correct them, but onlyto enlighten through tastings and special offerings.”

Retailers are seeing mixed reactions to non-cork closures. For Jim Barr, retail wine specialist at K&L Wine Merchants in California, there is little customer pushback. K&L reaches over 500,000 customers in the U.S. “We are seeing a much more sophisticated clientele then the average wine and spirits store. But when closures like the screwcap and the glass stopper from Germany first started there was some questioning,” says Barr. “But the vast majority of the customers we sell wine to are totally accepting. In fact, they like the screwcap and are tired of bringing back corked wine.” Barr says corked wine is still “a major problem.”

Dan Amatuzzi, wine director at EATaly in New York City, sees his customers asking about the various closures. “We teach a lot of classes and that is definitely the most common question. People are curious about which closures are better or worse,” says Amatuzzi. “People are looking for answers and the problem is there are no answers.” EATaly collects and donates natural corks to local artists. “We like to bring awareness to cork and the environmental benefits of it,” says Amatuzzi.

Bob Calamia, wine buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago, thinks acceptance of closures depends on the consumer. “No one comes in and asks for screwcaps; they either understand and accept it or they don’t,” says Calamia. “There is resistance to it in certain segments and with certain customers. For those that buy wine less frequently there is still the ‘cheap’ stigma.” Calamia adds that wines bought as a gift are almost always finished with cork.

While the closure debate rages on, the science behind the closures and the marketing issues seem to be in constant battle. “A lot of producers are reluctant to risk their brand equity with something new and different,” says Purple Wine Company’s Ehrlich. This will ensure that the closure debate may continue for years to come while consumers get more educated or until the results of the wine studies—especially when it comes to aging wine—give more definitive answers.


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