Put a Cork in It

By Nate Traylor

Corks have never been so contentious. On one side, we have wine pros espousing the environmental benefits of natural cork. On the other is a growing segment of bottlers who prefer the quality assurance that synthetic closures provide. 

In an effort to avoid cork taint, which includes strange odors and unpleasant tastes when a chemical called TCA is present in the product—sometimes the result of a faulty cork—winemakers are experimenting with alternative stoppers with varying degrees of success.

Silvan Ridge-Hinman Vineyards near Eugene flirted with plastic plugs to the ire of some customers who found the stoppers difficult to work with. The winery has since switched back to natural cork, using the plastic variety only for its semi-sparkling wine for better carbonation retention.

“We found that [plastic plugs] just didn’t work that well for our means,” said Angela Bennett, tasting room manager.

However, other wineries have reported great success with synthetic plugs and aluminum screw caps.

Benton-Lane Winery was the first in Oregon to finish bottles entirely with screw caps, after making the conversion in 2003.

“We made the decision to convert from corks because we were dissatisfied with how corks change the flavor, color and scent of our wines,” said owner Steve Girard. “With screw caps our wines retain the flavors, aromas and color that we desire and are not tainted by tree bark or TCA.

“The idea of putting a piece of tree bark in the end of a perishable food product may have sounded good to the Romans,” he added, “but it just doesn’t make sense now that we have better alternatives.”

Girard is following an industry-wide trend that may put a cap on corks forever, or at least that’s what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) fears.

Cork oak forests produce more than 15 billion cork plugs each year, according to the WWF. But as the wine industry makes the rapid shift toward alternative closures, the conservation organization estimates as little as 5 percent of bottles will be plugged with natural cork by 2015. If the trend isn’t curtailed, the WWF estimates that three-quarters of the western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within 10 years, as a result of desertification, fires and other environmental threats that accompany neglect.

There is also significant socio-economic value attached to cork oak landscapes. According to the WWF, some 100,000 people in the Mediterranean depend on cork forests for their livelihood.

The push for more eco-conscious bottling practices is certainly having an influence on some Oregon wineries.

“Those cork forests are really important. When you look at the number of species of birds and other plants and animals that live there, it’s an amazing ecosystem and it’s in jeopardy,” said Patrick Spencer, spokesperson for Willamette Valley Vineyards near Salem.

The vineyard is the first in the world to achieve certification from the Rainforest Alliance for its strict use of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified corks.

Harvesting cork leaves very little behind in the way of a carbon footprint. Cork trees aren’t mowed down by machines; only the bark is harvested using non-mechanized hand tools. In fact, a cork tree harvested of its bark will absorb significantly more CO2 than an unharvested cork tree, says Spencer.

Compare cork harvesting to the mining of aluminum and creation of synthetic materials used for alternative stoppers and it’s obvious which method of closure has the green upper hand, he says.

And when it comes to recycling, cork also scores high marks. Recycled cork plugs find life anew as flooring, insulation, shoe soles and other applications.

Willamette Valley Vineyards is one of several wineries making efforts to keep recyclable cork plugs out of the landfill. Its Cork ReHarvest program, in conjunction with Whole Foods Market and the Rainforest Alliance, is helping “put a cork in global warming,” according to its website. Whole Foods Markets in Oregon and Washington serve as drop-off points for customers to discard their used corks. From there, the plugs are transported to Western Pulp Products in Corvallis, where they are used in the production of molded wine shippers made with 97-percent recycled fiber.

Similarly, Silvan Ridge-Hinman Vineyards collects used corks for ReCORK America, an organization that facilitates new uses for tossed-away plugs.

But not everyone is buying into the cause.

“I am not surprised that the cork suppliers are trying anything to sell corks, including laying the guilt on the wineries for the obsolescence of their cork forests,” said Girard. “That’s OK by me. I love what screw caps have done to the freshness of my wines.”

Other winemakers are simply sticking with tradition.

“The old guys knew something,” said Ann Root, owner of EdenVale Winery in Medford. “I love the thought of some traditions staying put.”

Nate Traylor is a reporter for The World in Coos Bay.

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