Barking Up the Right Tree

By Mark Stock

The oldest cork tree in the world was planted six years before the French Revolution. In 1861, when America battled itself in the bitter Civil War, this tree was a sprightly 78. In 1940, when France fell to the invading German army, it was 157. Today, at a stunning 227, this Portuguese oak, otherwise known as "The Whistler," is still producing the bark with which we plug our bottles.

Thanks to careful management, this towering giant of the Portuguese countryside may live to see 300. Yet, much of the Mediterranean basin where these trees reside is endangered, jeopardizing not only job security for thousands of European cork industry laborers, but also the health of our shared environment.

For too long, the cork story has been boiled down to traditionalism versus contemporary; or cork bottle stoppers versus aluminum screw caps. And while caps have proven their worth in preserving wines (whites especially), we tend to forget about the cost of creation and disposal. Enter Patrick Spencer of Cork ReHarvest.

Spencer's recycling project came about while at Willamette Valley Vineyards. He and Shelby Zadow, Willamette Valley's former marketing coordinator, developed the idea, and before long, industry leaders caught on.

But when the world's largest cork producer, Amorium of Portugal, began their own version of the project, "ReCork by Amorium," Spencer started to ask questions about its sustainability. Why were they spending so much energy shipping corks back to Portugal for processing? And why was the ground-up cork being sent to further locals before being repurposed in shoes?

Spencer created ReHarvest in response, developing a local base at Oregon's capital for a global issue. He teamed up with Western Pulp in Corvallis, where corks are sent and processed - with recycled newspaper - from raw material into wine shippers. And while Spencer admits having cork in our landfills isn't entirely problematic (given their carbon dioxide absorption abilities), his project ensures the future of cork by giving it new life.

Natural cork, found in most wine bottles, is biodegradable. It is, after all, the bark of a certain species of oak. Some 20 billion corks are produced a year, in and around the cork oak forests of Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and parts of Northern Africa.

When a healthy tree reaches the age of 25, its bark can be stripped every nine to 12 years. This is done by hand and does not harm the tree. Environmentally, the only real damage comes in the form of shaping and shipping. One could also argue that supporting the cork harvest in turn aids the production of glass bottles, a carbon dioxide-spilling practice of notable concern.

However, the quest for aluminum is a hazardous one. While some European countries recycle the common Stelvin screw caps, the U.S. does not. More importantly, the process of creating aluminum involves extensive mining, considerable factory emissions and a host of damaging chemicals, to say nothing about artificial cork production and the unfriendly side effects of the rubber industry. 

Spencer's Cork ReHarvest continues to build momentum. At the moment, all 292 Whole Foods Markets feature a cork recycling station. He has also just received verbal agreements from some of America's biggest chefs, such as Mario Batali and Bobby Flay, who would extend his recycling program to their restaurants.

At this rate, The Whistler will live to see the triple-century mark and know that its valuable bark may live just as long, in some form or another.


For more information about ReHarvest, visit 

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.


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