There are many truisms in business. “Build a Better Mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” Is a time honored, and honorable truism that is oddly enough credited to the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Create a need, and then fill it”…yeah, time honored, but not so honorable.
This is what comes to mind whenever someone asks my opinion about wine bottle closures. How do I feel about “alternative” closures like synthetic cork, Zork or screw-caps? I hate them. I hate them all (no, really, Mark…how do you feel?). They are, today, in my mind, a solution looking for a problem. And not a very good solution at that. In fact, ultimately, a “solution” that creates more problems than it purports to solve.
What problem does “alternative” closures seek to solve? What “need” has been created? As recently as 2005 Wine Spectator Magazine had reported that no less than 7% of all the wines they had received as samples showed some sign of “cork taint”, a condition that at its least robs a wine of its distinctiveness, at worst gives you a wine that tastes like wet cardboard. Yikes! No wonder the mad rush to metal and plastic closures! Hang on! Before you take the pledge to only buy screw-cap bottles, let’s get “The Rest of the Story”.
Cork taint is caused by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (also known as TCA). Until recently (last 10 year or so), all we knew was that a certain level of this compound existed in wine corks. It wasn’t until very recently that wine cork manufacturers determined that it wasn’t so much the cork itself that was responsible for TCA, it was the chlorine that was widely used for cleaning and sterilizing cork that caused most of the TCA issues. The answer – use something other than chlorine, like steam. Problem mostly resolved. Current research indicates that cork taint is still an issue with between .7-1.2% of wines sealed with cork. But just how much of an issue?
Additional research indicates that 99% of the population can detect TCA at levels of 200-300 parts per million. One of Wine Spectator’s reviewers is reputed to be able to detect wine with TCA at 2-3 ppm. To which I respond…so what if some critic has superhuman powers. I don’t…you probably don’t. If it can’t be detected, just how much of a problem is it?
But hey, why not screw-caps and/or plastic? Especially if it reduces the potential of cork taint to 0%. In life there are trade-offs. As a winemaker, I want to provide my customers with the best possible wine I can, while maintaining as much philosophical integrity as I can. Of the various wine closures available, only cork is 100% renewable, 100% biodegradable, and uses a lot less petroleum products than plastic. Additionally, cork forests are unique bio-systems that thrive in regions that are inhospitable to most forms of agriculture. If cork farmers can’t feed their families growing cork, they will cut those forests down and graze cows or sheep. Finally, if more locally produced economic activity is desirable (I think it is), then the equation becomes simple. What would you rather have in your backyard – a cork forest, an aluminum smelting plant or an oil refinery?