Cork makers are spending millions of dollars to ensure their product doesn't taint wine.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

Spoiled wine? Peter Weber can tell you all about it. The director of the Cork Quality Council is quick to admit that cork can be tainted and bruise the taste of the wine it’s supposed to protect. That’s why his group helped come up with a method to find tainted cork using technology that puts the human taste buds to shame.

What worries him is the potential presence of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), a fungus-created compound that invades cork fiber and can ruin wine. With ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, Calif., his group developed a system that can detect TCA in levels as tiny as one part in a trillion, far below what even the most refined human senses can catch.

The system, now used by most cork sellers in the United States, checks imported corks to ensure they are clean of taint and ready to be used. U.S. sellers also convinced their European counterparts to test cork as it’s produced and immediately send word if a batch is found tainted. They hope to ensure standards on both sides of the Atlantic. If a cork harvester won’t play along, their access to the U.S. market can quickly shrivel. “We’re seeing more places that have good corks now and fewer that have bad corks,” says Weber. “We’re trying to provide good clean corks.”

'The system is working'
Synthetic corks and metal screw caps have made big inroads into the wine business, pushing market share for traditional corks below 50 percent, by some estimates. But natural cork makers — who have the benefit and burden of reproducing a product that’s hundreds of years old — aren’t going without a fight.

They are quick to note their product’s biodegradable nature and to challenge claims that the world’s cork supply is running out. They point out that spoiled wine can come from a variety of factors, not just cork. Excess air, sunlight or exposure to chemical compounds can also ruin a good wine.

The Portuguese association of cork producers known as Apcor has spent over $2 million on cork taint research and millions more on a media blitz. Amorim, the world’s largest wine cork producer and perhaps Apcor’s most influential member, is spending another $5 million a year in research and development costs, all meant to improve their production process and to guarantee their corks are clean.

Wineries are also taking a role, with the cork industry pushing winemakers to test cork quality before they place them in bottles. It’s all meant to create a quality chain and to leave cork’s supporters confident that the new methods will keep taint out of wine bottles.

“We’ve seen tremendous reductions in this compound in the last several years,” says Jack Squires, vice president of Amorim Cork America. “It’s giving us some faith that the system is working.”

The weight of history
If synthetics and screw caps have amassed some solid science on their side, corks truly have tradition on theirs. Cork fans proudly point out that the world’s best wines have been using cork for over three centuries, and cork’s natural image not only echoes the natural image of wine but also evokes a certain sense of history and civility. “People clearly aren’t drinking wine to have the newest gadget around,” says Weber.

In the top end of the market, cork’s history holds even more sway; many wine makers simply won’t leave tradition behind. Hogue Cellars, based in Prosser, Wash., is hardly wedded to the old: It uses synthetic corks and has experimented with metal closures. But winemaker Co Dinn still uses natural corks in his best wines, which retail for about $30 a bottle. Dinn continues to test the other options, but he’s willing to side with tradition until science can prove otherwise.

“Wine’s such a long-term proposition,” he says, “that you don’t know how it’s going to react until you put the wine in the bottle and put the cork in and have tracked it for a long period of time.”

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Eyeing the future
Still, many insist the real issue is what’s in the bottle — not the packaging on the outside. “I can guess that 10 years from now we won’t be using cork,” says Robert Smiley, a University of California wine economist who favors metal closures like screw caps. “It’s not a quality solution to the long-run problem.”

In fact, fans of the new closures note some disadvantages of cork that have nothing to do with tainted wine. While traditional corks require wine to be laid horizontally for storage (the wine forms a liquid seal against the cork and keeps air from seeping in), bottles with synthetics and screw caps can be stored upright, which saves space on the retail shelf. And winemakers like Dinn are beginning to find out how the new closures work over a longer period. St. Francis Winery and Vineyard in Santa Rosa, Calif., for example, has used synthetic corks in its wines for over a decade, while an Australian study is comparing closures over a 10-year period.

Beyond that, the cork issue may be simply one of volume. While many wine makers are bound to tradition when it comes to their best wines — reds that need to be aged, for example — most wine is meant to be consumed within a year or two.

And some wine fans simply don’t want to take chances. While the worst cases of cork taint are unmistakable, many bottles are only slightly impacted — enough to make the wine taste wrong, but not enough for a consumer to gag. In particular, sommeliers often worry they won’t catch a slightly tainted bottle and will serve it to customers who may drink it but think they got lousy advice. “If they don’t send it back, then I look like a jerk,” says Jake Kosseff, wine and spirits director at Seattle’s Cascadia Restaurant.

Striving for perfection
The natural cork industry hopes its one-in-a-trillion standard will ease those concerns. And wine experts are starting to see a drastic drop in the number of bottles that are spoiled. For those who have been reluctant to try the new options, the quality improvements come at a crucial time.

“It’s getting better. It’s definitely getting better,” says Virginia Phillip, master sommelier at Palm Beach’s Breakers hotel. “Down the road, the best closure is going to be the cork.”

Others question whether the entire matter has been overblown. “If there was that much tainted wine in the marketplace,” says Michael Aaron, chairman of New York wine retailer Sherry-Lehmann, “then most of us would have been bankrupted years ago.”

Yet natural cork makers are quick to acknowledge the problem of corked wine, and they believe they’ve finally wrestled it down to its roots. They also admit that tradition won’t save their businesses and argue they’ve become what Weber calls “a modern industry with an old product.” For that matter, they note, most of those changes were made without without raising their prices to their customers.

“Money has been spent on the research, the improvements have been made, and we’re seeing results now,” says Phelps.

A lot of wine sellers and consumers seem to agree, though synthetics and screw tops have already made inroads into the market that seem unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Still, the fight to eliminate tainted wine will continue as wine makers find new flaws and ask new questions. How much taint, for example, can be present before a bottle of wine is ruined? No one knows.

“The perfect closure has not been invented yet,” notes Robert Anderson of synthetic cork maker Supreme Corq.

But the wine industry is certainly trying.

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