Natural Cork vs Alternative Closure Wars: Race to the [Wine Bottle] Top

At the end of my review of To Cork or Not to Cork, George Taber’s informative 2007 survey of the wine bottle closure wars, I vented some frustration. Not with the book, which is great, but with the closures themselves. Taber taught me that no wine bottle closure was perfect, although he had high hopes that competition among closure producers would make the future brighter. Here’s the conclusion of my 2007 column.

[Taber writes that]  … finding a solution to the wine closure dilemma is a worldwide problem and global market competition is forcing the stopper makers to innovate and make better and better closures and forcing winemakers to get better, too, since they can no longer automatically blame any flaws in their wines on bad corks. “Unfettered competition,” he writes, “remains a powerful driving force for good.”

I think Taber is right, but for now I’m just standing here in the basement, looking with suspicion at the wine in my little cellar, trying to guess what is going on beneath the lids. Having read Taber’s book, I now know enough to be anxious about each and every bottle!

A Wealth of  Closure Choices

Eight years have passed and the closure wars continue. Perhaps the single most-asked question when I speak to consumer groups is about what’s at the top of the bottle, not the contents. “What do you think of screw-caps?”  Well, what should I think?

The question continues to haunt the wine industry. Recently two U.S. wine industry monthlies featured cover stories on the closure wars. “Alternative Closures Go Upscale” was the headline on the May 2015 issue of Wine & Vines. while the June issue of Wine Business Monthly featured their 2015 “Closure Survey Report.”

Jane Firstenfeld’s Wines & Vines article “Unconventional Toppers for Top-Shelf Wines” takes the form of a series of brief interviews with premium winemakers who report their use of screw-cap closures (including Van Duzer, Chehalem, Meoimi, Silverado and Sonoma-Cutrer) or synthetic closures (Schug and Eberle).

The article gives a sense of the great variety of alternative closures available (gone are the days of one-size fits all) and the research and trials necessary to assure the best possible fit between wine, winemaker and closure. It’s a good piece of reporting if you have a dog in this fight!

Natural Cork is #1. So are Synthetic Closures. Discuss.

Curtis Phillips presents the results of the Wine Business Monthly survey of winery closure use in his article “Natural Closures Rated Highest.” One colorful graph caught my eye — it showed the results of the survey for five years where respondents were asked which closures they used for their $14-$25 red wines? Options (more than one choice allowed) started with natural cork and moved on to technical cork, synthetic closures, screw caps and an “other,” category that includes Zork and Vino-Seal.

The graph suggests that natural cork is used by about 50% of the wineries surveyed, down from nearly 70% a few years ago. Technical cork is shown rising from about 20% to 30%, while ynthetic closures are roughly stable at a little more than 10% and screw caps are shown rising from about 10% to 30%.

The devil is in the details in surveys like this and to their credit WBM provides details that clarify the picture. The unit of analysis for the survey is the winery whether it is big or small, which changes up the conclusions you might otherwise draw.

Many more wineries use natural cork, but many more bottles of wine here in the U.S. are sealed by synthetic closures. The 10% of wineries that use the synthetics such as Nomacorc include some boutiques (Oregon’s Ken Wright Cellars, for example) and some giants (Gallo), so that about half of all wine bottled in the U.S. comes with a synthetic closure even though only about 10% of wineries surveyed use it.

There is more to the WBM story than this, of course. Winery respondents were asked to give their ratings of closure alternatives and the result is a rising tide — all of the closures were rated higher than they were a few years ago. When it comes to quality in wine closures, the trend seems to be up and up.

Creative Destruction in the Closure World

This did not surprise me because closure manufacturers keep me well-supplied with press releases about their newest innovations and I have been impressed with the way that they have responded to criticisms and invested in improved technology giving wineries higher quality and greater choice. There has also been something of a shakeout taking place over the years, with some producers dropping out of the market, increasing the scale of the others, which further increases the return to new investment.

The race to the top is true for natural cork, as Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus made sure I appreciated when I met with them in Porto last year.  Natural cork producers made a terrible mistake when they did not recognize problems in past years, and they paid a high price in lost market share as a result, Amorim told me.

But better consistency, higher technical quality and strong consumer acceptance makes natural cork a competitor in every market, he said. And of course better natural corks force the other closure makers to raise their game, too. Winemakers and wine consumers certainly gain.

If there’s one area where cork closures would seem to have an unavoidable disadvantage over screw-caps, however, it would be convenience. Screw caps are just easier to handle and, with rising technical quality, that would seem to give it a big advantage in some markets at least. Even wine guru Hugh Johnson thinks so. His  May 2015 column in Decanter magazine proclaimed that “I am faintly irritated now when I come to open a bottle of wine and find I need a corkscrew.” Gosh! The screw-cap is “incomparably better” than natural cork, he says.

Do the Twist — Like This!

Well, Amorim doesn’t want to lose Hugh Johnson’s business (or anyone else’s) so last year they released a screw-cork closure called Helix.  That’s right — screw-cork (see the image above). The cork and specially-made bottle are designed so that the cork screws into (and out of) the bottle slick as can be.

Screw-cork? Amazing.Probably not as important in the grand scheme of things as the technical improvements in cork production at Amorim, but still a great example of how innovation occurs even in centuries-old industries like cork closures.  Is this an example of Taber’s idea that unfettered competition is a driving force for for good? When it comes to closures, it sure seems to be true. Here’s to the race to the top!

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7 responses

  1. Has anyone looked into the environmental impact of screw-cap et.al? I was just thinking, could this turn into a “K-Cup” dilemma where an innovative product that serves a great purpose has a dirty underbelly of millions of non-decomposing plastics piling up in landfills. As millennial consumers interested in sustainability increase in age and spending capacity, do you think they will push the market back toward a natural cork that decomposes and can be grown?

    • That’s a good question, Phil, and I have seen it argued from both sides. The good news is that all closure makers that I know are striving to reduce their environmental footprint. This comes in response to wineries who are now taking environmental stewardship seriously.

  2. Great article! I’ve followed Taber’s writings on closure for years. He has always been very balanced and cuts through a lot of the misinformation about natural corks and talks about some of the imperfections with the other closures that claim to be ‘perfect.’

    I know many winemakers and they all strive to make the ‘greatest’ wine and all want to make sure it is safe in the bottle they put it in. Some turned to screw tops with great fanfare just be to disappointed and quietly returned to natural cork. But I wonder what if the perfect container is found someday and it turns out to be a Tetra Pak or some other newly discovered, but odd looking, container? Would customers accept it?

    Imagine you are at a restaurant and the waiter rips the corner of a Tetra Pak and presents it to you to smell. And yes I have had waiters present me with a screw-top to examine or ‘smell.”

    It will be very interesting to see what wine containers will look like 20 years from now. Will the wine aisle at your local store look the same? Or be vastly different? Will cork we gone? Or still be the first choice of most wineries. Only time will tell.

  3. Great post! I’ve always found anything George Taber writes compelling as well as insightful. Your comments regarding closures choices for the wine industry are also well researched and knowledgeable. (I’m signing up to subscribe to your blog.)

    Today there are many more questions to consider when choosing a stopper for a bottle of wine. I’m still all for natural cork and I think cork producers have made great strides in identifying TCA at a very early stage in the production cycle so that contaminated product can be eliminated before the cork is used to finish a wine. And there’s certainly something to be said for technical corks, but I think there’s real concern among environmentally conscious winemakers regarding metal screwcaps … I liked Phil Ogilvie’s reference to the “K-Cup” dilemma; it’s a real challenge.

    Thanks again!

  4. Mike, as always your post are stimulating. Other than the very clever gimmick used by Plumpjack does anyone know of an iconic red wine that doesn’t use cork. The reason there isn’t one, I submit, is one of the most important and least attended aspects of wine. Wine is ceremonial. So much so that it s the only commercial consumer package good that can not only sit on the table of a 5 star restaurant or the most formal of home dinners but actually help dress the table. Like the elegant Japanese tea ceremony when you change the way it is presented you alter the joy. The convenience of tea bags is a good analogy for screw caps. Now understand, I too use screw caps for the less ceremonial wines I make, but it does sadden me to do so. A scientist once told me that someday they will be able to take the DNA of a First Growth wine and synthesize it into a capsule that you add to a class of water and it will taste the same… I’m sure he’s right but i hope i never see it. Does everyone know that while the screw caps costs pennies a good cork can cost over $.75 each.

    • Allen, do not be saddened to use a screw cap where appropriate. I am overjoyed when I can grab a Riesling on a hot summer night, twist the cap, and pour into my GoVino while listening to music in the park in downtown Napa on Friday nights. Traditionally ceremonial? Perhaps not, but ceremonial in its own right. Cheers!

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for this post. This is an informative article about wine closures. Full disclosure, I work for Nomacorc, and we close 2.5 billion bottles of wine globally.

    In the comments, Allen Shoup asked the questions, “Does anyone know any iconic wines that don’t use natural cork”? Last year, Wine Enthusiast judged 17,500 wines from around the world and picked Ken Wrights Pinot (Abbot Claim) as the #1 wine. It was purchased off the shelf for the test and sells for about $100 if you can find it. It is closed by Nomacorc’s Select Series cork not a natural cork because Ken was fed up with wine faults like TCA, breaking and crumbling. Nomacorc closes a lot of award-winning, premium wines as well as millions of everyday wines too.

    Closures have emerged as an interesting topic in the trade, and there is lots of innovation. Like the closure you mention in your post, Nomacorc has a new cork made primarily from sugar cane called Select Bio that is causing a bit of a revolution within the wineries. Imagine taking the best from the earth and using 21st-century technology to engineer the most consistent closure to protect the brand equity, as well as the wine. We agree that innovations in the industry is the key to delivering better quality and satisfaction to the consumer, and we welcome the competition.

    But the fact is clear that most consumers, for most occasions only care about drinking the wine. They don’t really care about the closure unless it is faulty from TCA (taint), off smells from glue, breaking, crumbling, etc. Consumers want to drink wine and don’t sit around talking about the cork (or closure). This is based on numerous consumer studies from lots of companies that I am happy to share if anyone is interested.

    Thanks again for the chance to comment. I always learn something from your writing.

    Jeffrey Slater
    Director of Global Marketing
    Nomacorc

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