Screwed not Corked

“The rumors of my death” Mark Twain wrote, “are exaggerated.”  I wonder if the same is true about wine bottles and the corks that seal them?


Fine wine comes in a bottle and is sealed with a cork – this long been a given of the world of wine, but things are changing very rapidly.  I wonder what the Wine Wall at your supermarket will look like in ten or fifteen years? Will there still be bottles and corks?  Or is the death of wine tradition over-stated.

Corks seem headed for the endangered species list for all but the most precious age-worthy wines.  Non-cork closures including screwcaps were nearly invisible just 10 years ago (with perhaps 1 percent of the bottled wine market), but this is changing quickly.  A report in Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly suggests that about 35 percent of wine bottles–  over 2.5 billion units — had non-cork closures in 2007, including about 90 percent of New Zealand’s wine production.

Screwcaps have long been associated with inexpensive wine, but this too is changing.  The August 2008 issue of Decanter magazine features an article titled “50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps.”  Ten wine critics including Steven Spurrier and Linda Murphy recommend wines for summer drinking and comment on both the products and their screw tops.  “The screwcap closure is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime,” according to Spurrier (the organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting.

“Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or a cork, I’d choose the screwcap every time,” writes Joanna Simon, The Sunday Times wine writer. It’s a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, especially coming from Decanter. Economics is behind the move away from cork. Screwcaps are not remarkably cheaper than cork, but they avoid the loss of good wine to cork taint, generally estimated to affect about three percent of cork-closed wines. That’s a cost that winemakers would like to avoid.  But it can get much worse than three percent in individual cases George Taber wrote about a much worse situation in his great book To Cork or Not to Cork. A shipment of tainted cork almost ruined the David Bruce winery some years ago and destroyed forever the reputation of its Chardonnay wines. It had to rebuild (successfully) as a Pinot Noir maker.

Big Bag, Big Box

Don’t throw away your corkscrews yet – bottle and cork won’t disappear over night.  But the screwcap is replacing cork and the familiar glass bottle, well it’s under attack, too. As much as 30 percent of the 20 billion liters of wine sold this year will come in a non-bottle package – a bag-in-box “cask,” TetraPak “juice box” or something else. Economics is driving this change, as well.

Bag-in-box casks are cheap and efficient, and so we have come to expect very inexpesive wines to be sold this way, in 3-liter or 5-liter containers.  Think Franzia and Peter Vella.  The bag-in-box system is even used in international wine trade, but on a bigger scale.  Bulk wine shipments increasingly arrive in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 24,000 liters of wine in a single seamless bladder called a Flexitank. Wow, that’s really bag in box!

But it’s not just the cost of the container itself that is at work here.  Bottles are heavy to ship and costly to recycle. Rising transportation costs and increasing concern about carbon footprint are pushing the industry to look very closely at alternative packaging systems.

A French company is leading the way on this front, and I am not sure whether to be surprised or not. France is generally associated with resistance to innovation and change – picture the rebel José Bové torching a McDonalds in protest of its encroachment on French life and cuisine. On the other hand the France is home to many of the most dynamic multinational corporations – including two of the world’s five largest wine companies – and the country has a huge interest in the wine business, given that it is still the largest producer. So perhaps it just makes sense that they are innovators in this field.

What’s French for Entrepreneur?

The producer I’m talking about is Boisset Family Estates, which makes fine wines such as Louis Bernard in France and DeLoach here in the United States. Boisset seems to be pushing the envelope, selling a €150 screwcapped Chambertin as well as affordable TetraPak French Rabbit wines.  I wrote about French Rabbit in my earlier post, Red, White and Green All Over.

I think we will be seeing more and more wine in non-traditional packages — screwcaps, casks, plastic bottles and so forth.  Cost, quality and environmental concerns are all pointing in the same direction for  wines that are sold for everyday consumption.  Hmmm.  Maybe the days of the wine cork really are numbered.  Great — my cork collection may finally be worth something!

Put a Cork in It?

To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science and the Battle for the Wine Bottle by George M. Taber. Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Former Time writer and editor George Taber was the only reporter present at the famous 1976 Paris wine tasting where California wines showed that they could compete with the great wines of France. He wrote about this event and its implications is his wonderful 2005 book The Judgment of Paris, which was named best wine book of the year by Decanter magazine.

The 1976 tasting is one of those defining moments, when a great many forces, issues and personalities came together to change the way we think about the world of wine,. This book is about another defining moment, but a completely quotidian one: the moment when you open the bottle. It’s something we do every day. That moment also connects us with some powerful personalities and a complex set of scientific, economic and psychological issues, which Taber explains in a way that makes this a wine-nerd book that will be read and enjoyed by a wider audience than just people like you and me. (Admit it, you must be a bit of a wine nerd to be reading this blog.)

There are all sorts of ways to keep wine in and air out of a container: natural corks, composite cork stoppers, screw caps with tin liners, screw caps with plastic liners, plastic corks of many types, elegant glass stoppers and practical soda pop crown caps. And this is only for wine in glass bottles: you can also package wine in aluminum cans, juice boxes, plastic soda bottles and bag-in-box “casks.” Sealing the 20 billion bottles of wine that will be produced this year is a $4 billion business.

I learned a lot from this book. There is no best way to seal wine, there are only better ways under different circumstances with different trade-offs. Natural cork-sealed wines age and develop in the bottle, can be “corked” or suffer from TCA contamination. Plastic corks usually won’t contaminate the wine, but they don’t always seal tightly over time, so the wine can be oxidized after a couple of years. Screw caps are TCA-free, but they, can seal too tightly, with the result that the wine can suffer sulfur reduction, which gives it a rubbery or rotten egg smell, and screw cap wine can fail to develop as it ages. No matter what stopper winemakers use, they can never be sure that the wine they put in will be the wine that you pour out.

You might think that global wine market competition would have produced a “best practice” solution for wine closures, but the market is too complicated and diverse for that. The science may be universal, but the people (both producers and consumers the the middlemen in between) have their own quirks. In France, for example, it is hard to sell a screw top wine, at least for now, because of the strong attachment to tradition. I can appreciate this. I have friends who get great pleasure from the ritual use of elaborate corkscrews. Screwcaps leave them cold.

In Great Britain, on the other hand, it is apparently getting somewhat harder to find a natural cork in a popularly-priced wine because the supermarket buyers, who wield such market power, are strongly biased in favor of plastic and screw top closures. Like many in the business, they have been burned too many times by problems they associate with bad corks. Here in the United States there is some evidence of the market bifurcating, with plastic and screw tops for wines bought for early consumption (under $20) and high quality corks for expensive and age-worthy bottles.

Taber ends his book with an indirect commentary on wine globalization, which is worth noting here given this blog’s theme. Finding a solution to the wine closure dilemma is a worldwide problem and the 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!