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!