Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 19, 2001. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
Here's a tale of frustration: When I was visiting the California wine country last week, I joined a group of friends for dinner at Spiedini, a fine Italian restaurant in Walnut Creek. Everyone brought wine, and there were some fine bottles on the table.
The food was good. The conversation was good. And at first the wine was good. But then vinous chaos broke out! A bottle of fine Burgundy showed a dank, musty, mushroomy stink. Another Burgundy, this one from the Hospices de Beaune, was even worse. We passed the corkscrew to another party, hoping to break the string of bad luck, but it was no use - a Northern Rhone that should have been outstanding, a 1988 Chave Hermitage, was ruined by the same wine- killing affliction: All three fine wines, the treasures of friends' cellars, were "corked" by exposure to the random fungal infestation that creates foul aromas in the affected wine.
Three cork-tainted bottles out of 12 on the table is a little worse than the generally accepted estimate that cork "taint" afflicts 5 percent of all wines stopped with natural cork; but as most wine lovers know, it's not that unusual to hit so many bad corks in a sitting.
And this is why, despite the resistance of traditionalists and heavy lobbying from the cork industry, wine producers are starting to look seriously at alternatives to the natural cork.
Over recent years, "corks" made of synthetic material - some brightly colored, others mimicking the hue of natural cork - have become increasingly commonplace, mostly on inexpensive wines. And last year Plumpjack, a tiny, "boutique" California winery, released a portion of its $100-plus Cabernet in a bottle closed with a metal screwcap, heretofore regarded as the symbol of cheap, poor wine.
Now the pace of change seems to be accelerating, with wineries Down Under taking the lead but many American and European producers not far behind.
Some examples: The giant Australian producer Penfolds put its Bin 2 red wine under screwcaps a couple of years ago for the home and UK markets (although they retained corks for the U.S.), and Riesling producers in the Clare Valley have gone over entirely to the quality Stelvin-brand screwcap. This summer, a group of 27 New Zealand producers announced that they will be using screwcaps exclusively in the future.
During a visit to the Sonoma-Cutrer winery in California this month, wine maker Terry Adams, saying he is "sick of seeing 2 to 5 percent of the winery's production lost to tainted corks," told me that he intends to release the firm's high-end Founders Reserve bottling under screw caps when the 1999 vintage goes to market this spring.
And within the past week, I opened a bottle of very fine Italian white wine (Jermann 1999 Collio Pinot Grigio) and was delighted to find it stoppered with an olive-green synthetic cork; and I noted with interest that a Louis Tete 2001 Beaujolais Nouveau, although fitted with a natural cork for the U.S. market, came in a bottle with threading obviously intended for a screwcap.
The battle will continue, at least for a while. The Portugal-based cork industry is fighting hard to retain its dominance, and as recently as last week issued a press release pledging that two new cork-processing plants under construction will foster "a new generation of wine corks" free of wine-killing taint. The industry's promoters also warn of dire economic and even environmental impacts on Portugal's oak forests if the cork industry dies. And some serious wine collectors worry whether synthetics or screw caps will adequately protect wine in long-term cellaring (although rigorous studies in Australia appear reassuring).
But I'm increasingly convinced that a tipping point is near; and once a critical mass of high-end and respected wineries make the switch, I suspect that we'll see natural cork quietly disappear from the market. After all, it's a 17th century technology being used on a 21st century product - and I can't imagine any other product in which consumers would willingly accept a 5 percent failure rate.