Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Myth in the Making

Before I begin, indulge me this mini-rant against the misuse of a word that makes me crazy: shutting down a military base is a closing; the thing that caps a bottle is a closure, about which I am now going to talk.

~Tina Caputo writes and edits for the trade magazine Wines and Vines, located in San Rafael, California. Ms. Caputo recently wrote a brief story about the time she and a few of the magazine’s staff went out to a local restaurant for lunch.
~Instead of a cork the bottle of wine the group had ordered was capped with a twist or screw cap, the kind that you see on soda pop, juice, and other bottles. Being in the trade, the magazine crowd wasn’t surprised by the screw cap itself, they have been made quite aware of a move in the wine world toward the bottle closure. Still, they were surprised that the restaurant served wine that way without anyone saying anything to them in advance—knowing that most people think that only cheap wines are screw-capped, most restaurants are afraid to serve wines packaged that way.
~Someone in the group made mention of the screw cap and, overhearing it, the waiter quickly went into explanation mode. He explained that the cork tree is becoming extinct and so wine producers are being forced against their better judgment to use the screw cap.
~As I read Ms. Caputo’s retelling of the event I imagined the start of a new telephone game. By the time that waiter’s explanation is passed along to a number of people it likely will end up sounding as if global warming has been killing off the cork trees and so the federal government has mandated that all wine producers abandon the use of cork and switch to the environmentally friendly screw cap, and pay a separate tax for the privilege (adding the tax thing would give the rumor a certain sense of reality).
~I’m not sure if the screw cap is environmentally friendly, but I do know that, while it isn’t exactly flourishing the way it once did, the cork tree is still with us, mostly in Portugal. What the tree is doing with certainty, however, is providing a problem for wine producers, one that is estimated to ruin anywhere from 5% to 8% of all wines produced. Moreover, cork bark sanitizing is behind the ruined wine.

The sanitation of cork bark often includes chlorine. Unfortunately, it’s been discovered that the interaction between chlorine and cork creates conditions for the development and growth of a compound, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). TCA is believed to also naturally affect cork bark as the result of air pollutants. Either way, by air pollutants or by sanitizing with chlorine, when TCA meets with airborne fungi, the result can be a decidedly ruined cork that smells like wet cardboard, a smell that infiltrates the wine inside the bottle.

~It doesn’t always happen, but wine ruined by the cork happens enough for wine producers to want to change course.
~The first change was for producers to turn to plastic. You’ve seen those colorful plastic stoppers shaped like cork and supposedly handled the way cork is handled, with a corkscrew for extraction. Aside from a few early technical problems that ruined some wine, the plastic things often prove challenging to those of us who want to get to the wine. I personally have had the neck of a bottle break off in my hands as I tried to pry the plastic stopper out. I have also had some plastic stoppers refuse to give me back my cork after I had successfully managed to get them out of the bottle without breaking glass.
~The screw cap had proved itself a long, long time ago. Today, a lot of people are betting on it to fix the cork problem. Both the Australian and New Zealand wine industries have made a major commitment to the screw cap. They started using it on lower end wines but have since been using it to close bottles of their best products, and now the trend is growing in Europe and in the Americas.
~Throughout history, every advance has produced its detractors; the screw cap has its share and they are mainly in the form of traditionalists.

For perspective on tradition, wine is about 8,000 years old. The cork has been used to cap wine bottles for about 400 years. Before cork, the tradition was to use rags, a layer of olive oil, or wax to seal wine in its amphora. I know by reading history that cork was used to cap pharmaceutical bottles in Europe well before the wine industry accepted its use for wine bottles.

~There are those who love the popping of the cork. To them, opening a bottle of wine is ritual and romance. But when we open a bottle of wine many of us aren’t tied to ritual and many of us don’t need the sound of a cork to supply us with romance. We just want the wine that is inside the bottle. So, I summarily dismiss that particular tradition.
~There are those who believe that the cork is essential to the wine’s aging process. Now this has been a traditional belief for some time, probably ever since the cork was first used as a stopper for wine bottles in the 16th-17th centuries, and I admit to having held this belief too. Yet, while there are a lot of theories as to why the cork helps wine age gracefully in the bottle, no definitive scientifically tested mechanism has yet been presented to prove any of them. But this is the main argument used against the screw cap.
~Many anti-screw cap people in the wine industry, including cork manufacturers, claim that the air tight environment of the thing creates problems that the cork does not, but just like the claim that cork helps wine age gracefully, there is no definitive proof to back up this claim against the screw cap.
~Studies continue and people argue while, faced with losing not only 5% to 8% of their product, but also the possibility of losing potential customers who blame the winery for the bad wine, not the cork, more and more producers are putting more and more wine bottles into the marketplace under screw cap and at all price levels.
~It isn’t time yet to believe everything you hear about the screw cap, good or bad, but the next time you sit by candle light, pop the cork and then smell wet cardboard, see if tradition makes either the wine or the evening any better.

Incidentally, the cork industry has been promoting a study that claims another compound—TBA—causes as many wines to go bad as does cork; the claim has been hotly disputed even by people unconvinced that the screw cap is the answer.
This subject is all over the Internet. Start with these sites and then keep searching:

WSA, Corkind, Jancis

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All Rights Reserved

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