Early last week, I came across this article: ”Put a Cork in It” regarding a new law in Catalonia which effectively outlaws the use of anything but cork for sealing wine bottles. At first, I was stunned, shocked and outraged when I read the article. “How can they do this?” I said to myself while I was picking my jaw up off the floor. For years now the move to alternative closures for wine bottles has been an indicator of wineries who understand the problems and issues which result from using cork. In fact, as witnessed by this lively discussion over at the Wine Bulletin Board eRobertParker.com, my outrage is not an isolated reaction to this news. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the debate, it basically comes down to the issue of Cork Taint or TCA.
Depending on who you ask, 1%-7% of all bottles sealed with a cork exhibit an “off odor” that can ruin a wine as a result of a chemical occasionally found within the cork called TCA. In order to combat this, wine makers for years have looked into cork alternatives such as screw caps, plastic corks, or even special glass enclosures in order to combat this from happening. Fortunately, these alternatives have generally been quite successful. In fact, if you ask any educated wine drinker their opinion regarding cork alternatives, they most likely will agree that the use of cork alternatives for young wines meant to be drunk young, nothing could be better.
To further exemplify my argument, allow me to share an analogy that I used in the States to illustrate my frustration with cork to my customers. Using the 7% figure stated above and a sampling of 50 bottles, approximately 3.5 bottles would either be tainted or undrinkable. Now, let’s use the same figures I just stated with a product other than wine that we consume on a regular basis, such as steaks you might buy from your local butcher. Imagine your having a dinner party where you need to buy 50 steaks; however, 7% of those steaks (between 1-4) will most likely have maggots in them because of un-sterile packing materials. Would you buy them? Do you think the Health Department would allow such a problem to go unchecked, let alone the meat industry? I have a strong feeling that they’d probably find a way to fix it, or at least find a new material to put them in. Come to think of it, I don’t think you would find such a laissez-fair attitude to the problem in any other market – hence exemplifying my confusion at this new law. In all fairness, it does not completely ban alternatives, although all requests to use them must be first approved by the Consejo Regulador, but it does stop wine producers from having the freedom to choose how they want to present their wines.
Elisa Pedro, Director of Communication & International Relations for APCOR, is quoted in the article by saying : “Spanish law makers and wine producers are responding to what wine drinkers the world over have been telling us for a long time — cork is a sign of quality for wine.”
I contacted Elisa and am still waiting to hear back about a time when we can do an interview. I want to find out more about APCOR and what their role in this law might have been. I also want to make it clear that I’m not against cork. What I am against is this idea that cork is the only answer!
To answer the “perception” question laid out by Elisa I emailed an old co-worker of mine, Jason Swanson, from when I sold wine back in the states. I wanted to see what he thinks of cork and what his customers are telling him. Here’s what he had to say:
Do you see a preference between Cork and Screwcaps/Plastic corks when customers are buying similarly priced wines?
First, unless it’s a screwcap or a zork (a type of screwcap type enclosure), a customer never knows it’s an alternative cork until they go to open the wine at home.
Most of my customers embrace the screwcap idea. They understand the problems with corks, and are not going to age the wine, etc. (there are some who believe real cork is needed for a wine to age long term)
The customers that have a problem with the screwcap are those that think high price equals high quality.
I’d say 90% of the time the issue of a alternative closure is not a reason why a customer will not buy a bottle.
Do you see customers moving away from brands that change to alternative closures?
With alternative closures becoming more common, for instance all of my NZ wines are under metal, if you like kiwi sauv blanc you must accept the fact that it’s not going to have a cork.
Does having an alternative closure in your opinion effect sales of a particular wine?
I think that alternative closures would be ideal for white zin, but this is a case where not having a cork presents an image problem. Customers that don’t know what cork taint is, associate screw caps with poor quality, and that’s the white zin demographic.
Same could be said for something like KJ chardonnay, Cavit pinot grigio, and other chateaux cash flow wines in the $10-$20 range. Perceived value at that level is key. You don’t want to give the customer a reason not to buy a wine that’s made to be ubiquitous.
Cork and wine are going to be forever associated. For the peanut gallery and those that don’t necessarily care all that much about wine, the idea of a screw cap wine is a deal breaker.
How often do you see instances of cork taint? Do you think this number is increasing or decreasing?
I haven’t seen much cork taint recently, but it seems to go in spurts. Hard to say if it’s decreasing or not.
From what I gather from his comments, Cork is perceived as representing “quality” for those people who lack education about wine. Honestly, my experience tells me the exact same thing. When I worked at the same chain of stores as Jason, I commonly noticed that people who, over a period of time, found themselves becoming more interested in wine, were also the same people who became more accepting of alternative closures.
On the bright side, I did have the opportunity to talk with one American importer with ties to some of the big wineries in Catalonia who felt that the press overstated the problem a bit. Evidently, while it is a backwards law, there are ways to circumvent it. In fact he stated that “we will be importing 20 to 30K cases into the USA this year under screwcap legally” from Catalonia. I’ll keep on this and see if I can find out any other information about it. On the other hand I suppose we don’t have to panic quite yet.