More than a few wine producers are just as adamant about not using corks in their wines, and a few are even putting screw caps on bottles of wine in the $150 range. The problem stems from lower cork quality and the disaster of cork contamination.
A nasty little mold called TCA creeps into the cork seemingly from nowhere, but its effect is obvious from the telltale wet-cardboard-in-a-damp-basement smell: The flavor of your wine will be obliterated. Your bottle of wine will be ruined regardless of its cost.
Tainted cork is nothing new, but, depending on which source you ask, it occurs in 3 to 10 percent of all wines bottled. At 3 percent the winery usually sticks with using corks. As contamination gets closer to 10 percent, many wineries switch to using polyurethane closures. These colorful plastic cork substitutes usually ensure quality but do nothing when it comes to helping a wine age. Some wineries use these for their drink-now varieties like Riesling, pinot grigio or chardonnay and use corks for their cabernets.
Then there is that radical group of wineries, ranging from places like Australia, New Zealand and a number in America, that want nothing to do with any form of cork be it polyurethane or the real thing. The latest shipments from Lawson's and Villa Maria, two upscale New Zealand wineries, have switched to screw cap.
But the most outspoken, unabashed, anti-cork winery is Bonny Doon from Santa Cruz, Calif. This is the Che Guevara of the movement. The winery recently held an event in New York City to celebrate "The death of the cork 1585-2002." The eulogy was delivered by no less a wine personage than the famed British writer Jancis Robinson: "How we shall miss thy cylindrical barky majesty ... and your uncomparable squidgness." Having a hugely influential authority like Robinson refer to the cork as a "stink bomb" does make you sit up and wonder.
Bonny Doon is the largest and most influential winery to jump onto the screw-cap bandwagon. Wineries like this one will force restaurants to consider the screw cap. Maybe the easy way out is simply to use their wine as a wine by the glass, thus leaving the pesky screw cap behind the bar.
Wondering how the cork industry was feeling amid the bombast, I contacted Ken Freeze, a public relations person for Cork Manufacturers, a company that distributes corks to wineries throughout the United States. He didn't seem panicky in the least. According to its industry newsletters, cork is still going strong, with plenty of supply and demand. The main thing he stressed was the work being done on the complete removal of cork taint. Still, he implied, those large wineries in California have to do their own internal quality-control tests with every batch of cork they purchase.
As a strong industry spokesperson, he was still advocating a buyer-beware sense to the overall problem of cork quality. "When I go to a winery they can tell me exactly where their grapes come from and exactly who made their barrels," Freeze told me, "but they seldom care about the source of their corks, and many still buy the cheapest." The fact is, 10 years ago there were six cork suppliers in the United States. Today there are 22. "Corks seem to be more of a beauty contest than a quality contest."
When he was asked if he was worried about all of the anti-cork, pro-screw-cap propaganda from Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Winery, he chuckled and said, "He tried polyurethane for a few years and it didn't work. He is a showman who is really great at getting a headline. In three years he will be onto something else."
One thing is certain. There is a quality wine with a screw cap in your future. Polyurethane isn't going away anytime soon either. One question though: Is the problem limited to this country? While working on this story, I thought it would be good to have a glass of fine port. I opened a bottle of tawny only to find the unforgettable smell of cork taint. Seems even the Portuguese aren't safe.