No matter where you stand on the great debate over corks—love ’em, hate ’em, or still undecided—To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance and the Battle for the Wine Bottle (Scribner, 2007, $26), by George M. Taber, gives the subject a timely and thorough examination.
It’s too bad Taber couldn’t be the judge and jury on this case and help the wine industry solve one of its most vexing headaches, that of how best to seal its bottles. His book gives all three of the major closures, cork, plastic and twist-offs, their due, pros and cons. But none of them emerges as the clear winner.
Taber traces the history of cork, the traditional stopper that for a long time performed admirably, serving both winemakers and wine drinkers. But cork also has a dark side: It too often comes with an insidious taint—TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole)—that can ruin a wine's aromas and flavors, though it poses no health hazard. This chemical compound has been around for centuries but suddenly began to show up in wines in the 1980s in the nastiest of ways. Taber’s history of the "discovery" of TCA is one of the best parts of his book, and it’s at times like this that his reporter's curiosity and tenacity for getting to the bottom of a tricky matter gives his writing detail and clarity.
TCA forms when chlorine, mold and plant phenols interact, and it is one of the most intense substances in the world. It is said that one tablespoon of TCA could spoil all the wine in America, a staggering thought. As little as one part per trillion of TCA in a wine--a level that some people can detect--is the equivalent of one second in 320 centuries, another amazing consideration.
Most wine drinkers know all too well how often good wine is spoiled by bad corks. The exact figure isn’t known, but billions of dollars' worth of wine are estimated to be lost each year to cork taint. Still, diehard cork lovers insist that the "pop" of removal is music to their ears and are willing to forgive cork's shortcoming. Though with cork's failure rate estimated in Taber's book to be between 3 and 5 percent of all wines (I think it’s closer to 7 percent), it’s easy to see why competitors arose.
Synthetics entered the picture at about the same time that cork taint escalated. Producers thought they could break cork's monopoly on wine closures—and they did—before they ran into their own problems, which Taber describes.
Twist-offs, which have been around for decades but have been largely associated with cheap wines, seemed a viable alternative, and many wineries abandoned cork and sealed their wines with them. In New Zealand, 95 percent of the country's wines have twisties. But screw caps have issues as well, and we need more research about how well wines will age under that seal before rendering a final verdict.
Taber has marshaled an impressive amount of information, and organized it clearly. Much of the book presents highly technical information, but Taber is a good storyteller and the book reads and flows easily. I don’t find it as compelling as his first book, The Judgment of Paris, which told the story of a 1976 tasting in which American wines bested French classics. That’s mainly because the material doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of human-interest storylines. And it’s hard to root for one of the three closure candidates.
Taber, who worked for Time magazine for many years, is an experienced journalist; he aims for balance and mostly remains an objective observer. At times, he does seem to tilt toward tradition and cork, yet he acknowledges it’s an imperfect seal.
What’s still troubling is that the wine industry has failed to find a way to seal its precious product. Many wine drinkers are willing to defend cork with passion. Fortunately, there are enough producers and consumers who are fed up with cork and recognize that what matters most is protecting what’s in the bottle.
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — October 10, 2007 9:05pm ET
Kevin Lewis — Baltimore,MD — October 10, 2007 11:00pm ET
Eric P Guido — New York, NY — October 12, 2007 8:18am ET
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