I recently read an eye-opening report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which purported that wineries switching from corks to screw caps (and other alternative closures) are profoundly impacting the environment. It's not what you think, though. We're not helping the environment by switching away from cork closures. It turns out that we're not using enough cork to sustain the economies of cork-producing countries, or the biodiversity of the cork forests.
Here's how it works. The bark is stripped from oak trees to produce corks, and the bark completely regenerates every decade or so. The trees aren't ever cut down. However, if wineries don't use corks, there's less reason to strip the bark. Which means fewer jobs. And the forests are no longer maintained (maybe even ripped out to grow different agricultural or forestry products), throwing those ecosystems out of whack.
The report claims that nearly 30,000 families in Europe and North Africa are employed by the cork industry, and that if wine-closure trends continue, in the next 10 to 15 years, three-quarters of the current cork oak forest area--roughly 2.4 million to 5 million acres--could disappear, taking not only jobs, but rare birds, plants and other species along with them. Thankfully, the WWF has a solution. It recommends at the end of the report that the wine industry "demonstrate its corporate responsibility by considering the environmental and socioeconomic values of cork--by choosing cork and promoting its use among customers."
If I recall correctly, the reason wineries started switching away from corks was because they don't do a consistently good job of sealing and preserving a bottle of wine. Corks are linked to a significant rate of oxidation and/or cork taint. So asking wineries to embrace a faulty product and hurt their own businesses--and perhaps ultimately have their vineyards paved over for construction of condos--is just not reasonable. What if, for example, the ecosystems of North Carolina and Virginia were at risk due to decreases in smoking, forcing tobacco farmers to rip out their plants? Should we call on kids to smoke more cigarettes? C'mon, kids! Fire up a Camel. Every cigarette you smoke helps restore nature's balance!
OK, so maybe that's a bit drastic. And I certainly appreciate where the WWF is coming from, since I don't want to see people lose their jobs or threatened species lose their homes either. However, even though the cork industry has made significant advancements over the years at improving quality, corks are still miles behind screw caps in terms of consistency and reliability. I can't blame wineries for switching to screw caps to protect the quality of their own product. So what should we do?
First of all, the cork industry needs to stop wasting the millions they're spending every year on marketing to convince wineries and consumers that cork is better. Because it just isn't. More than a dozen studies dating back to the 1970s in Europe and the '80s in Australia have shown it, as well as the fact that wines age properly under screw cap. It's like trying to tell us that a Pinto is better than a Porsche.
Those marketing dollars should go into researching alternative uses for cork, and promoting those. Just a quick look at the cork industry's Web site (apcor.com) shows that cork can be used for a variety of building and construction tasks, not to mention as roofing, exteriors or flooring. Cork is even fire resistant, and can be used as energy-saving insulation. There's also a new application that uses cork to clean building exteriors that suffer from environmental pollution. And there could be hundreds of other applications that have never been examined or considered.
There are many wineries that will probably never switch to alternative closures, namely the top European producers. So for the moment, let's hope that a significant number of cork forests are safe. To keep them from shrinking, though, we need to find--and exploit--the best possible uses for cork. Because sealing a wine bottle just isn't one of them.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions