Just Say No to Corks
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
In the past few years, the cork industry has made a valiant effort to combat the notion that corks themselves are the cause of moldy or musty-tasting wines. Such spoilage, deservedly or not, is called "corkiness" and wine thus contaminated is known as being "corked" or "corky." On the high end, some in the wine industry estimate that corkiness can affect up to 8 percent of bottled wine, or one bottle out of every 12-bottle case.
In my own experience, the range is more like 2 to 3 percent of all wines that pass my lips. What isn't variable is the awful consequences it can have: even incipient corkiness can leave a wine with a dried-out taste and a stinky odor. In full-blown corkiness, the wine smells like ripened sweat clothes and tastes even worse. It is an utterly disgusting aroma that is truly unforgettable, and it doesn't play favorites: corkiness can affect a $5 bottle of mass-produced California white wine just as easily as a $400 bottle of Chateau Petrus (both of which I've had the misfortune of tasting).
Even if 1 percent of a wine's production is corky, the number of total bottles thus spoiled can be impressive. Take, for the sake of argument, the famous first-growth Bordeaux estate Chateau Lafite. In 1994, Lafite made nearly 19,000 cases of wine. If 1 percent of its wines are corky, that amounts to over 2,000 bottles from that vintage.
Where corkiness comes from is a matter of debate. Some claim it comes from the corks, whether naturally or as a byproduct of the manufacturing process by which the bark of the cork oak tree is transformed into a bottle closure. Others, usually in the minority, blame sloppy winemaking or dirty barrels that contaminate the wine before it's ever bottled.
All I know is that I've tasted corky wines made by the most technologically sophisticated vintners as well as the most rustic. Even if only to 1 to 2 percent of wine is classified as corky, and that's what 53 percent of you told us in a recent weekly poll about the wine you drink, that still seems way too much. (It can get worse: in the same poll, 17.6 percent said 2 to 5 percent of wine they had was corky). I can't think of any other consumer product that can get away with a two percent failure rate: a few bad apples some years back almost devastated the Washington apple farmers, while single bad batches of various food products can result in nationwide recalls. True, the rate of corked wines seems to have dropped over the last decade, but what do you think Anheuser-Busch would do if it discovered that one beer bottle out of 50 was spoiled? Let's just say the production staff would suffer a serious turnover.
Granted, corkiness is not a health hazard. And granted, wine is a unique substance that is the product of dynamic chemical and biological processes. Yet there is no scientific reason to justify corks as the primary means for sealing wine bottles. Corks may have been fine in the 19th century when there were no rivals to its unique sealing properties, but not any more.
But what about corks letting wine age properly by allowing just a little air to pass through? Forget about it. Like many other old wives' tales, that notion should be relegated to the dustheap. Oxygen is the enemy of wine. It dulls its flavors, unnaturally ages it, and exposes it to all the pathogens of the outside world. The ultimate result of combining wine and oxygen is vinegar.
But what about the romance of corks? Isn't there something about hearing the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle of wine that sends chills up your spine? I admit that I like the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine at a grandly prepared meal as much as the next person. Or of seeing a sommelier open a bottle of aged Bordeaux recently pulled from a long slumber in a cellar.
Yet I detest buying a bottle of red wine on my way home from work to wash down some pasta and finding it undrinkable. Remember: the overwhelming majority of all wine is drunk the day it is bought. It's a beverage used to complement and enhance the food we eat. Popping the cork in this regard is just not that crucial to the experience. It's not worth the gamble. The same holds for nice meal at a good restaurant. You can always send the bottle back, but it's usually not a pleasant experience.
So it's time to just say no to corks. For those of you who want to hang on to corks, that's fine. Through each era of technological innovation there have been those that have held on to relics of the past for sentimental reasons. I'm sure the vast majority of you out there have a place in your hearts for the allure of train travel, like me. Yet most of you, like me, will travel by plane for speed and efficiency.
What should take the place of the cork? As sacrilegious as this sounds, probably the most logical closure is the screw cap. Synthetic corks are still being tested and developed, thus begging the question: why go to all the trouble? Screw caps have already been used to seal trillions of bottles. They allow no oxygen to pass through to the wine. They provide a sterile closure with their metal composition and thus would end the debate over the cause of corkiness once and for all. They are only minutely affected by the passage of time or fluctuations in temperature. They may not be the most esthetic solution, but even that isn't an insurmountable problem. There are many prestigious spirits bottled with screw caps that I bet you haven't given a second look.
For the vast majority of wines, screw caps make sense. Put screw caps on high-quality wines meant for everyday drinking and I guarantee you would see a revolution in wine consumption in this country. Screw caps by their very nature are easy to open and are not intimidating. What better way to bring wine to the masses in America? As it stands now, many major wineries employ people whose sole job is to make sure the quality of their corks is up to par, and even then corkiness still occurs. Wineries would thus gain more customers and cut costs by using screw caps. Yet they persist in using corks out of a fear that any change will lessen the mystique of wine. I would prefer less mystique and more common sense to make America the wine-drinking nation it should be.
It's tough, but it's time to recognize corks as what they are: a relic of the past. Like trains, they still have their place in a civilized society. But they should be relegated to special occasions where the risk is part of the adventure. For everyday wine drinking, it's time to relegate corks to the status of a museum piece. Bring on the screw cap.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.