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Opting for Cork, and Backing It Up

Oregon's Domaine Serene is convinced it can guarantee every bottle
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 24, 2016 12:07pm ET

Bottles ruined by cork taint frustrate everyone. Despite the success so many top wineries have had with twist-offs, there are those who balk at using them. Domaine Serene stuck with cork when many of its prominent neighbors went all-in for the screwcap.

Stalwarts such as Chehalem, WillaKenzie, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Maysara, Patton Valley, Raptor Ridge, Boedecker, Sineann, Siduri, Argyle and Roco consistently rate in the 90-plus range ("Outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) in my tastings, employing twist-offs. Ponzi, Erath, Trisaetum and Penner Ash use them for white wines. But Ken and Grace Evenstad, Domaine Serene's owners, could not bring themselves to join that trend.

"We taste a lot of wine here," says Ryan Harris, general manager of Domaine Serene, "and it's an ongoing frustration, whether it's a competitor's wine or our own. We have been able to reduce [the incidence of cork taint] in our wines over the years, but not get it to zero."

The Evenstads are convinced a new wrinkle in testing corks for incipient taint is the answer for them. Two cork providers offered to guarantee that every single stopper would be free of cork taint, a guarantee that they announced they are passing on to their customers.

For years, the only way to test for the telltale chemical of cork taint, known as TCA, was to randomly sample closures from each bag of thousands. If, after soaking in water for a while, a test batch smelled of TCA, the whole bag could be rejected. This sort of diligent testing could reduce the incidence of cork taint to less than 3 percent—still an unacceptable number to many of us, including the Evenstads.

To test each cork individually, each one is sealed in a small bottle with a few drops of water. One supplier uses gas chromatography to probe for TCA, but Domaine Serene went for one that uses human beings to sniff each container. "A person can pick up on things other than TCA, and reject those corks too," notes Harris. The sniff test costs an extra 26 cents per cork, according to Harris, who adds, "We won't pass that on to the consumer."

Domaine Serene tried the corks on several wines. After 18 months they found no tainted bottles with the human-sniffed corks. The winery announced a guarantee on every bottle, starting with wines being bottled this year from the 2014 vintage, both for Domaine Serene and Château de la Crée, their recently acquired domaine in Burgundy.

Cork taint, of course, is not the only issue with cork closures. Another Oregonian, Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem Wines, demonstrated in a recent series of tastings that twist-offs not only eliminate cork taint, they prevent oxidation, preserving fruit character.

Domaine Serene waves off those concerns. The winery is in the camp that believes that tiny amounts of air seep through a cork to encourage proper aging.

"We like the way our wines age," Harris says, "and wouldn't want to make the move to Stelvin only to find out we guessed wrong."

James Gerace
Phoenix, AZ, USA —  February 24, 2016 6:15pm ET
Sometime back WS had an article on TCA in barrels. Have not heard much about this. We drink lots of wine and I can tell you cork taint is way more than the few % the wineries admit to. Have been with plenty of folks who cannot detect mild levels and some that cannot detect gross levels. My wife really picks up the very mild ones.
Patrick Spencer
Salem, Oregon —  February 24, 2016 8:01pm ET
It comes as no surprise that Mr. Steiman's article on Dm. Serene's decision to use natural cork, is filled with negative "facts" about cork closures. Where are the actual facts about screw cap failures, the health and environmental risks of plastic plugs? WS has a long history of damning cork in favor of screw caps and plastic plugs. It seems that once a quarter Senior editor, James Laube writes an advertorial for the screw cap industry.

Where are the peer reviewed studies that prove the "quoted" failure rates for wines sealed with natural cork? I challenge WS to do some "real" reporting, on the closure issue. Interview the wine makers who've had significant problems with screw caps and plastic. Talk about the millions of bottles spoiled during the early screw cap years. Take a look at the scientific evidence surrounding the environmental devastation caused by aluminum and plastic production. Wake up call WS, its 2016 the TCA ship sailed a long time ago, be honest with your readers, instead of trying scare them. Based upon your "Comment Policy" I wonder if this will ever see light...
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  February 25, 2016 1:44pm ET

It is considered appropriate to state your affiliation if you are commenting about a subject online. As head of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, it isn't surprising that you take such a strong position in favor of cork.

My own experience with twist-off closures has been almost universally positive. Not only have we avoided TCA issues but we've seen a tremendous consistency in how the wines age. Far better than with traditional cork. Those trials are why we have moved all of our wines to twist-off closures.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines.
Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  February 25, 2016 1:51pm ET
The percentages can be argued all day long. One is too many.
Sadly I am not gifted at finding subtle nuances in the nose but I am one of those quite susceptible to TCA.
I do not care what kind of closure is used as long as it does not smell like an old gym sock has been shoved in the bottle.
Charles Brown
Chicago IL —  February 25, 2016 6:41pm ET
They should be praised for trying to up quality control on corks. For myself, I'm not sure the guarantee is too persuasive - if I pull it out of the cellar in 5 years and it taste a little off what am I to do and is it even worth the hassle? My own cellaring experience of screwcaps vs. cork is no contest. The screwcaps have exceeded my expectations in almost every case preserving the fruit and freshness of the wine, but still letting some age softening it up a little bit. I'm probably part of a small minority, but I view it as a huge positive if I can purchase wine with a screwcap.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 25, 2016 8:00pm ET
I'm just fascinated to see how far this issue has evolved in the last 10-15 years. Alternate closures to cork now occupy a significant percentage of the market at all price points. The retail landscape is so full of screw caps that even occasional wine customers are not alarmed by the closure (as they once were) when purchasing a premium bottle.

From the first, I was always puzzled by those who were sceptical of screw caps as a vehicle for aging wine. Simple common sense suggests a closure which is consistently the same is preferrably to one that can be full of variations and whose variations are magnified over time. (However, the consistency of the screw cap does not preclude bottle variation, especially over years of time). I would add that some producers, like Trisaetum whom HS mentions above, now use caps which breath, mimicking a cork closure.

Enivironmental critiques by cork proponents fall short also since most corked bottles---certainly ones for aging--are also capped, bringing with it other environmental concerns.

Patrick Spencer
Salem, Oregon —  February 26, 2016 11:26am ET
Please allow me to reply to the comments that have either been directly or indirectly addressed to my comment. I am very proud to be the Executive Director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, a 501c3, NGO. The CFCA is a forest conservation organization, we are not involved in the sale or production of cork products. We receive virtually no funding from the cork industry, ($0 in 2016). As I paid the $25 for the WS subscription from personal funds, I have no issue in responding to articles on cork, wine or food without stating my occupation or associations.

It never fails to amuse me that in these types of closure discussions, those who prefer or use aluminum closures never address the environmental issues I raise. Every major environmental agency, (either governmental or NGO) that has studied the production of aluminum has deemed the mining, smelting and its production, an environmental disaster, not only for the indigenous people where the mining takes place, but for its global affect. BTW, screw caps are not being recycled in the US.

It seems as though those on the side of screw caps have all recently attended the World Climate Change Deniers Conference. This issue is much larger than TCA or convenience, it's about the health or our planet and we have the power to affect that change.

Regarding the comment about capsules wineries put on their bottles, they are not part of the closure, they are purely cosmetic. I would encourage all wineries to stop using either the tin or plastic capsules, from an environmental and financial benefit.

The people of the cork forest spend their lives maintaining one of our planets most important biospheres, the same cannot be said for aluminum production.

Patrick Spencer
E.D. Cork Forest Conservation Alliance
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 26, 2016 4:56pm ET
Mr. Spencer, I appreciate your concerns and your input. Conserving the environment is a noble goal which I hope we all do our part to achieve. Unfortunately, we also must balance this with practical realities. For the wine industry, corks--mostly with caps--and screw caps are our main choices, and so we choose between them. (I have advocated glass stoppers which I believe to be aesthetically pleasing, potentially practical, and I would think more environmentally friendly. But there has been little development of this, and currently, they are also capped like cork-closed bottles.)

Keep up the good work, yet I wonder if there might be better avenues for you to send your message.


Brian Loring
Lompoc CA —  February 27, 2016 11:15am ET
Mr. Spencer,

As Vince Liotta said, conserving the environment is a noble goal. And one I believe in as well. But it seems to me there are other ways to save the cork forests than to advocate that the wine industry continue to use an inferior product. Many other natural resources have been saved and maintained by making them national parks. That would seem to be the better long-term solution to me.

As far as other environmental issues, please consider that in addition to the manufacture of the capsules used, there are other carbon footprint costs associated with cork that exceed those of screwcaps.

Screwcaps are shipped as a single unit. Corks and capsules are shipped separately. That requires double the trucking and double the packaging. Additionally, as capsules are rather fragile, they require plastic trays to maintain their shape. That's a LOT of plastic being used. Granted, your point that capsules are cosmetic may be true, but in reality, virtually all wineries that use cork use them as well. Plus, I'm not sure they won't become mandatory as tamper protection/detection due to the introduction of products like Coravin.

Bottles made for corks require additional space inside the neck to accommodate the cork, which requires more glass and adds weight.

And since cork does have a higher failure rate, you have to add to the overall carbon footprint the % of wine that is ruined. Not only is that an environmental issue, it's a huge cost issue as well. And corks, even when perfect, cost much more than screwcaps - which eventually gets passed on to the consumer in one way or another.

But none of what I said should threaten the cork trees. Protect them as the vital natural resource that are. Just do it in a way that doesn't link their demise with the use of screwcaps.

Brian Loring
Loring Wine Company
100% screwcap since the 2004 vintage
John Hancock
Hawkes bay, New Zealand —  March 2, 2016 9:46pm ET
Its not just TCA/"cork taint" or random oxidation, but it is probably more importantly, the variation between each cork. Being made from natural cork bark, every cork behaves slightly differently and it is this variation which causes big issues. If you take the random corks soaked in water, even after a few hours, you will see massive variation in the color of the water as material is extracted from the cork. This will vary from water white (normal) to weak tea color and everything in between. Imagine what that will do to a wine, with alcohol helping to extract "woodiness" from the cork. If you have opened 30 or 40 bottles of the same wine at the same time, you will be staggered at the difference between bottles.I doubt whether screwcaps are the final solution, but they are an incredible advance on natural cork.

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