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Corks on Shaky Ground

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 13, 2006 11:55am ET

I've been around long enough to know a leading question when I see one, but this one took me aback it was so breathtaking. It was on an e-mail survey purporting to ask about consumer attitudes about cork vs. other wine bottle closures. It said: "What do you like most about cork over synthetic and screw cap closures?"

The only answers possible were "a. The tradition of opening a cork – the sound and smell of the cork, b. The performance of cork for aging wines, c. The fact that cork is a sustainable product, d. The consumer appeal of cork, and e. All of the above."

In logic class, this was called the "When did you stop beating your wife?" question. There should have been a prerequisite question, such as "Do you prefer cork over synthetic closures"? Besides, you couldn't answer "none of the above." Without those options, the results are tainted by improper prompting.

It wouldn't matter, except that the same folks who sent out this survey conducted one last December and trumpeted the results to the wine industry. In a speech, the head of the PR agency that did the survey reportedly said that 94 percent of Wine Spectator readers prefer cork closures. We have asked our readers about their preferences several times, and never got a figure that high. However, the press release for the cork industry's survey says that 94 percent of their respondents agreed that screwcap closures "cheapened" a bottle of wine. Maybe that's where the number came from. Even there, most of the responses were "sometimes," not "often" or "always."

There were some bizarre results in that survey. Members of the trade reported that few customers ever return a bottle of wine. Some 41 percent said once a month, and 25 percent said once a week. Astoundingly, almost 6 percent said they had never had a customer send back a wine.

(That should be a red flag for the wine industry. If so few people recognize cork taint, then they think those funky smells are what the wine should be. They may not return the bottle, but they won't buy the wine again.)

Of 23 questions on the new survey, eight ask about the advantages of cork. Only one asks if "non-cork closures" might be better than cork. Note: not screwcaps over cork, but a generic term that includes artificial cork-like substances. Two other questions ask again if screw-caps cheapen a bottle of wine.

It looks to me as if the cork folks have cobbled up misleading questions to get the results they want. They know that they don't have a logical leg to stand on. Screwcaps simply do a better job of protecting a bottle of wine, and people are figuring that out.

In the industry's survey conducted last December, 42.6 percent of respondents said they preferred screwcaps to corks. Five years ago, I'll bet that number would have been in single digits. Today? Maybe a majority. No wonder the cork industry is desperate.

Scott David
September 13, 2006 2:05pm ET
interesting points. i very much agree with the general consensus about the issue. i believe the screw top as well as the synthetic cork take substantial romance out of the process as a whole. on the other hand i can see where they are practical. bad wine is bad wine, and that to me is the final answer to the all important question, besides it is what is inside that matters. -Chad Luman
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  September 13, 2006 2:28pm ET
Screw caps don't really bother me. I've been lucky lately avoiding corked bottles (and I hope I didn't just jinx myself by saying that), but I have run through strings where it seemed like every other bottle was corked. I was surprised to see a screw cap on a bottle of 2005 Cloudy Bay Savignon Blanc in a European duty-free store last week. I guess the screw-caps are indeed spreading, but I don't know if the Cloudy Bay is for limited distribution or is a wholesale change. - Jim
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  September 13, 2006 2:59pm ET
Harvey, excellent break down of those surveys. I agree with you that the cork industry is panicking a little bit, but so would I if I was in the cork business. The romantic idea of the cork is highly over-rated. Most wines that I buy, especially the higher priced great ones, are all carefully chosen due to my budget. When I get a corked bottle it's really a bummer!! So I say whatever it takes to give the consumer a higher ratio of clean, untainted bottles, lets do it! The screwcap doesn't hinder me at all. I think that there hasn't been more returned bottles due to cork taint, etc... because for one it's a hassle to bring them back. It's also easy to be intimidated at a nice restaurant so you just drink it and take your lumps. Also as you noted, most people that don't have as an advanced palette as the WS folks just think the wine isn't that great and don't buy it again. I know that I've done that, unfortunately. Great work, I love these WS blogs and all of the hard work that you guys do to inform people like myself that helps me to me make better wine buying decisions. Unfortunately I have a million dollar palette and a $50 budget, so fine wines are a real splurge for me and I appreciate your help!!!!
Mark Mccullough
GA —  September 13, 2006 3:08pm ET
Harvey, I get cork tainted bottles now and then and wish more producers would switch to an alternate closure. One question though: Is there any long-term evidence on how screwcaps or other non-cork products hold up over decades of storage? I would love to eliminate the anxiety of holding bottles long-term hoping the cork protected the wine! You can't return it 10 or 20 years later!
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  September 13, 2006 3:14pm ET
This just seems so simple to me. All jug wines and all roses should have screw caps. 95% of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Riesling, and 75% of Chardonnay should have screw caps. All Gamays, most Merlots, most Malbecs, most Pinot Noirs, and a LOT of Syrahs and Cabernets should have screwcaps. The resulting decrease in demand for cork would engender such a dramatic increase in the quality that there would be no more cork problem.
Randolph M Loos
USA —  September 13, 2006 3:33pm ET
where the heck are these people selling wine? There are a couple possibilities... 1) their customers don't recognize cork taint 2) they don't bring bottles back if they do 3) the trade people have faulty memories.My guess is that about one bottle out of 12 has some degree of TCA no matter what winery they come from. Obviously some wineries have had problems at times that led to higher rates of problems.Corks may be part of the tradition, but give me a screw top ASAP. Nothing worse than pulling a great (expensive) bottle from your cellar for a special occasion and smelling those wet newspapers!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 13, 2006 3:37pm ET
Two things.1. Long term studies are being done, but the best evidence from earlier versions of the screwcap is that the wines age more slowly, and therefore last longer, in screw caps than under cork. It's as if every cork were perfect.2. I'm not so sure that I want to open a bottle 20 years down the road and find it corky. It happens way too often, but ANY time it happens it's frustrating and expensive.
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  September 13, 2006 3:46pm ET
I'm sorry to disagree with the whole screw-cap thing but to me, wine is about romance, passion and the love of finer things. Some how, screw-caps screw it up for me. The same goes for anything like synthetic diamonds, each one is perfect and most people can't tell the difference, but it's not authentic. It all leads to generic faces, no character, no personality. I want the real thing, I want the best. It's like the guy in the E.R. whom they wanted to give artificial respiration, he said "give me the real thing, I can afford it".Mark
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  September 13, 2006 4:13pm ET
Oh, I see Harvey. You're one of those people who wants the truth. Its a tough world for people like you. LOL. I'm sure you see it everywhere. Politicians, the news media, advertisements, lawyers, and anyone else with an agenda have a tendency to twist things around like that. But I'm glad you're not just letting it go without comment. Shouldn't we do this whenever we encounter it? Dan J
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 13, 2006 4:36pm ET
I can't tell if Mark is serious or pulling our legs, especially with that artificial respiration line. But the analogy is faulty. Fake diamonds would be analagous to fake wine. I don't want fake wine.

Here's the straight analogy. Corks are like the settings for the diamonds. Do you want a setting that will not hold he diamond properly? Nothing like looking down at your finger and finding an empty place where the diamond should be. That's what happens with bad corks. The wine is gone, gone, gone.
Tom Fiorillo
Denver, CO —  September 13, 2006 4:47pm ET
Just purchased a couple of cases of the new offerings from Mollydooker, all under screwcap and not all that inexpensive (although the QPR is staggering if you go by RPs numbers). It was nice to see this, although I'd really like to see a few more high profile American/European wineries make the switch. Also, Bravo to Domaine Chandon for the crown cap on the new etoile, but why not on their entire line?
Mark Mccullough
GA —  September 13, 2006 4:58pm ET
I agree that all the wines Hoyt mentioned should have screwcaps, but wouldn't we be left then with the best and most expensive wines having the least reliability in their packaging? If a few legendary Chateaus ever eliminated cork in favor of something more reliable, the rest of the industry would follow like lemmings by the next vintage!
Mark Mccullough
GA —  September 13, 2006 5:23pm ET
Have you ever carefully selected a restaurant with great ambiance for a romantic dinner and then been highly disappointed with the service and food? That's the way I feel about every great wine from a cork-tainted bottle. I don't see anything romantic, passionate or finer about that. If the wine doesn't deliver, who cares if it had a cork?
Robert Fukushima
California —  September 13, 2006 6:04pm ET
I am one of those that has returned wine for reasons such as cork taint and off-flavors. I have been told that I 'may not understand the wine', 'should have brought it back immediately', 'should try an easier wine to understand', 'this wine typically has muted flavors' and my favorite 'we do not sell bad wine, it is French and the flavors can seem funky'If a person who doesn't have a moderate understanding of wine, or had a meeker personality were told these things, it might put them off, or, intimidate them into going away, tail between legs. I like Hoyt's idea above.
Jason Fernandez
Boston, MA —  September 13, 2006 6:31pm ET
I think at this point things boil down to aesthetics. As alternate closures evolve into "classier" designs and utilize materials other than the simple aluminum caps generally available, I would guess the criticism surrounding alternate closures will die. After seeing a glass (or glass-like material) stopper/plug incorporated into a screw cap, I couldn't help but think something like that with the winery's logo etched into it would be wicked cool... Also, I don't know if anyone has had the 2005 Woop Woop Shiraz, but the closure used there is kinda cool & different.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  September 13, 2006 9:49pm ET
I have to agree with Mr. Fernandez. Classier designs would be most beneficial to the alternate wine closure group. Let's be honest, we pay money for more than just the wine in the bottle. The name Latour, Grange or Petrus command hundreds of dollars regardless of what's inside the bottle. A bottle of wine is a complete package. Personally I'm waiting for my Chateau Haut Brion wine in a box....yeah right.
Brent Shinyeda
Chandler, AZ —  September 14, 2006 2:06am ET
If you want to check out a classy design find yourself a bottle of Whitehall Lane Reserve Cabernet 2003. It has a glass stopper underneath a traditional foil. You still get the show of cutting the foil and the stopper looks cool on the table. As for longevity, I recently enjoyed a bottle of St. Francis Reserve Cabernet 1994-over ten years old (with a synthetic cork) and drinking great.
Matt Ferrell
Delaware, OH —  September 14, 2006 1:08pm ET
I know this will sound cliche, but for me, the romance is in the glass. My wife can detect a corked wine from across the room, so we end up either returning (or dumping down the sink) wines with even the slightest amount of TCA. Nothing ruins dinner more than when we each look at each other after the first sniff and in unison wrinkle our noses because the wine is corked. I have a number of special wines under cork that I am holding for special occasions due to their track record for ageability and quality. I can care less how a wine is packaged as long as it "can perform on game day."
Scott Young
Richmond, Va —  September 14, 2006 4:09pm ET
Harvey, A follow up question to your post about early studies of screw caps . . . You said "Long term studies are being done, but the best evidence from earlier versions of the screwcap is that the wines age more slowly, and therefore last longer, in screw caps than under cork." My question is this: If the wine will age more slowly do you think that this could bring about some changes on the winemaking side of things to make some wines even more approachable at a younger age? If the screwcap became the standard closure for all regions and producers, do you feel that it could hurt some of the more prestigious regions (Bordeaux for example) which produce wines that take decades to reach their prime as it is. I just can't see people scrambling out to pay such large sums of money for Bordeaux that only their following generations will have the opportunity to enjoy when the wine is in its prime. I mean, I'm going to love my kids and all, but that's alot to ask!!!
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  September 14, 2006 4:24pm ET
Harvey, thank you for the correction in the analogy. However, I don't want screw in diamonds either. I don't like synthetic's. Plastic wine bottles, wine in a box... I agree that maybe somebody intelligent can come up with a sophisticated enclosure superior to cork and that would be a good thing. But I'm never going to go for cheesy solutions, quick fixes or otherwise, not properly thought palatable solutions.Cheers,Mark
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  September 14, 2006 7:13pm ET
Scott, those are great questions. Two points:

1. Winemaking must adapt to screwcaps because there won't be any oxidation to ameliorate sulfides and other reduction issues. In other words, screw caps reward clean winemaking and could amplify winemaking boo-boos.

2. Wines age more slowly under screwcap, but they do develop aged qualities. The development seems to progress about at the same pace as it would under a perfect cork, one that allows virtually no oxidation. You can get a glimpse of this with the 1999 and 2000 Pewsey Vale Rieslings (recently released) from Eden Valley, which were bottled under screw cap. They are maturing, but still feel fresh.

This won't put a crimp on Bordeaux, which already makes most of its wines to be approachable young AND develop with cellaring. Most collectors I know want to wait 15-20 years to drink their First Growths from great vintages. That will still be so if the Bordelais ever deign to use screw caps. The wines will just feel fresher.
Scott Young
Richmond, Va —  September 15, 2006 3:43am ET
Thanks for the response Harvey.
Didier Ghorbanzadeh
September 15, 2006 4:50am ET
Wow.. I'm shocked so many people prefer screwcap wine! I'm assuming the 42.6 percent of respondents that said they preferred screwcaps to corks were polled in America? I believe the day European consumers will ever move on to the vulgar screwcap is the day they drink their premier crus from plastic cups.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 15, 2006 1:37pm ET
My wife won't let me take wine with a screwcap as a gift when we go to friends' for dinner because the association many people make is that screwcaps = cheap wine. She and I know better, but not everyone does.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  September 17, 2006 7:34pm ET
before , bottles were sealed with a blend of oil then with wax, then with cork and now with screwcaps and all. Well thats the way it is and we need to accept technologie if it helps us the way screwcap do for example. my only issue with screwcap is the capacity of handling time.that all.For the "cheap wine issue" with screwcap, well , it is the same problem as prefering a beautiful package with a fake diamond rather than a cartier ring in a wall mart bag.It is still a Cartier ring!!!!I think that today Portugal is scared to see that their first revenue, cork, is losing field, and they try to do what they can to stop that.If tomorrow Latour or DRC use a screwcap no big deal for me .But it is true that, as a sommelier, some"conservative"guest, dont even want to see a bottle with a screwcap. I happened once that a guest returned a bottle (seghesio sonoma zin 2003) because it was with screwcap..........He didn t want me to even open it.You know, we all need time in face of a major change in our life ...Thanks all Ludovic
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  September 19, 2006 1:33pm ET
Didier,Quick question - where in Europe are you?!?!? Reports here in the US is that some parts of Europe are readily embracing screw caps, and in the UK it appears to be the preferred closure. There have been many reports of Austrian wineries switching all white production over.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  September 20, 2006 2:29pm ET
And not only in AUstria .Some top producers in the Vallee de la Loire are also skipping to screwcap.

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