Saturday, May 16, 2009


The other day I listened to an NPR interview with George Taber, author of the well-researched book, To Cork or Not To Cork: The Billion-Dollar Battle for the Bottle (Scribner, NY, October 2007). Taber offers a history of cork and describes the current world-wide controversy and debate surrounding the current choice of wine closures. He offers an objective analysis of the debate though it surely appears that he ultimately favors cork as the closure of choice.

Taber brought me back to an incident in 2005 that marred what would have otherwise been an exhilarating wine experience. Imagine my delight when after waiting almost three months I went to Sherlock’s in East Cobb County, Georgia some five years ago and took possession of a case of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc from a winery whose name I shall not repeat - ever. I had been seriously evolving my wine palate for at least ten years prior to that after living down my distant past college days which had been full of Boones’ Farm and countless beautiful bottles of Mateus. Anybody got a candle?

I had fully evolved from my solid, bed rock Bordeaux days to the more sophisticated Chinon Cabernet Franc where my nose appreciated that light to medium bodied, very fruity (sometimes herbal – not thin or weedy) smoother mouthfeel and languid finish typical of not so harsh tannins. In the west of France it is a star in its own right even when it’s adding muscle to Merlot or toning down a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon.

Part of my affection for this wine also probably stems from its local name, Breton. You see Bretons are the native culture (sort of, as they were preceded by the also Celtic Gauls) in Celtic Brittany where they still speak, yes, Breton. Celts from present day Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall migrated (back) to Brittany somewhere from the third century on. Also, many of those “Normans” including my ain folk probably had a lot more Breton in them than admitted. 1066 must have been a real homecoming for many of those folks.

So what does that have to do with Cabernet Franc, you say? Well, absolutely nothing, save another opportunity to up the Celts. Truthfully, I am also motivated by my meeting with some Bretons at FolkMoot USA many years ago in Waynesville, North Carolina whilst a guest of Flora MacDonald Gammon the Younger and Permanent Sergeant-Major John Dall. I borrowed one of John’s great kilts and hand made sporran and headed off for a fine gathering of Celts where I enjoyed the lively and high-pitched binou-kous Breton pipes, bombardes and our hosts in their native Breton dress. They well appreciated the gesture and there were hugs and shared adult beverages all around though no French flags to be found… I noticed more than a few playing our Highland pipes…

Whenever I hear Chinon mentioned I also think of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who came to Chinon Castle in 1429 where she inspired and motivated the then weak-willed dauphin, Charles VII to put on the French crown at Reims, ultimately drive out the English and unite France under one ruler. To his eternal shame he also allowed the martyrdom of Joan… So, back to the wine.

So, here I am finally back in Texas and having transported the case of Loire Valley/Chinon Cabernet Franc all the way from Georgia treating it with the reverence of The Holy Grail. It was going to be a superlative, yea magical, moment that would be savored by me and me alone (alas, no one to share). I opened a bottle with all the reverence of the best sommelier and ugh! I was greeted with that ummistakable nauseating fungal aroma; a combination of moldy newspaper and wet, dirty Labrador Retreiver. The wine was corked, tainted by TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) and undrinkable. I didn’t have the heart to open each and every bottle then though I slowly over a several month period discarded all but one of the bottles. That was my wine legacy from Georgia. I have since moved on to more of a southern Rhone mentality and palate occasionally looking back to Chinon.

While TCA is mostly caused by the reaction of chlorine on cork bark or wood (ironically used for sterilization) and one of the reasons manufacturers now use hydrogen peroxide and steam sterilization along with other methods to clean corks, this critter can also run rampant in rubber hoses, wooden barrels, and can be affected by light, humidity and temperature. It has been a tough nut to crack and has caused the recurring and very persistent controversy over the use of cork closures. The incidence of cork taint has been such a problem that many wineries have been slowly switching over to screwstops (Stelvins) or the almost as reliable though not as popular plastic corks. Having said that the wine industry has not been totally pleased with the plastic plug as they are generally difficult to open and tend to leak after they have been in place a while.

Understandably, cork producers are scared to death coming up with study after study trying to assure wineries and the wine buying public (especially high end wine collectors/investors) that the incidence of cork taint remains rare, even well below 1% of total production. I remember several years ago when noted wine critic James Laube, an editor for Wine Spectator magazine, reported in 2004 on a tasting of elite 1991 California Cabernets where nearly 15 percent of the wines were spoiled by TCA tainted corks. This controversial report prompted questionable outrage in some circles alleging that Laube just had a more sensitive nose. Sensitive nose or not it would appear the bottom line was the wines were tainted and they should have been recalled.

No doubt as a follow-up to Laube’s report, Wine Spectator (my Bible) in 2005 released a study of 2,800 bottles held at their blind tasting facilities in Napa, California which found that 7% of the bottles were tainted… long way from less than 1%. In the August 20, 2007 (very impressive site) posting "To Screw Cap Wine Bottles or Not", Tablas Creek Vineyard General Manager Jason Haas stated, "Industry estimates range from three percent to as high as 10 percent of corks are tainted. The reality is that failure rates like this are totally unacceptable in any industry.”

Haas correctly related that despite all the problems and the risk associated with cork closures, some wines may well benefit from cork to include Syrah and Mouvedre-based wines which taste better with a little age. Other wines like Rose and Viognier and Grenache Blanc and others which are prone to oxidation and intended to be consumed immediately are likely candidates for the screwtop which better preserves the floral freshness in these wines and extends their lifespan. It would appear that there are other options.

Since an estimated 98 percent of all wine is drunk within six months of its purchase, all of this debate may be moot. That cork may allow ultimate benefits to include flavor and oxygen exchange with some wines, constitutes credible debate though for the masses all that really matters is a wine closure that offers a tight, effective seal. For those other two percent, perhaps wine connoisseurs and the fine wine buying public, cork will still be a mainstay where they can wax nostalgic and argue the very real benefits of the cork closure for aging and maturing those mostly red wines though they will still be faced with the potential of TCA, deteriorating corks, wine oxidation and ultimate spoilage.

The cork industry now offers other choices to even include granulated corks while that old standby, the glass enclosure, is making somewhat of a comeback in the wine closure wars. For you youngsters out there glass was a standard enclosure before modern technology came along. They look a little like decanter stoppers, are resealable and, yes, they are recyclable. These upscale and robust stoppers with a green mentality just might be our answer while the only real issue as with screw tops may be
reduction. While we might be seeing more glass and screw caps down the road the issue is still hotly debated. I will continue to choose wine with closures that suit the wine and my circumstances.

Whilst I ponder the issue many wineries are now switching over to screwtops, plastic or glass including one of my favorites, the wonderfully eccentric folks down at Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California who made the move in 2002. Many other credible wineries have or are now contemplating the switch as the stigma associated with screwtops has apparently eased. Almost all New Zealand and over half of all Australian wineries have converted to screwtops though it would appear that the changeover will still be a slow and arduous, though predictable process, in Europe and the Americas.

While I will miss the aesthetics of cork and the romance of that POP performed by me or a knowledgeable sommelier, I am strengthened and assured by the almost certainty that from this point on the bottle I’ll be drinking won’t be tainted. No doubt that the passage of the choreographed pomp and circumstance of the proper selection, presentation and consumption of a fine bottle of wine may be lost on the masses, we hope that it will not result in the demise of that old and sacred institution - the sommelier.

I was reminded the other day by a good Friend of an experience a vacationing young couple from Ann Arbor had in Barbados in 1974. With limited financial resources they were frugal, creative and counseled their resources allowing for one formal sit-down dinner where they were going to have (tah-dah!) a bottle of wine. They were greeted by a white-gloved sommelier wearing vest and apron replete with white cloth napkin, the obligatory sterling tasting cup and an awesome and very expensive wine list. The couple perused the wine selection and was horrified by the extravagant and outrageous prices. Much to the chagrin of a by now totally disgusted sommelier, they settled on a $50.00 bottle of white wine.

The bottle came out properly presented wrapped in a napkin, iced and in a footed silver bucket. The sommelier presented the bottle to the host who approved whereupon the sommelier opened the screw top bottle and presented the cap. The host asked what he was supposed to do with it and the sommelier smugly and with a sneer (and maybe a little glee) told him that he was supposed to smell it… Gees…

The Lady still has the gold colored screw top with Enjoy Good Taste proudly embossed around its girth. She still laughs long and happily about that experience, those kinder and gentler times, their naïveté and the reality that it was probably a Boones Farm though she couldn’t remember if it was their Apple or Strawberry….


Ned Buxton

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