retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Longtime readers of MNB will know that I have howled at the moon from time to time about the shift by many wine manufacturers to screw top bottles, and away from traditional cork. I resisted and resisted, but finally was worn down by the arguments that cork was endangered and that corked bottles too likely to suffer taint. I continued to believe that the sound of a cork being removed from a wine bottle is among the most romantic sounds on earth, but grudgingly accepted the notion that, like so many things, realities of the modern world were taking their inevitable toll.

But not so fast.

Yesterday, I had coffee with Patrick Spencer, executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance (CFCA), and he tells a very different story.

Spencer told me something I did not know about cork - that when it is removed from trees, it is essentially unraveled from the trunk, doing absolutely no damage to the tree, which actually gets stronger from the process. And then, the tree re-grows the cork "wrapper," and in nine years it is ready to be unraveled again. (Think of a sheep being shorn of its wool, and then being allowed to grow new wool, which allows it to get bigger and stronger in the process.) "In every other forest," Spencer said, "we go in and clean out the trees. With cork, we actually leave the trees."

He told me that, in fact, cork forests are extremely important to the environmental sustainability of a number of Mediterranean basin countries - nations like Spain and Portugal and Italy - and that, in fact, "there is enough cork in existence today to close all wine bottles produced in the world, for the next 100 years."

Not exactly a shortage.

Now, Spencer concedes that the companies making screw top bottles and plastic enclosures have been largely successful at convincing the world that cork was endangered and that alternatives needed to be found, and he said that this competition actually has forced cork farmers and manufacturers to clean up their act, to be better stewards of their product, and even be more price competitive than they were when there was no other game in town.

Today, he told me, taint from compromised cork is at an all-time low, some wineries are converting back to cork (reversing a decade-long trend), but that much work remains to be done to convince people that rather than being unsustainable and endangered, cork in fact is the better environmental choice and a boon to biodiversity.

The CFCA has made a lot of progress in the few short years since it was founded; Whole Foods has partnered with it to recycle used corks at many of its US locations. And some wineries are using a logo designed by the CFCA to identify bottles as using real cork, and not plastic substitutes.

This was all fascinating to me. I'm no scientist, but the arguments seem persuasive ... you can check them, as I will continue to, at the CFCA website. (I'm willing to bet you'll be blown away by the pictures of workers unraveling cork of a tree.)

Meanwhile, I'm re-evaluating my grudging acceptance of alternative wine closures.

Time to once again begin howling at the moon.
KC's View: