Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wine Book Club #3: To Cork Or Not to Cork?

4 billion dollars. That's what's at stake financially in the wine biz when it comes to getting consumers to make up their minds about what stopper they want in their wine bottle. But as George Taber explains in his new book, To Cork or Not to Cork? Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the WineBottle ($26, Scribner) there's more than just money at stake, too. If you are a dedicated oenophile and enjoy having esoteric wine subjects presented in a humorous, accessible way by a gifted writer you will like this book. My hat is off to anyone who can convey detailed, often scientific information with flair and enthusiasm. It's not a book for the casual wine drinker, but if you are a wine enthusiast this is a book you will want on your shelf.

Taber's book was selected by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours for the 3rd edition of the Wine Book Club, the every-other-month meeting of bloggers and readers to discuss a recent or classic book on wine. What I learned from Lenn's pick is just how serious the business of closures is in the wine industry.

In the story so far, big industry money and scientific research supporting the use of alternatives to natural cork have been on a collision course with the tastes and prejudices of the average wine consumer, who is resistant to change. The pop of the cork, the way it rolls around on the table, the little design--even sniffing the darn thing--all play a part in a person's sensory enjoyment of wine. Complicating the matter further is tradition, the increasing pursuit of all things natural, and the need to impress friends and relatives by not serving wine in a bottle that only requires a flick of the wrist to open it.

Taber does more than you might expect is humanly possible to make the tension between the needs of the wine, the winemakers, and the consumers interesting. He delves into the annals of history, and tells you about the first man who saw the cells in cork (Robert Hooke). Taber recounts the story of Randall Grahm's cork "funeral." Periodic "Message in a Bottle" breaks between chapters describe particular incidents with wine closures that will bring a smile of recognition to most wine lovers' faces. And there is even a villain in the piece, in the form of TCA (trichloroanisole) which occurs naturally in cork and can impart a musty, wet-cardboard smell and taste to wine for those who are sensitive to it.

No one wants to drink wine that smells like their basement after a flood--so why do so many people resist alternative closures? If you're like me, Stelvin (screwtop) closures are much less of an issue than ersatz plastic corks, which no one seems to like. There are alternatives to natural cork, Stelvin closures, and synthetic corks: elegant and expensive glass stoppers, which Taber explains have a long history; and the stoppers made with cork granules and a binding agent, which are increasingly popular. With both the glass and the amalgamated closures you get the characteristic "pop" of pleasure in opening a wine bottle, but not the threat of TCA contamination.

In pursuit of my own semi-scientific findings on the subject of TCA taint, the good folks at Oenéo Closures sent me a little test kit of untreated cork granules, steam-cleaned cork granules, and cork granules that have been decontaminated with a proprietary process called DIAM that is a little like what happens to coffee beans when they are decaffeinated. I followed their instructions, added distilled water to the cork granules, and let them sit for 18 hours. I then decanted the liquid into wine glasses. I could definitely smell the classic wet, moldy cardboard aroma in the untreated mixture, and smelled nothing but water in the other two samples. Definitely a good sign, and it would give me some confidence to know that an expensive bottle of wine had one of these corks in it before I splurged and bought it. The corks made from the super-cleaned granules are in a lot of US wine bottles these days, including Cosentino, Copain, Robert Pecota, and Hannah Nicole. Even French makers are using them for their still and sparkling wine, including Louis Jadot, Hugel, Billecart-Salmon and Taittinger.

After reading Taber's book I'm convinced that the tide is turning--and for good reason--against a mindless opposition to screwtops and other alternatives to plain old cork. But I'm not sure that I agree with Taber that a "packaging revolution is on the horizon and rapidly rushing forward." His book provided ample evidence of just how ingrained our wine habits are, and how little we as consumers like to have someone rock our wine world.

In July and August we'll be reading a title selected by Farley from Behind the Vines, so stay tuned next week for her announcement of the title and why she chose the book. We'll be posting reviews the last Tuesday in August, so you should have lots of time to join in and read along if you are interested. As always, you can stay up to date with what's we're reading in the Wine Book Club by checking out our pages on Shelfari or Facebook. Thanks again to Lenn for hosting WBC #3.


Edward said...

A very well balanced review, and the DIAM cork flour experiment sounds like an interesting one.

I did not read the book, and being an Antipodean wino, I feel very well acquanited with the issues. I do wonder if Australia and New Zealand are just years ahead in trend terms, or whether we are isolated by our early adoption of alternatives.

Natrual cork is well and truly the minority closure in Australia, and as a buyer and drinker I feel pleased that stelvin, DAIM and even vino lok are more common.

Dr. Debs said...

One of the points the book made, Edward, is that the Southern Hemisphere is miles ahead of the Northern in terms of being open-minded about cork replacements. I have to wonder if the soaring popularity of NZ sauvignon blanc is not due in part to the fact that the wine is always fresh, never corked, and so darn tasty. And I noticed a lot of Australian/NZ producers on the Diam list as well. Thanks for leaving a comment!