Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Art of the Cork

I'm a big fan of Stelvin closures on wine bottles, also known as screw-tops. They preserve a wine's freshness, you never have to have a reserve bottle in case it's corked, and they make it easier to pack a picnic. There's an increasing amount of good science to back up winemakers who feel their wines are best put under these closures.

But they're not very beautiful.

Lately, I've been thinking about the art of the cork. I dumped my latest bowl of corks out on the table the other day, and was struck by how much care went into designing some of them. Can you spot the Twisted Oak in the bowl? Enikidu's Sumerian glyphs? The wolf on Ca' Viola's cork? How about Sineann's Celtic-inspired symbol? The Art Nouveau swirls of Adelsheim? The alchemical symbol from Brooks? Borgo di Colloredo's tower?

I did some sleuthing, and as best as I can tell the reason that wineries first started printing information on their corks was to stop fraudulent brokers from selling sub-standard wine under famous names back in the day when wine was exported and shipped in barrels, then bottled where it was sold. "Bottled at the Chateau" was one way for a buyer to be sure they were really getting the wine that they paid for--not something else that they never expected. Falsifying labels was relatively easy and inexpensive. But printing off fake corks was far more difficult, so corks became the proof positive that the wine you were drinking was genuine. I suspect that's one reason why presenting the corks really got started in fine restaurants--not so you could sniff it, but so you could see that the wine was truly what you had ordered. If there are any sommeliers or WSET diploma students reading this, let me know if this is correct because I'm having a hard time finding proof about this hunch.

Today, corks are the part of a wine experience that consumers tend to hold onto the longest--except for the memory of how the wine tastes. The bottle gets put into the recycling, but most wine drinkers have at least one cork in the house. Sometimes it's a champagne cork from a special celebratory bottle. Often it's a cork from a bottle of wine that you loved and want to remember to buy again--so you stick the cork in the drawer and forget all about it.

But I realized that I keep the corks just because I find them too beautiful to throw away, and because when I tip the bowl onto the counter and watch them roll around they serve as snapshots of a dinner, a great wine, friends, and family. I can remember (once I see the cork) who I drank it with, what I drank it with, and sometimes what the weather was like. Memories accompany each cork, and to sniff them, hold them, and look at them brings those memories flooding back.

Even though I like screw-caps and think wine science is a good thing, I'll be sad to see the day when the art of the cork is no more. Until then, I'll probably continue to treasure my (growing) collection, and marvel at their power to remind me of good times and good wines.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Debs --

You could also use your corks to make little horses and little reindeer, complete with googly eyes, yarn tails, and pipe-cleaner antlers. My uncle in Iowa does that, and makes $1 each on them, selling them at craft fairs and old folks' homes. He's 85 and I say, more power to him. Cheers.

Velvet Fog said...

Yes, I too have a fetish cork collection. They are like little souvenirs from each bottle. I keep them all in binders with little numbers and tags so I can remember each one.....
Not really, I'm not that scary. Well,...oh never mind.

I do keep them though.
I feel bad throwing them out.
I wish they could be recycled.

Anonymous said...

Hi Debs,

The other reason for corks being marked with maker's name and vintage (as I read somewhere) was that supposedly restaurants would re-fill empty bottles with reputable labels with plonk, re-cork them and try to sell them to the unsuspecting diners. Thus another reason why the waiter gives you the cork to inspect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Debs
You are correct in your assumption. Presenting the cork at the table let you know that you were getting the "correct" wine and as arthur said above opening the bottle at the table started because there was talk of refilling expensive bottles of wine with swill and representing it at the table already opened.
Nice post!
We should do a show us your cork bucket/basket like we did the show us your rack post series a while back.


Anonymous said...

I prefer screw caps, too, for a lot of reasons, HOWEVER, there is a cork game that's simple and HIGHLY recommended (addictive, in fact). The objective is to drop the cork parallel to the table and get it to bounce so that it stands up. Hours of meaningless fun! I've trained my kids and now they can beat me!

Gabriella Opaz said...

I couldn't agree with you more that they're impossible to throw away both because they're are beautiful and because it feels wasteful to me. So, we don't, but the issue arises that we tend to let them pile up and not create anything out of them. A cork board is a fun idea, but doesn't really show off their uniqueness. I'd love a few suggestions on other fun projects.

Taster B said...

Ooo, I like the "show your cork bowl" idea for a WBW supplement or something. That would be fun!

Anonymous said...

I saw a serving tray made out of them before. The maker had taken a tin tray and lined with rows of horizontal corks. It was neat in a crafty sort of way.

winedeb said...

I save all of my corks also. Lately they are so entertaining and some even have their websites imprinted, which is great marketing. many ways to use these! I have even seen furniture, like chairs, made from the corks!

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks to everybody for their great comments, and a special welcome to Nancy and Richard. I'm like Gabriela--I keep 'em, but I don't craft anything out of the, just use them to remind me of this experience or that. Richard's game was WAY to challenging for me (especially after a glass). The craft project that wins for me so far is Sonadora's: put four little feet on them using brads from a craft store. Then slice each carefully down the middle and use for placecards, to stand up recipes in the kitchen while you're cooking, labeling dishes on a buffet, etc. Not sure I'm up for a chair or covering my car with them!

Anonymous said...

I save my corks in vases and such that my wife gathers in my wine cellar and on my wine bar area as display. When we have special bottles or special evenings with friends, I get out the sharpy fine point black pen and everyone signs it and I date it with the event if there's still room on the cork.

We even do this at restaurants. It's a great way to bring back memories of the event and the people you spent it with.

Dr. Debs said...

Shawn, thanks for the great idea. I love the idea of having the people you shared the wine with sign the cork. Adds art to art, in my opinion!