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Saturday, May 03, 2008

To Cork or Not to Cork

You have probably been part of the little script that takes place in a restaurant when ordering a bottle of wine. The waiter opens the bottle and presents you the cork. I was taught that you politely smell the cork, or perhaps just acknowledge it's existence, before going on to a taste. I have never smelled something tainted in this process, but more and more consumers have, and the realization that more apparently good wine was 'corked' and undrinkable has led to the educated consumer rejecting wine and has become an economic problem for retailers and vintners.

You have probably also noticed that more good wine now is sold with 'screw-cap' closures, replacing cork. Although that's still only about 3% of US sales. It is a much higher percentage in Europe and New Zealand and Australia.

Corks too have changed, some of them are now made of plastic or agglomerated cork material. Corks also have a strong marketing component. Consumers expect good wines to have corks, and there is much less romance in a restaurants sommelier simply screwing off the cap, than there is in them pulling a cork with a satisfying pop.

The value of the natural cork was sold as it's ability to last for decades, until a wine is re-corked with the proper ceremony. The trouble is that most wine in markets like the US is consumed within 48 hours of purchase. No need for complexities in storage. It turns out though that there is not just one solution for this problem, some wines should be enclosed with cork, others could economically use screw-caps, once the consumer has been convinced that it can still be good wine.

George M Taber's 2007 book: To Cork or not to Cork Tradition, Romance, Science and the Battle for the Wine Bottle. covers this in considerable detail. Sometimes too much detail, except for the vintner, chemist, retailer, or very interested consumer. Just reading the last couple of chapters can be illuminating, but if you like details it is worth a complete read.

I was struck by how this change in thinking is an interesting mix of technology, process, innovation, marketing and economics. The standards of a thousand years have now been changing in the last few decades to better overall solutions. It's a good case study of how things can change in a short time.

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