You are a middle aged man taking out a young sophisticated Senorita for the first time. She is lovely to look at, dressed elegantly in the latest designer clothes from Milano and her hair was arranged by the most talented and experienced hair stylist in all of London.
Of course, she has a PHD in economics with a sub-specialty in the rare currencies of Asia and the South-West Pacific Islands. The conversation should be tantalizing.
But, here comes that special bottle of wine that you ordered. The Sommelier smiles at you and bows his head. You smile back and lift your eyebrows. The Senorita smiles quizzically at the two of you and then stares at the bottle held in the right hand of the Sommelier.
“Why is she staring?’
That is a four hundred and thirty five dollar bottle of the best Burgundy that France has to offer. “Oh my God! It has a metal screw top closure!”
You turn a fierce gaze at the Sommelier. He is sweating. You turn to look at the fine Senorita. She is rising from her chair with a disgusted look on her face.
It is all over… “Give me the bill.” you say quietly to the Sommelier.
He shakes his head as though he were stunned by a heavy weight. “I didn’t know,” he mumbles.
“I didn’t know either,” I say with compassion. “It’s a new world.” But, then the anger hit. “Who the hell allows this? The Prime Minister of France should be shot!”
“Mais oui!” he agrees.
That is a sample of the Great Wine Closure Debate. It is still ongoing. Which side do you take?
A “Wine Closure” is a term which describes the stopper in the opening of a wine bottle. For the last several thousand years, perhaps forever, “closures” were supplied by our good friends, the Oak Cork Trees.
These gentle trees grew slowly, but when they passed their twentieth birthday their bark was thick, abundant and composed of the perfect material for making a closure for any type of bottle.
The Cork Trees are found growing in southern Europe, especially in Portugal and Spain where moist Atlantic winds nourishes their thick green leaves.
The Cork Tree bark is very thick and soft and of a lovely brownish colour. It can be peeled off the tree in large sheets and the tree will re-grow a new layer within ten years.
It is said that the bark protects the tree from wildfires and allows the tree to send out new and fresh branches once the fire subsides.
Apart from its beauty and shade, the Oak Cork Tree forests are the perfect habitat for many wild animals. In Spain, a semi-wild pig called the Iberico Pig, lives in these forests and eats the acorns of the Oak Cork trees.
The Iberico pig is black, almost hairless and has black feet. He was tamed by the people of southern Spain several thousand years ago, but allowed to forage in the forests, eating the acorns.
The Spaniards of this area learned how to cure the meat from this animal, producing the finest ham in the world; a ham with a special flavor produced by consumption of these special acorns.
This Jamon Iberico de Bellota or Iberico Acorn Ham has a meat that is dark red with streaks of white fat and a flavor unknown elsewhere in the world. The ham requires two years of curing in the mountain air; however, because of the presence of the Cork trees which produce an income for the local people everyone survives well.
In the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, wine was contained in large ceramic urns called Amphora’s. These containers had to be closed or the wine would go through a second fermentation and turn into vinegar. Cork mixed with oil was used to tapenade the Amphora’s.
Later, in the Seventeenth Century glass bottles were introduced by the French. Cork was chosen as the natural closure.
Wine lovers learned that the flavor of a wine could be greatly enhanced by allowing the wine to “rest” or “age” in the bottle. Unwittingly, the vintners were allowing the wine to be slowly oxidize as molecules of air containing oxygen crept through the pores of the cork and melded with the wine.
When the bottle of wine was slowly uncorked in order to sample the aged wine, a delicate ritual evolved.
THE RITUAL OF THE CORK
Whoever extracted the cork from the bottle had to do so with great care. If the cork broke, the inner piece could fall into the wine and make a beautiful situation very ugly.
After the cork was extracted everyone present would look at its colour. Everyone would expect the color of the cork to resemble the wine. They would also expect the name on the cork to be the same name as on the bottle.
The cork, which is hardy but also delicate, should look normal and not moldy or crumbling. Its odor should be of wine and not of other substances.
The ritual of the cork plays an important and protective role for the guest. Simply by inspecting and smelling the cork, a diner may ensure himself that the bottle being presented is authentic and drinkable. Without tasting the wine, the fine structure of the cork gives out the secrets of what is in the bottle.
This ritual has been part of the world’s culture for four hundred years. The use of cork as a closure for amphora’s and other containers has been a part of world culture for several thousand years.
However, in just the last fifteen years, this entire history has been threatened by one monster: money.
How strange that as the world plunges into economic depression, it also decides that cork as a wine closure must go and be replaced by cheap attempts to protect precious wine from turning into vinegar.
THE BIG LIE
As small vineyards began to be bought by huge conglomerates the management teams began to search for ways to make more profit.
Since fungi and bacteria may produce a condition in wine where a special chemical called TCA is present and the wine has a disagreeable odor, the huge wine conglomerates used this “Cork Fault” as an excuse to replace the relatively expensive cork with cheaper plastic or metal closures.
In reality, Cork Fault is rare. Many a wine drinker will go through life checking for a Cork Fault and nevere finding one. Yet the massive wine conglomerates claim that they occur constantly. Again, the Big Lie.
Not only were the synthetic closures cheaper, they reduced labor costs. Closures could be done mechanically with the same machines that are used for soft drinks.
Starting in the late 1990’s, wineries whose directors thought only in terms of profit began to close their bottles with plastic or metal.
The metal screw top became a favorite in New Zealand and parts of Australia. These countries were breaking into the wine market where once only the old countries of Europe reigned supreme.
Their entrance ploy was price. Give the public something cheap. That will attract the uneducated. Then give them a good argument for rejecting cork. People will buy the cheapest if they are convinced the quality is equal.
And thus the Great Wine Closure began.
As we can see, the motivation for rejecting cork was not quality but profit.
The arguments against cork can be briefly summarized:
- Cork can turn into “Cork Fault” and destroy up to ten percent of all wine produced.
- Cork is unhygienic and may carry bacteria whereas bacteria or fungi cannot survive on metal or plastic.
- The flavor of wine is just as good with closures of plastic which permit air to enter. Some wines do not need to age, so cork is unnecessary.
On thorough inspection and with fundamental research we find all these arguments false.
Wine is worse in terms of color and flavor with metal or plastic closures. The enjoyment of wine like the enjoyment of all art requires that special ambience which has evolved through centuries. An opera in a factory is not the same as an opera in a concert hall. We see concert halls throughout the world which glory in their acoustics and beautiful surroundings. Without doubt these concert halls add to the pleasure of listeners.
Cork is a natural ingredient which has evolved with the evolution of wine and the wine drinking tradition.
Today, as big business takes over the wine industry and searches for more profit, it sees the consumer as unsophisticated and uneducated children who can be manipulated by argumentation and repetitive propaganda.
What we are seeing in the wine industry we see also in the restaurant industry, in the media and every other form of commerce where profit is held high as the new God. Only a few will remain uncorrupted by the new attack by big business.
Those people who eat at fast food chains will love the new closures. Those others will have to wait for Time to ultimately come down on the side of Nature.