To Cork or Not to Cork
Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottles
George M. Taber
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". . . a glimpse into the secretive world of winemakers . . ."
After four hundred years of corking bottles of wine, the world has begun moving toward screwcaps and plastic wine stoppers. Caught in the middle are romantics like myself who enjoy the ritual of pulling out a cork and smelling it before taking that first sip of wine. But when “cork taint” spoils thousands of cases of wine it becomes a different story, as we learn from George Taber’s book, To Cork or not to Cork.
Cork comes from an oak tree in the Mediterranean region, mostly from Portugal and Spain. In 1974, when Portugal’s fascist regime was overthrown, landowners fled the cork forests. Amateurs took over and stimulated cork growth with the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and insecticides. Corks were washed down with chlorine, and the harvest cycle was ignored. Desperate wine producers set off in search of alternative stoppers. Taber begins his story in the 1980s when the wine producers’ fraternity discover they shared the same problem: a chemical compound referred to as TCA was spoiling their wine.
Meanwhile Australia, due to the Chernobyl disaster that ruined European vineyards, became a major wine exporter. Frustrated with spoiled wine, they funded a twenty-month study that clearly favored screwcaps. This prompted New Zealand, “not weighted down” with tradition, to gear up for a campaign favoring screwcaps. The “Screwcap Initiative” featured a group of attractive women wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “We’ve Screwed´em,” encouraging crowds coming off London subways to taste wines topped with screwcaps.
The floodgates opened for inventors ready make a fortune with synthetic, plastic, and glass stoppers. Taber, who admits to a limited chemistry background, is able to translate for novices how the laboratory testing science on alternative wine stoppers works. The aim is to find a stopper that won’t alter the taste of wine and is acceptable by the consumer.
Taber interviewed over 125 experts for this book and weaves an interesting mystery. With his light storytelling style, we get a glimpse into the secretive world of winemakers, their personal lives, fame and financial problems. In the end it comes down to cost. As Portugal is forced to resolve the cork problem, the price for a cork will go up and consumers will discover more wine bottle closures.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla