“It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong…”

by Katie Pizzuto on April 28, 2011

in cork,screwcap

It’s no small secret that we, as a nation—scratch that…as a species—are destructively self indulgent. We manufacture and we streamline in the interest of “progress” and “innovation”, seldom concerned about or aware of the negative impact we have on the world we are supposed to be living IN and not ON. It isn’t until the damage is done that we scamper like Chicken Little, trying desperately (or not so desperately) to undo that damage. As a bit of a cork dork (more literally now than figuratively), I’m looking down the barrel of an uncorked gun, and right now it’s looking pretty fucking scary.

Understand one thing: this is not a subjective discourse on whether or not I think cork-alternative wine closures are better or worse for the wine itself. Hell, that’s what got us where we are now. Cork, as it were, is not infallible. Cork can, on occasion, mess up your wine. Blame TCA, blame oxygen…whatever. And the beauty/ugliness of human nature is that we like to eliminate any trace of imperfection we can. If there’s a chance that a closure other than cork is likely to reduce the chance that we’ll get a bad bottle of wine, we tend to champion that closure. It’s made our life better! But it hasn’t.

Understand another thing: this is not the blind rant of a tree hugger. These words weren’t put down in an effort to save a dying forest or an endangered animal. They aren’t meant to instill panic or fear. They’re just meant as a minor wake up call because to everything there is a cause and effect. As usual, we are more concerned with how alternative closures will affect us, not how they will affect our environment—an environment we are supposedly working hard now to save for all the damage done in the past.

The leading contender right now in the “stay the hell away from cork” campaign is the screwcap, but synthetic corks are plenty the rage, too. Screwcaps, for the most part, provide a pretty good seal—better than cork, in fact. Because they’re manufactured and not a natural substance, they provide a much more uniform seal than corks. Add to this the fact that there are plenty of reports of well-aged screwcapped bottles being opened and the wine tasting fresh and lively, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good argument for going screwcap, though selling the consumer on a $30+ bottle of wine with a screwcap isn’t easy.

Synthetic cork, made from plastic, has its own cheering squad because it looks and acts like a real cork, but it prevents the dreaded cork taint associated with natural cork and caused by the chemical TCA. Since most of the time that synthetic cork is still hidden under the foil cap, you’re less likely to deal with a fussy consumer, and still save yourself the “corked wine” headache. Happy palates. Happy wallets.

Cork producers, determined not to go down without a fight, countered by stepping up their manufacturing process to significantly reduce the opportunities for TCA contamination by refining and improving their production process, and have successfully reduced the cork taint rate. Despite their efforts, though, the industry naysayers will still tell you that cork isn’t worth the risk. What they don’t seem to mention is that another reason to go synthetic or screwtop is price—they’re a shitload cheaper to produce. But don’t think that cost isn’t absorbed elsewhere. The environment, in the end, is the one paying.

Cork trees grow with zero inputs: no pesticides, no irrigation, no pruning. The trees are harvested by stripping the outer layer of skin, leaving the trees unharmed to live out a life that could easily run a couple of centuries. Cork is then taken to factories where it is dried, boiled, and turned into wine bottle stoppers (or a bunch of other products). Up to 90% of the energy used in these factories to process the cork is made from burning cork dust, a byproduct of production. Of the cork that is pulled off the tree, absolutely none of it goes to waste.

Synthetic corks, on the flip side, are made from petroleum-based plastic. Are they recyclable? Sure. Do most Americans bother? You tell me. I know I don’t. It’s second nature to toss the thing in the trash can. To make things worse, the energy inputs to make synthetic cork or metal screwcaps are way the hell higher than those of natural cork. Not only is natural cork biodegradable, now we’ve got natural cork recycling programs around the U.S. (begun by Cork Forest Conservation Alliance), doing their damnedest to make sure cork doesn’t reach the landfill either.

At the end of the day, if we put aside whatever arguments we have for what closure is better for the wine, what we are left with is (and in my not-so-humble opinion what is more important) what closure is better for our environment—an environment we are supposedly really concerned about as of late. The bottom line is that if you calculate the carbon fixing effect of the cork forest, the net carbon footprint for natural cork shows that each cork acts as a carbon sink—each natural cork actually contributes an offset of 118g of CO2. If you look at the screen capture of the calculator shown here (I entered 5,000 cases of wine produced as a small, conservative figure), you can’t say that about plastic or screwcaps. Are we really that worried about a bad bottle of wine? Is it that horrible to have to replace a bottle when the alternative is polluting our surroundings more than we already have?

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Patrick Spencer April 29, 2011

Katie,
Thank you for the great post. A couple of things; plastic closures are not currently being recycled in the US, due to the different types of plastics being used. TerraCycle, a company in NJ, developed a program and then ended it because of that issue. Neither are screw caps. The most important fact that people often miss is, because something can be recycled, it doesn’t mean it is. Regarding the issue of TCA taint, research has shown that TCA can be found in wines closed with screw caps and plastic closures. As an agent, TCA is found in pallets, cardboard, plastic wrap, oak barrels and concrete, products which are commonly found in wineries. Wineries who have cleaned up their cellar practices have found a dramatic reduction in TCA exposure. The fact is, that wineries who use chlorinated water in their cleaning are subjecting themselves to high occurrence of TCA taint. Talk about taking the easy way out, that’s what has happened to the cork, every time a bottle of wine is “off” the cork is blamed, and that’s not only unfair, it’s unscientific. Wineries need to get off the “wine quality/TCA” dime and start telling the public the real truth, screw caps and plastic closures are less expansive. When was the last time a winery switched to an alternative closure and lowered the price of their wine?

Reply

2 François April 29, 2011

And don’t forget the decorative properties of cork. I have two big glass jars full of ‘em, really neat!

Reply

3 Erin April 29, 2011

Patrick,

“When was the last time a winery switched to an alternative closure and lowered the price of their wine?”

An average good quality cork costs 30-50c each. Plus the cost of capsule/wax (~10c)
An average screwcap is somewhere between 15-20c.

At most you could expect a 60c decrease in price per bottle of wine. This new ‘profit margin’ tends to be put towards paying for the enormously expensive installation of a screwcap head on your bottling line. These are approximately $10-15,000.

Remember, no winery is switching to screw cap to make a million out of you. They’re just trying to get their wine to you in the same condition they bottled it.

Reply

4 Katie Pizzuto April 29, 2011

Valid points but you make absolutely no mention of the toll the production of both alternative closures takes on the environment. In fact, no one seems to discuss that. All anyone is worried about is avoiding a tainted bottle, regardless of “cost”…and, no, I don’t mean your bottom line.

Reply

5 Erin April 30, 2011

Katie,
I think it does go further than avoiding the tainted bottle. I think use of screw caps is driven by convenience. Both, for producer and consumer. However, I agree with you, cork as a natural product will ‘cost’ the environment less. But the calculator does not take into consideration the plastic or aluminium capsule that goes with a cork closure. In Australia, adoption of a carbon tax is on the political agenda and thus sparking heated discussions across all industry. Many wine producers trying to reduce their ‘carbon cost’ are focussing on transportation. Both distance, and by weight. In the last 18 months the 750mL PET bottle has entered the market. Both on Australian shelves, and in the UK. Although these bottles use an aluminium screw cap, they are going a long way to increasing recyclability and reducing the carbon cost of transportation.
I think it is good to question the carbon costs of cork v screwcap (synthetic corks are a dying breed). I only hope that people don’t lose sight of the fact that using a ‘green’ your cork closure is only some of the way there, in terms of reducing carbon costs. If we don’t demand improvements by reduction in the use of styrofoam packaging, heavy glass and the use of petrochemicals in the vineyard then the carbon cost issue can never really improve.

Reply

6 Katie Pizzuto May 1, 2011

In that regard, dear, I agree with you completely. Samples I receive in styrofoam kill me, and if nothing else I try to reuse them in shipping wine myself so it at least gets a little more use, but I am happier when I see molded pulp and such. And yes, reducing weight will help tremendously, too. My point with this piece is that nearly every debate being waged about closures is strictly about convenience as it pertains to US. At no point does any voice of reason seem to step up and give a shit about what that shift in production does to our environment. It isn’t even on the table. And it needs to be. We have done enough damage already in the name of convenience.

Reply

7 castello May 2, 2011

In good news, almost all of my wine shipments in the past year have been in molded pulp inserts. That is a big change from the previous year. I’ll drink to that.

Reply

8 Katie Pizzuto May 3, 2011

Ditto over here but still seeing too much styrofoam.

Reply

9 coupe 60 May 3, 2011

Katie,

I’ll say it, I am the poster boy for the destructively self indulgent individual that you described in your opening paragraph. I believe it was the beefcake shot that I sent the International Foundation for Self Indulgence that got me the poster boy gig, but that is a story for another day. (Shit, now I’ve lost my whole train of thought while making up the fictitious self Indulgence group) .

Oh yeah, From a pure wino perspective I absolutely hate those corkscrew breaking, wine experience ruining Synthetic cork screws. If they never shoved another one of those in a bottle, I could not be happier. But I have to tell you, the Stelvin is my friend. It is convenient, easy (I don’t have to get paged from whatever I am doing in whatever room I am in at a party to open another bottle of wine). If I was going to have another kid, I might even consider naming him Stelvin…maybe that will be my next dog…but once again I digress to the point of distraction.

Oh yeah, Erin has a great point about the offset of not having a capsule on a twist top bottle, but then again, I really don’t believe in any of that crap about climate change caused by man and carbon credits and other enviro bullshit (poster boy – remember). Besides, the world is gonna end on December 21, 2012 anyway according to the Mayans, (I need to remember to not shop for Christmas presents until the last minute next year in the event the Fuckers were right) Cork or no cork …

and really, I believe the reduce carbon footprint due to your decreased blog posting of once a quarter should offset any of my self indulgent actions in the interest of “progress” and “innovation”

Reply

10 Katie Pizzuto May 3, 2011

If you’d stop watching that bloody bobsledding you’d notice all the posts you haven’t commented on Lou :)

Reply

11 coupe 60 May 3, 2011

Franz Klammer was a downhill skier….

and for the records I have read most of the posts as they came across my email

Reply

12 Katie Pizzuto May 3, 2011

yeah, bobsledding, skiing…all those white-boy sports are the same to me. I spend the winter months at the lodge, by the fire, with a martini.

Reply

13 Katie Pizzuto May 3, 2011

And for the record folks, there will be another Gonzo guest blog post contest starting tomorrow (yes it includes free wine) so sharpen your wit and get out your old vinyl….

Reply

14 Doug Schulman May 20, 2011

I think your CO2 output chart is a bit misleading. CO2 converted into O2 by the trees is not a direct result of the cork industry. I don’t think it’s fair to treat it as such. Without that element your chart would look a lot different. As has also been mentioned, you and every other cork advocate have neglected to account for the capsules. Plus, what’s the output of CO2 and other pollutants of burning the cork dust? How would that compare with the outputs of the power generated for production of Stelvin or other closures? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a key part of the picture here. I know that burning oak for energy is terribly toxic to the environment. Plus, how about the fact that a lot of bad wine gets thrown away and replacement bottles get opened? I think that is a huge factor in this debate that often gets overlooked. It takes a lot of energy to produce and ship those “extra” bottles of wine! Stelvin certainly does its part to minimize that effect, which has to be viewed in terms of immediate consumption (TCA, oxidation) as well as future consumption (oxidation). Combining all of these factors, I am in no way convinced that cork is better for the environment, and if it is, I suspect that it is a marginal difference, far less than that put forth by you and so many others. I have no affiliation or connection to any closure manufacturer.

Reply

15 Katie Pizzuto June 3, 2011

Doug, please understand that I’m not a “cork advocate” they way you state…as I mentioned, this isn’t the plead of a tree hugger. I simply believe that right now, it is the greenest option we have. And regardless of how marginal you may feel the difference is, a small effect taken over the course of many years becomes a large impact. I am open to any and all ideas for a more environmentally friendly closure, but for right now it appears to be our best bet. A year-long study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that CO2 emissions (a key factor in global warming) resulting from the life cycle of a screwcap are 24 times higher than those from a natural cork stopper, while a plastic stopper is responsible for 10 times more CO2 than a natural cork. According to this study, natural cork is the only closure option for winemakers, distributors and retailers (as of right now) who want to minimize their carbon footprint and adopt best practices in relation to environmental performance. Here’s a link to the study: http://www.corkfacts.com/publications/2009mar24.htm

Reply

16 Doug Schulman June 4, 2011

Thanks for the detailed response, Katie. I do want to be clear that in reference to your words and the study to which you linked, I would again raise the same arguments and say that I am not convinced that cork is more environmentally friendly. If I were, I would be a huge proponent. I haven’t seen any studies or evidence that properly include all factors (or even properly reference the ones cited), so I have no reason to believe either way. As a result, I prefer screwcaps for their consistency, but still have no problem with those who choose to use natural cork. Whether or not you want to call yourself a “cork advocate”, you seem to be voicing a strong pro-cork opinion. You also use specific ideas and even numbers to back up that opinion, both of which I believe are misleading for reasons I mentioned above. I just don’t think it is fair or accurate to say that cork “appears to be our best bet” without some thorough research to back it up.

I’m sorry to repeat myself here, but you didn’t seem to respond to these key points, and I think that if you had taken them to heart you would at least realize that the study to which you linked would not sway me (or maybe even have rethought believing such rubbish yourself).

-the cork industry’s use of trees does not logically lead us to the idea that the cork industry is responsible for the existence of said trees

-bottles ruined by cork and identified as such lead to a much greater number of bottles of wine that must be produced, packaged, transported and stored, which leads to much greater CO2 output than we would otherwise have

I would stand by the other points I made as well, but those were more questioning the argument whereas I think these two put some serious holes in it.

Reply

17 Doug Schulman June 4, 2011

Sorry for the double post, but I would also like to point out that I’ve seen some very convincing research that’s been done showing the dangers of burning wood to create energy. Burning that cork dust is terrible for whatever humans and other animals are living anywhere nearby, far beyond the CO2 that it puts out (which must also be significant).

Reply

18 Patrick Spencer June 7, 2011

Doug,
I’d like to respond to a few of your comments on this thread. First, let me make it clear that the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance is not part of, or sponsored by the cork industry. We are a 501c3 forest conservation NGO, and as of the writing of this reply, we have received virtually no funding from the cork industry,

OK, let’s start; the CO2 output is not misleading, it is in fact a direct result of the cork industry. These forests represent the most evolved example of a Silvo Pastoral system, (humans and nature working together). For almost 1000 years the farmers have planted and maintained these forests, without eliminating or significantly reducing the forest biodiversity that has existed there for millennia. As a matter of fact, the cork forests of the Mediterranean have the 2nd highest level of forest biodiversity, after the Amazonian rainforest’s, 25,000 species of plants, animals and insects that live nowhere else on the planet.

Capsules are not part of the equation as they are not used as a sealer, they are purely cosmetic, just like the bottles labels or other packaging that a winery chooses. We encourage wineries to eliminate them to lower their carbon footprint and to save $$$.
The burning of cork dust has all been eliminated by the cork industry, which rightly boasts, a zero % waste factor. The cork producing plants are now state of the art and they vacuum the dust out of the air to be used in composite corks and other products. The cork forests of the Mediterranean absorb 20 million tons of CO2 each year. No aluminum plant, bauxite mine or plastic closure plant absorbs CO2 it’s the reverse, they produce it!

As for the statement “a lot of bad wine gets thrown away”. that’s just not the case,(sorry for the pun) all the recent tests and studies have shown that less than 2% of all wine, closed with natural cork, sold in the world is tainted by TCA, this is the same average for wine closed with alternative closures. Did you know that wines closed with screw caps and plastic closures can be affected by TCA? Also there are over 800 different chemical agents that can affect wine flavor profiles and none of them have to do with the closure, natural cork or other.
You mentioned Stelvin and the fact that they are “doing their part to minimize the effect”. Well that’s just not the case. The mining for Bauxite, from which aluminum is made, remains one of the most environmentally devastating mining practices on the planet. The toxic red sludge that is a by-product of turning Bauxite into alum is full of heavy metals and carcinogenic agents and never goes away. People, (all who live in third world countries) who live within a 50 mile radius of a Bauxite mine, cannot drink their own ground water as it has been contaminated by this toxic sludge, also birth defects and respiratory illness rates are higher than average for the same regions.
When turning alum into aluminum a cyanide based by-product is produced and in the US the aluminum industry, which is quite small, consumes 1% of all the electricity generated in the USA. None of these facts are figured into the CO2 chart which you reference, though they should be.
Screw caps are not actively being recycled in the US, as they are too small and fall through the system as “particulate matter”. To date, no state in the US has a mandatory recycling law on the books. Aluminum is not sustainably sourced, energy efficient or biodegradable.

In closing I would repeat again, the cork forests do indeed exist because of the cork industry. In areas where demand for cork has diminished, Pine and Eucalyptus trees are being planted to supplement income, but these crops are devastating to the soil, absorb great quantities of water and are highly flammable. All of these factors are adding to potential desertification of 7 million acres of much needed oxygen providing forests. By the way did you know, 90% of the cork forests are owned by individual family farmers, who have been working these forests for multiple generations? This in not agro-business

The facts are out there, for those willing to do the research. The American public is being lied to everyday, when they are told by wine industry representatives that “there is a cork shortage, the trees are being cut down and 10% of all wine is bad due to natural corks” The truth is, this isn’t about wine quality or the environment, it’s about the bottom line, wineries save money when they switch to screw caps and plastic closures. We find this really interesting because as farmers, you’d think that using a natural product that helps the planet would be in their best interest, because the soil is the most important factor in wine making and the alternative closure are poisoning it. Thanks you for taking the time to read my reply. Please visit our website: http://www.corkforest if you’d like to learn more.

Best,
Patrick Spencer
Executive Director, Cork Forest Conservation Alliance

Reply

19 Doug Schulman July 2, 2011

Patrick, thanks for chiming in here. I appreciate some of the information you’ve given on aluminum. Still, saying that the cork forest exists because of the cork industry is a result of false logic. I think you must know that. The cork industry doesn’t manufacture cork trees. Keeping the land free of other trees is much different, and still not a direct result of the cork industry. To say that the farmers have “planted and maintained these forests, without eliminating or significantly reducing the forest biodiversity that has existed there for millennia,” is a self contradictory statement. The trees were either there in this concentration before they were farmed or not. You can’t have it both ways in saying that the farmers haven’t changed anything, but they also make things much better than they would be otherwise, which is your argument. Other trees getting planted and not being good for the ecosystem is a shame, but it’s still false logic to mention that as a natural or unavoidable alternative to the cork industry’s existence. The cork industry does not actively and directly cause that not to happen.

As for studies showing about equal incidence of TCA in cork finished wines and wines under other closures, I have to call BS. Jamie Goode mentioned in 2010 (http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/uncategorized/decanters-news-piece-on-cork-taint-via-barrels) that at the International Wine Challenge, maybe 1 or 2 bottles over the past few years (of opening about 15000 bottles per year) have been found with TCA from screwcap. I myself have found 2 such bottles ever, but the odds are the same no matter the closure that this would happen in the winery, so the (real) numbers tell us that cork is often to blame. Going back to 2002, the IWC (and I can’t find the James Laube article right now, but I am sure you can if you search; I’m sorry that I lost it) apparently found about twice as many wines under cork (versus screwcap) that had been spoiled by faults of any kind. I don’t know what “studies” you are citing, as you have not told us, but I suspect that they’ve been funded by groups such as yours or the cork industry (and there’s not really any difference in my mind).

The public is definitely being lied to in many ways, an I think you are playing a part in that. Honestly, I think you might have a valid argument, but using illogical arguments and citing “facts” that are muddled or simply untrue doesn’t help your cause at all in the minds of those who can see past the doubletalk and deceptive tactics.

Reply

20 Doug Schulman July 2, 2011

Oh, the IWC results I mentioned were from 2006 (not 2002) and here’s an article mentioning them: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1529240/Screwcaps-blamed-for-tainting-wine.html
I will mention that the sulfide problems are winemaking problems that can easily be avoided by those who know how to treat their wines in preparation for bottling under screwcap. They are still real, of course.

Reply

21 Patrick Spencer July 3, 2011

Doug,
You have been given well documented facts have have chosen to call them BS and “false logic”. My guess is that you’ve spent zero amount of time at the websites of the UNFAO, WWF or EFIMED to read the unbiased studies on the cork forests and their biodiversity. There is little opportunity to open a mind, locked with misinformation. Referencing Jame Laube, whose paycheck comes from wineries who are committed to screw caps and buy ads in WS, is about as credible as the latest sighting of Sasquatch. No nee to reply, we’ve each said our piece and I’m OK with the fact that, never the twain shall meet……

Reply

22 Doug Schulman July 22, 2011

I wrote “saying that the cork forest exists because of the cork industry is a result of false logic. I think you must know that. The cork industry doesn’t manufacture cork trees. Keeping the land free of other trees is much different, and still not a direct result of the cork industry.” You said I was calling well documented facts false logic. Really I was calling the reasoning behind your argument false logic. It’s much different. My obvious frustration came from the fact that you have dodged many of my important points and chosen to focus on only a few, for which you don’t have logical rebuttals.

Reply

23 Doug Schulman July 22, 2011

Oh, and I have spent a fair bit of time looking at the studies you’ve mentioned. I find many of them irrelevant to the topic at hand and/or misguided.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: