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?