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GP14Jul04: The Great Cork Controversy: You're the Tops

Ten Cents.  As it turns out our readers are serious drinkers of wine and were aroused by our sally last week against screwtops.  We are very much for corks.  Eugene Bem, a consultant and occasional trafficker in wines, has written us to say that the move towards screwtops on wine is a little bit of a hornswoggle.  For several reasons—most having to with money—the big wine manufacturing operations are pushing the screwtop, but he prefers to think that the true high-end vineyards will stick to cork.  As he says, wines have to breathe; screwtops are good for beer but put too much of a seal on your wine.   

The economics, as he notes, are the real driver here, and they favor the screwtop, except that the very small, artisanal boutique wineries that are coming out with the truly distinctive wines will never, in any event, be able to afford the machinery investment (perhaps $100,000 for a screwtop line) involved with the metallic caps.  So they’re a little bit stuck even if the want to join the wine manufacturers who produce standard plonk that  gushes through wine outlets with the aid of mega marketing budgets.  Says Bem: 

Yes it is true: several big name, new world producers are trying to convince us that “screwcaps” are better.  A well made cork from Portugal is still the best and the top quality wines are not going to change anytime soon.  By the way, a good cork costs around 75 cents and a “screwcap” costs about 10 cents.  May not seem that much unless you are trying to sell a less-than-$7-dollar-a-bottle wine to someone who prefers the sweet taste of soda rather than a complex, well-made wine.  

The cork oak can renew its bark, but it takes at least 40 years to produce useful cork.  The tree can then only be stripped every nine years, out of a working life of 150 to 200 years. 

Flat out, corks cost more, and they don’t always grow on trees, cork taking 9 years to come of age.  They’re simply a bother to the “suits” or managerial types who love zeros much more than grapes.  That said, it’s not that there’s not an argument for the screwtops.  First, they are free of TCA, cork taint, which affects maybe 5% of the cork population and tinges a lot of wine.  And by sealing off the wine, they help produce the standardized if somewhat average product that the big shops are after, preventing the unwarranted oxidation our visiting wine critic complained about in last week’s letter.  It is one of a battery of techniques that leads to a good, if not great, standardized product.  

In like manner, all the lawns of our neighbors—closely cropped, weed free, and brightly greenish—appear more perfect than our own, yet lack the depth of color, heavy worm population, and richness found in our imperfect own, free as it is of the chemical weedkillers and all the other noxious nutrients supplied by the commercial lawn services.  Screwtops help product uniform wine—for better and for worse. 

They’re much appealing to those who want one-taste, one-look, one-feel wine.  The accountants of Australia have bought in to them, apparently, and you can read about their love of the screws in CPA Magazine (of Australia), November 2002, where Max Allen opines about wine, corks, and screwtops.  Incidentally, the Australian wine industry, like the American, has made quite a push on cookie-cutter techniques for winemaking.  You can learn about this in Robert Parker.  The Australian Wine Research Institute has even produced studies showing how synthetic corks (and, we suppose, screwtops) produce benefits not available from cork.  

Stelvins.  If you are going to go over to screwtops, look for Stelvins, developed by Pechiney.  Out of France, they are the class act in the screwtop world.  They seem to be relatively free of the problems presented by some of the other tops you can come by.

Loss of Lynx.  There has been an unintended consequence of the use of plastic stoppers and screwtops which was noted as far back as 2002.  With some lessening of cork demand, the Portuguese farmers are cutting down stands of cork.  This is leading to a diminution of the lynx, which appears to be a threatened species.  (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/
2609157.stm.)  Anguished cries from the World Wildlife Federation urge all of us to demand corks in our bottles.  In any event, the move away from cork seems to threaten the Iberian lynx as well as the many workers involved with the 15 billion corks per year sculpted from sustainably harvested tree bark. 

The Portuguese Rear Guard.  But the Portuguese (we have not checked on the Spaniards) are not giving up easily.  They’re improving their corks and trying to get out the evenhanded story on Brand X solutions (plastic stoppers and screwtops).  We learn of Ms. Marta Sa Pinto, a biotechnologist who is really into corks and is straining to preserve their place in the sun.  She does research at Suberus Group, a large cork manufacturer that is trying to beat back the challenge offered by the non-organic plastic and metal people.  You can read a bit about her on Otto Pohl’s website—Otto, who is an interesting photographer/journalist in his own right.  See www.ottopohl.com/Stories/2001_Stories/NYTcork.htm.  

Why Corks?  Why should we argue for corks?  Well, it is fun to be a little oblique and oppose a future that wants to steal away many of the niceties that make life fun.  It’s part of the joy of decanting to lift out a cork, smell it, and then drink to the lees.  Not much of that in the screwtop world. 

But there’s something serious afoot here as well.  Mass manufacturing techniques can, if employed right, get rid of the bottom 10 to 20% of the barrel, the really bad quality stuff.  But they also slice off the singular, top-drawer libation, driving away the fineness and excellence that make the spirits soar.  They produce standard, average, mediocre.  Is the best only to become a dim memory?  We think there’s a clear argument that says we really need to cherish, encourage, and nurture the top 20%, even if we do a lot of our shopping at Wal-Mart.  There is a rationale for the very best.  The screwtop zealots worry about the 5% that goes bad.  We worry about the wonderful 5% that will disappear. 

Value Added.  When vendors of any kind of modern goods try to increase prices, they wax eloquent about value added, even though we usually find out that they offer what amounts to value subtracted.  As production of goods and services move offshore, we would claim there’s still room for our workers if they will, to paraphrase Cole Porter, go for the top.  The “top” gets lost in translation. 

Value, we think, specifically arises from artisanal, craftsmanlike, truly one-of-a-kind imprints intertwined with mass production items.  General Motors and Ford will continue to suffer from terrible erosion in market share until they find a way to put a very individual stamp on each product.  We are probably the only purchasers of an American car who know exactly which workers put it together and who have special wheels that make for a much better ride than those offered by the manufacturer.  There are a whole range of manufacturing and service options that do not require rocket science but that could help our domestic carmakers ward off the invasion from overseas.  We just need to change the mindset of bean counters who are all too inclined to put screwtops on bottles.  Producers need to aim for one of a kind products. 

Bio-Artistry.  Just recently, we have chatted with a Florida company called Sequiam (www.sequiam.com) that makes affordable locks you open with your fingerprint.  In a year, you will be able to go up to your front door, put your index finger on an inconspicuous tab, and watch your front door swing open.  We have entered the genetics century (see Big Ideas 163), where we have the potential of building devices, therapies, and service offerings that are designed to deal with you and you alone.  This alone would seem to be the formula for averting the dissolution of the American economy.  We are moving from electronic to genetic design, which can incorporate individuality. 

P.S. To read more about wine, please visit our Best of Wine, Tea, and Coffee page at www.globalprovince.com/bestofwtc.htm.

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