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August 02, 2010

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Evan,
Re: your first sentence, it would be interesting to see where the statistics currently are for cork vs all other. Our friend Scott Olsen at Fox Run told me he would go to all Stelvin (twist-off) caps tomorrow if he could afford it.

No other beverage industry would tolerate a 10% to 20% product loss experienced by its customers because of its closure.

The oxygen transfer rates for cork are no more uniform than the transfer rates for synthetic. The difference is that you can engineer the synthetic closure for the transfer rates you want. Just because there is a cork in the bottle doesn't mean the O2 transfer has been low.

For the winery there is the cost issue. We looked very hard at cork closures for our premium line, and it would add $1 or more to the price. We are in a recession. We can't really afford to absorb the cost, and we are pretty sure our customers won't like a price increase.

Finally, 98% of the wine sold in America is purchased to be consumed within 8 hours. Is the risk and price of cork worth garnering favor from that 2% and the few critics who want to worry about the closure.

Certainly my experience with FL wines is that the wines do not age well in synthetic corks. Having said that, I do agree with the comment above about most wines have a very short lifespan in bottle before being consumed - and I think synthetics are just fine for that (though I still despise opening them!).

Cheers!

I think we're missing Evan's point here, just a bit.

We're not talking about wines that should or will definitely be consumed within 3-5 years. Here, we're talking about a desire to age wines beyond that 5 years.

I've had several winemakers tell me that they think after 3-5 years most synthetics start to fail at a far higher rate than natural cork.

I may be in the minority, but I'll gladly pay extra for a real cork versus synthetic, especially for wines I want to cellar. In fact, when I made wine a couple years ago at the home winemaker center on the North Fork I paid extra to have natural cork vs. Normacorks. I think they asked me to pay 45 cents per cork, so I did.

Then again, I was making 5 cases, not 500 or 5,000.

I'm planning to find a local winery who will recork a case or so of wines currently under synthetic, including a couple of your wines, David. (Psst, his name is Scott Osborn btw.)

Joe, I don't think ANY wines age well under synthetics, so you specifically mentioning FL wines seems a bit odd.

There must be a very good reason why wineries like Petrus, Romanee Conti, Harlan Estate and many others choose natural cork closures for their own wonderful and elegant wines. I have noticed very disappointing results in aged wines I have tasted that had synthetic closures. I much prefer to take the risk of having a corked wine served in a restaurant on the all to rare occasion a restaurant serves a local wine, than to use a synthetic closure for my wines.

Thanks for the follow up, it is always nice to hear the reasoning behind the use of synthetic closures. It is interesting that their concern is with tainted wine, not pricing. From the second that synthetic cork goes in, the oxygen gets in at a much quicker rate. If I have a choice between equally good bottles of wine I will always buy the one with the better seal, even if it costs a little more.

Steve - I think one driving factor with those wineries using natural cork is an absence of price being a major factor. Gaja, for instance, uses extra long, TCA "eradicated" corks for his wines. Those cost money, but if people are willing to pay $100+ for your basic bottles, the extra 1.50 for a premium cork doesn't really matter.

Secondly, its, of course, image based. While I won't contend that natural cork, when fully functional (a big if on the cheaper end of the cork spectrum) is a better or worse seal than extruded synthetic cork, it is much sexier. On a high end wine, you can't use synthetic and almost can't use screwcap (Australia being the exception), despite that closure's large upsides.

Howie - Oxygen isn't usually the problem with extruded synthetics, the solid molded ones have an awful seal, but almost no one uses those anymore. Besides, corks are variable in seal as well, even at the most expensive level. Nomacorc, for instance, produces some excellent extruded synthetics that seal wonderfully. The bigger issue is off flavors in wines with age. I've had about a dozen wines that had been in bottle under extruded corks 5 years or longer, mostly Finger Lakes, and I'd say the majority aged well and tasted good. There were a couple that hadn't done well, though that's of course debatable whether that was the closure or not, and a couple with plastic-y notes to them, which I'd attribute to the closure and not oxygen. Thats not a good percentage for the goods to the plastic-y ones, but its also not necessarily out of line with some of the more atrocious cork numbers reported.

A final question, what price range of natural corks are generally used in the FL? I've pulled some bargain basement ones on some local wines, but I've also pulled what appear to be some nicer, upper mid range corks. Do any of the NY wine makers spend the extra dough to have their corks TCA tested or for higher quality material? I'm curious for Steve Shaw's opinion on this as his line of reds is clearly built with aging in mind.

We use corks ranging in price from $.085 (1-2 year wines) to $.55 (for the top grades in a longer length on long aging wines). One reason not to use plastic corks is the carbon footprint is huge compared to natural cork, on the order of 3-4 times (524g/1000 corks vs. 1497g/1000). Then there is the landfill/biodegradability issue - what happens when 20 years of corks start piling up? Cork taint occurs in less than 1% of wines. A big part of the taint problem began when chlorine started to be used in cleaning the cork. SO2 is used to bleach corks today, though we use unbleached corks because I don't see the point of making a tan cork white. It's just an unnecessary step. Finally, as Steve points out, natural cork allows some oxygen transfer in molecular quantities over a long period of time which reduces reductive qualities.

To the Rooster Hill people: so you worry about someone in a restaurant getting a corked wine but not a 2-year old wine that is prematurely oxidized? I've had plenty of the latter from the FL, and only a few corked bottles. And to the other synthetic defenders: if extruded corks can be made with very little oxygen admission, then why do I continue to get oxidized wines with these closures?

I'm not asking for Gaja quality corks on my $15 bottles - just the standard, good quality corks that some wineries continue to use.

I keep hearing FL producers moaning about the cost of a screwcap bottling line. How is it that many small producers in places like Germany are being able to afford them? Technology is getting cheaper all the time - seems like there might be a market niche for someone that could get screwcaps on small producers wine bottles in a cost-effective way?

Good discussion on this subject.

Cyclist - I hope Amy and the folks from Rooster Hill are reading and can address your question about premature oxidation. I suspect they don't think it's all that common, but I don't want to speak for them.

As for cork taint, it seems to come in waves in my household. We had a rough run last fall with three straight nights of corked bottles. Then, nothing for about three months. In fact, it's been quite a while since opening a bad bottle at home. We take that as a promising sign.

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