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November 15, 2011

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As a very large consumer of NY wines I'd have to agree with much of what you're saying here Evan, especially towards the end when you say closing a bottle of Cayuga with natural cork is almost wasteful. It is for such a class of everyday drinking wine, an no one faults the producer for doing that.

I'd take it a step further and suggest that it's almost irreverent to dress up your best stuff in the poorest clothes and them beat the drum for world class wine making, whether that is truly deserved or not.

I'm NOT suggesting that anyone should spend tons of money on frivolously heavy glass, ridiculously long corks, and gold-flecked labels - unless that is their model. But it really only takes a tiny bit of tweaking to move up the scale of packaging quality. The sixty-five cent hock bottle from Waterloo is as passe as a "car phone" or acid-washed jeans and looks just as silly.

If the producers genuinely are bottling up the real deal, it makes tremendous sense to spend an extra fifteen cents and get a good bottle, another five cents and get a real cork, and another few pennies and put a decent capsule on it, maybe one with your name on it.

And you are absolutely correct when you say a decision is made by the consumer when they hold and use the product. If it feels cheap the whole "experience" is diminished as such, and no one can afford to start the relationship with a new consumer "coming from behind" - like a restaurant with great food but dirty bathrooms, or an unkempt staff, it kind of ruins it.

It's my opinion that the stronger the packaging the greater the consumer experience throughout.

Really interesting article. Evan and Tom did a nice job of assessing some the key factors at play for winemakers in closure decision-making.

One thing left out, though, which undoubtedly makes it even more complex, is the idea of winemaker intention. Packaging decisions aren’t just about delivering a brand personality to your consumers. In the case of closures, I’d go so far as to say that they’re part of the winemaking process.

Take screwcaps, for example, which are widely associated with reductive characteristics in wine. Winemakers often have to adapt their winemaking style to use them effectively. Traditional cork, by its very nature, is a dramatically variable product, even within the same grade or category of quality. And there is a constant risk of product failure due to breakage, crumbling or taint.

Then you factor in other winemaking variables – the wine variety’s sensitivity to oxygen, winemaking techniques employed, and the intended aging potential. That’s why Nomacorc offers its synthetic corks with a range of oxygen transmission rates (OTRs). In the case of our highest-performance line of corks, the Select Series, we price the corks equally – so winemakers can make decisions based on what’s best for their wine, not just price.

You’re absolutely right: it is a shame to see writers and consumers give up on a wine before they pour a glass. But as you say, “change comes slowly, and with persistent consumer education.” It takes time, a lot of independent research, and tasting samples. It takes reporters like yourselves willing to recognize that it’s a complex proposition and decision-making process. Much like the Finger Lakes region, we’re also seeking – and believe we merit - respect. And we think the proof should be in the glass.

Last time we were at Heart & Hands we bought two bottles of Pinot (of course...). One had a cork closure, the other had a glass Vinoseal. I'm curious to see how they each age. Any thoughts on these?

Paul Z -

Thank you for purchasing our Pinot. We have offered the option of the Vino Seal (glass stoppers) for a number of years on our Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir. Our thinking behind this option was a reflection of our own frustration with the occasional chance of TCA tainted bottles. Thus, we allow the customers (at no additional cost) the option to choose the closure they prefer.

Side-by-side (blind) comparisons with our wines and also other wineries wines usually offer a little more vibrant fruit on the Vino Seal vs. the cork option on both red and whites. The cork (despite the wax seal) does breathe over time. Whereas, the Vino Seal protects the wine similarly to a screw cap closure.

With the library of both these closures in our cellar, we're hoping to unveil these two options down the road for the benefit of furthering consumer education.

Cheers,
Tom

As a Long time Finger lakes Wine consumer and now a Finger Lakes winery owner(Hector Wine Company) I am sympathetic with the desire to save a little money on bottle closures. My experience with synthetic closures is nothing but disapointing. When out tasting it is not always made clear what type of closure is in the bottle being purchased. I have lost multiple bottles that I have chosen to age a little longer to oxidation due to the noma cork or similiar synthetic closures. While there may be a place for these substitutes in wines that are made for quick drinking I have to believe that at least 2% or more of these wines are lost to people who mistakenly decide to age the wrong wine or wines that sit on a store shelf for a little too long. This to me is just as disapointing or maybe enven worse than losing wine to cork taint. At Hector Wine Company we spent a great deal of time trying to decide what to use for closure and I have to admit we never considered synthetic closures. We looked at nature cork, agglomerated cork and screw caps. We have chosen to use Daim agglomerated corks after discussing there use with other wineries here and in Alsace. We have been very happy with there performance and feel they are worth the money. We are also planning to start limited use of screw caps with some of our 2011 aromatic white wines.

It is a shame that Dr. Frank is now using synthetic closures on their Rieslings. I have sent them polite notes arguing for cork or screwcaps for these ageable wines but have received no response.

As a matter of fact, I have now sworn off wines from Standing Stone, since the last two bottles of wine purchased from them have had signs of premature aging; 2008 Vidal Ice and 2007 Gewurztraminers, FWIW. Both delightful when tasted at the winery, but golden sherry like notes when drunk in 2011 (properly stored). Also, no response to my pleas. I wouldn't mind screwcaps, or the fancy glass closure that Heart & Hands has tried (unless that turns out to be a dud - but at least they view it as a trial).

This is indeed a fascinating piece. We use a range of Nomacorc products at Hudson-Chatham and we believe we are bringing a good experience to our consumers.

We in the winemaking industry all have to admit that natural cork is something that is slowly becoming obsolete. Many wines from Australia and New Zealand, as well as from Germany, are slowly turning from cork to screw caps. Why? Because we all know cork is not a dependable closure. To use a cork because it makes a "nice experience" is almost irresponsible, when considering guaranteeing a quality product. I have never understood how the wine industry or consumers have accepted a 5-10% failure rate acceptable via the use of natural cork. If your Nook or Kindle or iPod had a 5-10% failure rate, would that be considered acceptable? Why should the winemaker or the consumer suffer in this way?

Screw tops require equipment smaller wineries cannot always afford. We believe that synthetic corks offer a third alternative.

The true information on synthetic corks is not fully decided, as this article states.

I can truly say that we see little resistance in our tasting room for these kinds of closures. Although we are young, some of our wines are now five years old, and our wines are surviving nicely using these Nomacorc products.

We are always looking for good and solid alternatives. But insinuating that synthetic corks is less than acceptable, or inferior, is like saying you prefer books to an iPad because it doesn't require batteries. The industry os looking for other alternatives, and synthetic corks offer this opportunity.

Cyclist -
Some extra detail on the vinoseal / vinolok... it is definitely past the stage where it is experimental...

The vinoseal / vinolok has been used by premium west coast producers (Calera, Whitehall Lane, Sineann) and a large array of Alsatian producers for a number of years. They are putting premium wines beneath this closure with confidence as are we. We do not consider the use of the vinolok to be a trial - a fun experiment perhaps, but not a trial.

The experiment for us is about comparing, side-by-side, the same wine with a different closure. We expect that there will be subtle differences and nuances and are looking forward to exploring them in the glass in years to come!

Cheers,
Susan Higgins

People need to understand that Nomacorc is perfectly acceptable for a wine that will be consumed within 2 years of bottling. In the last couple of years this technology has taken a huge leap and some synethics can act like a natural cork, allow for some aging in those wines that require it. Granted, they will not last a decade or two, but like Evan stated, 6-8 years is possible now. Of course, the price of these corks are more comparable with a grade 1 cork. The lower end Nomacorcs can be purchased wholesale for about 12 cents each, which will help our wineries bottom line. I think New York wineries have enough stacked against them and if they can use these corks with success in some of their wines, I say have at it.

Tom and Evan: Great job writing a balanced piece here that outlines most (if not all) of the major issues.

I think it's important to remember that the inspiration for this story is some potentially age-worthy wines that are not likely to reach their full, mature potential because they are sealed under plastic rather than cork, glass or screwcap.

If a wine is meant to be consumed (or if your customer base IS going to consume them) within a year or two, then it may make sense to use synthetic closures and save the money. If your brand is okay with being associated with plastic corks. I'm not making a judgement here -- many are, but many aren't.

Carlo, you say that corks are obsolete. I'd argue that they are anything but. Because of alternative closures, cork quality seems to be on the rise. But let's say that you're right and cork is no longer the "best" (a dubious construct but let's go with it) option.

Why is that so? If it's purely about the risk of cork taint -- and let's use the 2% taint number for this discussion -- okay. I'll accept that argument. As a winemaker, it must be frustrating to see the fruit of your hard work destroyed by TCA. And, as Amy says in the piece, I understand not wanting customers to make judgements on your wine or winery based on a tainted bottle.

But here's what I don't get: Cork fails 2% of the time (again, let's just use that number). But, we know -- the manufacturers will even tell you -- that their synthetic corks will also fail after X number of years at a much higher rate than 2%.

To me, this is trading in a "maybe 2%" for a "definitely more than 2%." What's worse for a winery like Rooster Hill in the market place -- a 2% chance that a corked wine will lead to a poor customer experience or a higher probability that an oxidized wine will lead to the same poor experience.

Carlo, I've told you for years that I think your baco noir line should be under natural cork, purely for my own selfish reasons. To me, they have the structure and the stuffing to age many years. You've even told me stories about tasting 10+ year old bacos and how elegantly they age and evolve. The only way I can experience that with your wines is to have them re-corked (which I might do btw).

It seems that this is really a discussion about capital. If you're against corks because of their faults, synthetic closures are no better and are -- in at least some cases -- worse. I think that's why you see those drink-early German rieslings under screwcap rather than synthetics.

BUT, they are cheaper. Cheaper than natural cork and far cheaper than buying an entirely new bottling line and moving to screwcaps.

And it's easy to understand money being the issue. We're not talking a few hundred dollars here. We're talking thousands and thousands. But, if it's about the money, let's not make it about cork taint.

Susan,

When I said that Vinolok type closures were on trial, I meant in the sense that you would find the aging curve acceptable when compared to (good) cork. I first encountered these closures on some German and Austrian wines (don't drink much west coast). From the design, I would say that the seal must be pretty close to perfect - like a screwcap. And the NZ/Aussie experience has shown that some slight winemaking alterations (eg. go easy on sulfur) are sometimes warranted to deal with the more perfect seal provided by screwcaps.

I know some producers will come here and tell us how wonderful synthetic corks are. If you stick with these closures, I might continue to buy your $7 hybrid blends for immediate consumption, but will hesitate to purchase anything more ambitious. This is from a customer based on personal experience.

This is an interesting discussion, particularly the aspect that a consumer may hold on to a wine for five years not knowing that under the capsule sits a synthetic cork designed for keeping a wine fresh for only a couple of years.

What would help maybe is a cellaring recommendation on the back label. Some producers give this info for their wines on their website, but unfortunately only few print it on the bottle. The recommendation would thus take into consideration not only the grape variety's potential aging capability but also the wine's closure.

I've been fortunate in my career to have not only tasted old wines by the thousands, but also been paid to deal with corks from literally hundreds and thousands of wines from 1845 to the present.

It is fascinating to note the resilience and reliability of natural cork. I stuck a screw into a 66 Lafite once and the cork turned to dust in front of my eyse, but it had up till that moment held the wine in perfect condition. Without getting too into detail, it is clear that cork fails a certain percentage of the time. But it seems like it fails immediately or not at all.

Let me be clear about that: Taint doesn't occur over time, it occurs (almost) instantly when a tainted cork goes in the bottle and infects the wines - 2% of the time.

What corks CAN do that no other closure can do, is gracefully protect and deliver a 1928 Chateau Montrose to your table in perfect condition. Or a 67 Yquem. And a 76 Dr. Frank Riesling. A cork recently pulled from a 68 Martini Cab looked like it was 3 years old.

There hasn't been much talk about screw caps. I appreciate the 'optics' on my waiter unscrewing my $100 bottle of wine, but if we could get past that, are screw caps a viable option?? I am a novice but after reading Jim's last post, I wonder what the consensus is on how a screw cap would preserve a wine over 20 years vs. cork?

Also, my amateur issue with synthetic corks is that they ruin my Rabbit corkscrews.

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