Are wine corks fashionable again? Part I

Cork quality has improved, but does anyone know?

Tina Caputo, the editor at Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, had an interesting assignment for me: Has the media perception of corks changed over the past several years?

Her point, and it was a good one, was that the Winestream Media was quick to hop on the anti-cork bandwagon, and that its efforts played a key role in detailing the problems that cork had with the industry and with consumers. But now that cork has improved, is the media reporting that?

It's not news that cork wine closures had quality problems. Failure rates were as high as 10 percent, according to some studies. If 1 out of 10 bottles of ketchup were off because the closure failed, there'd be a federal investigation. But it wasn't until the mainstream wine media picked up the failure story that the cork industry started to fix things. Now that the quality of corks has improved — and even its harshest critics think it has — has the media covered that?

The answer, which appeared in my story in the May/June issue of VWM? Not really. The story isn't available online, so I'll hit the highlights today and Friday. Today, after the jump, cork's problems and the improvement in quality. Friday, why so few people are writing about it.

Most of the major wine critics agree cork has cleaned up its act. Robert Parker noted that only a tiny fraction of the wines he had tasted at a major event in Spain in November seemed to be corked. Said one report of the tasting: ?The natural cork closure was another hero of the evening as less than one percent of the 600 bottles opened for the tasting were tainted."

Meanwhile, British wine expert Jancis Robinson wrote in January, after a major Bordeaux tasting, that ?perhaps the best news is that we had hardly any cork-tainted bottles, suggesting that the cork industry has been taking the problem of TCA taint seriously."

TCA, of course, is what happens when corks fail. It's also known as cork taint or corked wine, and it's the chemical reaction that spoils the wine — and the main reason why screwcaps and artificial corks accounted for 25 percent of the market in 2009, up from 10 percent 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the number of screwcaps is estimated to increase by 500 million worldwide annually.

The improvement seems to have been borne out in a variety of competitions and tastings over the past nine months. In October, the French Wine Society in Washington, D.C., reported that cork taint was not an issue at its annual event, where only four of more than 500 bottles were affected. At the 2008 and 2009 Indy Wine Competition, judges said fewer than 1 percent of some 6,000 wines were corked. says syndicated wine writer Robert Whitley, who also runs a series of wine competitions,says he saw much the same thing at his Winemakers Challenge competition in January. Just eight of 1,600 bottles were corked during the initial judging, and only one of 39 showed signs of cork taint during the sweepstakes round.

"The body of evidence over the past five years is that cork taint is becoming less of an issue," he says.

But this improvement isn't something has been getting attention from wine bloggers and writers. Few picked up on Parker's and Robinson's comments, and the subject of cork, as well as closures in general, does not seem to be something that the media is writing about.

"It's just not as topical as it it used to be," says Whitley. "It's been on the back burner for a while, and that's because I think cork is getting fewer complaints."

The photo is from C.L. Shearin of Rocky Mount, N.C., via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license

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