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The Irony of a Corked Bottle

August 2008
by Jim Gordon
It was another party marred by another bottle of corked wine. But it wasn't just any party. It was a reception for the 2008 Merit Award winner of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. A couple of dozen ASEV members, friends and family members gathered in a hotel suite in Portland, Ore., to celebrate Bob Steinhauer's acceptance of the award, and his memorable address at the ASEV annual meeting (see "Robert Steinhauer Reflects").

As Steinhauer told war stories, friends hugged him, greeted each other, snacked from a buffet and chose from a large variety of wines to sip. Most if not all were from the Beringer-Blass-Fosters portfolio, since Steinhauer spent the biggest part of his career developing and managing vineyards for Napa Valley-based Beringer.

I drank a glass of the barrel-fermented Beringer Alluvium Blanc and soon went back for a taste of something red. The bartender poured me a Beringer Howell Mountain wine, which if I recall was the Bancroft Ranch Merlot. It smelled like a musty basement and tasted flat. In a room full of Ph.D.s, it wasn't difficult to find someone to confirm my diagnosis: TCA. The next bottle opened was fine, so the TCA presumably came from cork taint, not cellar taint.

Yes, it was just another corked bottle, and one hopes that no more than 1% of that bottling run came out corked. But to be at the biggest annual pow-wow of American wine scientists, where brilliant research was presented and praised, and then to find a great bottle of wine, grown in a vineyard that was nurtured for years by the staff of the Merit Award winner, now spoiled by--allegedly--the cork, was ironic in the extreme.

With all the grapegrowing research published during the 40 years of Steinhauer's career, and all the innovations that he helped implement in vineyards, the precision grapes he and his successors grow can still be ruined by a faulty closure that somehow eluded the best research on cork quality control.

Fortunately, incidents like these are becoming more rare, as natural corks make a comeback in quality (see "NATURAL CORK'S REBIRTH"). But there is still room for improvement. I'm sure we all look forward to the day when winemakers can select a closure option without cork taint being a consideration.

In the meantime, however, the closure business remains a dynamic one (see "Finding Closure"). For one thing, Oeneo's agglomerated cork called DIAM is making waves with a no-TCA guarantee. For another, the synthetic cork makers have expanded their lines and developed better performance. Screwcaps continue to gain ground. Other options, like glass stoppers, may be sleeping giants.

The recent international conference, O2inWines, is another welcome addition to the debate, and we'll cover it in our next issue. The conference brings attention to the fact that once TCA is set aside, the important issue in closures is oxygen. How much do you want in your wine at bottling, and how much do you want in your wine when the customer opens it? What type of closure will get your wine reliably from point A to point B?

Read the "Viewpoint" of a journalist who made a close study of closures for his 2007 book, To Cork or Not to Cork,. George Taber has a better perspective on the changing closure market than most any observer.

Capsules are part of the closure equation, too. Jane Firstenfeld asks (see "Taking Care of Capsules") if you are taking advantage of the many new options for printing and decorating on the bottle neck to make your product stand out? Look around, as Jane did, at how many capsules are still not decorated, or are decorated only on the ends, which often aren't visible at retail.

Whatever your current closure challenges are I hope that you find this, our third annual Closures Issue, valuable. The marketplace for closures and capsules has evolved considerably since the first such issue in August 2006. But what I wrote then still applies: It's great that winemakers have so many options in closures, but it can also be daunting to decide which solution best suits you. Please use this issue of Wines & Vines to give yourself an edge in the decision-making process.
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