Growing & Winemaking


Closure Decisions Are More Than Technical

August 2016
by Andy Starr

Eleven years of “cork wars” combat experience (I was founder and president of Neocork, a synthetic cork pioneer) gave me insight about closure decisions. It failed to give me wealth, just insight. I am rich with insight.

Some might say that having “a synthetic cork guy” write this story is like letting Elon Musk write an objective comparison of electric vs. gas vs. diesel cars. It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve worked for or had a financial stake in any closure company. I’d like to think that time has mellowed rather than “tainted” me (pun apology No. 1.).

When I started with alternative closures 22 years ago, one-piece natural corks were the standard, with twin-disk corks used for value-priced wines. Cork quality attributes were primarily cosmetic: A pretty cork was a good cork. A gorgeous cork was a great cork and cost more. Screwcaps were used on jug wines only. There were no acceptable synthetic corks that worked, plus they had a huge image problem. Winery owners and marketing directors were certain that the moment they sealed a wine with something other than tree bark, their wines would be immediately removed from every wine list and store shelf in the country—and worst of all, they’d personally be found guilty of the scandalous crime of breaking with the industry’s traditions of “how we do things.”

What I’ve learned over the years (and what Jane Firstenfeld’s article on page 36 confirms) is that no one closure type is the undisputed “winner,” nor are any of them fundamentally unacceptable. Around the world in the next 24 hours, several million screwcap-sealed bottles will be opened and enjoyed, as will several million bottles sealed under synthetic cork.

Focus on the consumer
Wine is a consumer product, so their preference is what ultimately matters. Does your consumer care greatly about your choice of closure, not at all or somewhere in between? Will closure selection materially affect purchase or repurchase?

The choice of closure needs to fit the brand. For yours, it may be that any closure type is acceptable, or that certain ones are preferable. While I agree that enological factors such as oxygen transmission rates, TCA detection thresholds, cap liner materials, etc., are important, they are only one part of closure choice criteria. In making your closure decision, be sure to consider these questions as well:

Does your brand appeal to a younger or older demographic?
Traditions change generationally. For example, my father bought really nice leather shoes and had them resoled by a cobbler when the heels wore out. I have never had my shoes resoled, and my son doesn’t even know that resoling is possible. Many years ago, fancy shoemakers and cobblers probably had articulate arguments something along the lines of “real shoes have real soles” (or something like that), but ultimately the market changed—look down at the shoes you are wearing right now.

Younger wine drinkers tend to prefer convenience, and they may view pulling corks (synthetic or natural) as something fussy that mom and dad do. They are convenience-oriented, time-strapped and just want to enjoy wine without extra steps. They don’t cook much, and they order a lot of take-out food. Before you dismiss all of this, consider that 40% of millennials recently surveyed said cold cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it. Cleaning up consists of a quick wipe with a soapy sponge on a bowl and a spoon!

Will the wine be purchased on-premise, off-premise or direct to consumer?
Who will see the bottle prior to purchase or consumption? For off-premise it’s the purchasers themselves. Are they buying for personal use or for a gift? Will the closure being used make a material difference in their decision making? If you use a synthetic closure, the consumer won’t know until they pull the cork. Will that affect repurchase behavior? In a restaurant, the wine server may act as gatekeeper. He or she may be a traditionalist deathly afraid of offending the diner (and getting a smaller tip) by serving a screwcapped or synthetic cork-sealed wine. Or the server may be a hip adventurer who takes Anything But Chardonnay to its logical extreme—recommending kombucha-infused Grüner Veltliner hand-picked under a waxing (not waning) moon by trained howler monkeys or something like that—so the closure type may not be important. For a direct-to-consumer purchase, you have the ability to insert an information sheet as to why the closure was chosen. I advise doing this, as your wine club members already like you and trust your judgement. Also, they have probably had experience with all closure types.

Price positioning
For everyday goods, functionality rules. Packaging primarily needs to just keep the contents in their original condition until use. We don’t see car repair bloggers lamenting the use of motor oil now being sold in easy-open plastic bottles instead of the “decades-old tradition” of motor oil in cans, which were messy to open and pour without spilling.

For luxury goods such as wine priced above $40 per bottle, the product increasingly becomes a gift or status item meant to impress someone. The consumer’s decision to purchase is therefore more emotional (Will it impress?), requiring you to create a luxurious rather than simply functional package. If perfume makers were solely focused on packaging functionality, then they’d protect their $315-per-ounce products by putting them in unbreakable, bullet-proof bottles. But they know that extravagant products must be presented as being “worth it,” so instead they put them in delicate, beautiful crystal vessels that break easily. It’s why you use cosmetically beautiful, long straight natural corks to go with other “luxury markers” like overweight bottles, tin capsules or hand-dipped wax, fancy label paper, wooden boxes, etc.

How are similar wines sealed?
Currently nearly all Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand and a large number of those from the United States are sealed with screwcaps. Sauvignon Blanc devotees now expect to see it sealed under screwcap—whether on-premise or off-premise—so one sealed otherwise may be perceived as outdated.

How does the closure fit with my sustainability values?
The wine industry has an excellent environmental recor d as it relates to vineyard and winemaking practices. We have reduced our use of pesticides, water and energy, yet I find the sustainability argument for wine packaging difficult to “sustain” (pun apology No. 2). Claims about the relative amount of energy used to make screwcap, synthetic cork or natural cork are insignificant when compared with the enormous amount of energy necessary to heat 400 grams of silica to 1,600° F to make a wine bottle. I have seen an estimate that it takes the equivalent energy of burning 1 gallon of gasoline to make one case of empty wine bottles—and even more energy is used to make those heavyweight bottles used for luxury wines. As for recyclability, all closure types are recyclable, but the resources saved in doing so are a teaspoon in the ocean when compared to the energy resources consumed in “recycling” broken glass, which requires that pesky 1,600° F remelting process. Bottles are rarely washed and refilled, which actually would rate high on the sustainability scale.

How might ageability matter?
I frequently hear the statement that “ageability is important,” yet there are estimates that 90% or more of all bottles are consumed within 12 months of the bottling date. All closure types provide adequate product protection for longer than that.

Be honest with yourself. Will the wine actually be cellared by a significant percentage of purchasers? Would you rather your club members age your wine or consume it now and reorder more? Do the restaurants that carry your wines cellar them before sale? If it will be aged, for how long? And will it benefit most from: a) a consistent and known volume of oxygen passing through the closure, b) an amount that varies from closure to closure, or c) no oxygen?

In summary, as alternative and traditional wine closures are being used successfully, your focus should be on your consumers’ preferences, if they have them at all.

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (starr­, is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provides strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA.

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