Growing & Winemaking

 

How Wineries Choose Their Closures

August 2017
 
by Andy Starr
 
 

In 1999, two major synthetic cork brands were launched using a new extrusion technology that is still the standard in the industry. After 18 years, synthetics have roughly 20% of the wine bottle closure market. Screwcaps, too, are estimated to have as much as 20% market share, while other alternatives such as technical corks that combine fine cork particles, microspheres and glue are growing steadily as well. Alternative packages such as cans, kegs and bag-in-box also are growing. For the wine industry, this much change in 18 only years is considered “disruptive technology.”

By comparison, other industries innovate just a little more rapidly. In 1999, Dell Computer launched its top-of-the-line Latitude R400GT notebook computer featuring a battery life of two hours, 64 MB RAM, 6.4 GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, and weighing only 7.4 pounds for $3,098. Today, we can buy a much faster, lighter laptop with a better screen for about $600.

In 2017, we know all the wine closures I mentioned are commercially and technically acceptable. We also know that wineries have their preferences and opinions, which are based on their own experiences.

I interviewed five wine industry decision makers—winemakers, winery owners and a marketing manager—from coast to coast to learn why they use what they use to seal wine bottles. The five wineries represented make wines in a wide cross-section of styles, price points and locations, and target them to vastly different consumer groups.

Closure certainty for luxury wines
Doug Fletcher is the vice president of winemaking for the Terlato Wine Group, owner of California wineries Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and Sanford, which produce an annual average of 120,000 combined cases priced from $28 to $250 per bottle. Terlato markets some lower priced brands as well. Fletcher has 40 years of winemaking experience, starting with the original Martin Ray winery in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Terlato uses ICON natural corks from Portocork for most of the luxury wines, screwcaps from Vinperfect in the Seven Daughters line and Amorim twin-top corks for the Tangley Oaks brand.

Fletcher is impressed with Portocork’s ICON technology, which assesses each individual cork for TCA, and that Portocork also guarantees them. “They will buy back any tainted bottles at full retail,” he tells Wines & Vines. Fletcher estimates Portocork’s process adds 15 cents to the price of each cork, but “for a $50-plus bottle, it’s a no brainer.” Fletcher says the biggest problem with cork taint is that the consumer is unaware of taint and ends up hating the wine and never buying it again or, put more simply, “Whatever the taint percentage is (times the number of bottles produced), that’s how many people you lose every year.” To test batches, Terlato’s labs individually soak 100 corks and count the number of tainted soaks. Fletcher says that with ICON, all corks have passed. He is moving toward using the ICON technology on all Chimney Rock wines.

For less expensive wines, Terlato uses less expensive closures, but technical quality is still paramount. “The idea that you can tolerate cheap closures in cheaper wines is a false economy,” Fletcher says. He believes that Amorim takes care in making disks for their twin-tops and that their use of steam extraction works well. “We see a very low rate of TCA with their twin-tops,” he says. Fletcher has some concerns about using any cork closure where the end touching the wine is not a disk, such as agglomerates and micro-agglomerates, as he understands that a urethane glue is used to bind the bits of cork.

For screwcaps, Fletcher is seeking a known and controlled level of oxygen permeation. He says, “Vinperfect has really figured out the liner,” and offers caps with distinct rates of oxygen ingress. Fletcher compared Vinperfect oxygen ingress consistency to that of a tin liner, but instead of letting in zero oxygen, it lets in a controlled level. Fletcher has observed that the oxygen permeability of a Saranex liner will vary because of spring tension in the capper heads.

While Terlato uses natural cork on the vast majority of their wines, Fletcher closed our interview by stating, “Most winemakers would say, ‘I want to use a screwcap.’”

Closures may change your winemaking
Rick Masser is co-owner and winemaker for Benigna’s Creek Vineyard and Winery in Klingerstown, Pa. Masser was a farmer before starting to grow grapes and make wine, and he is thankful for the educational support of programs run by Cornell University, Ohio State University and the University of California, Davis.

Benigna’s Creek started making wine in 2001 and has grown to an 11,000-case operation, selling nearly all its wine direct to consumer. Pennsylvania is friendly to local wineries; they are allowed five tasting rooms and unlimited access to farmer’s markets. As a comparison, California allows only two tasting rooms, one of which is at the bonded winery, with no guaranteed farmers market access.

When Benigna’s Creek started production, it used multiple types of corks and over time had problems with leaking and taint. Cork taint was sometimes subtle, with a loss of fruit flavor even though there was no obvious wet cardboard aroma. For about five years Masser switched to synthetics, which were more consistent but let in too much oxygen. “Wines would peak too early. Wines that won Best of Show or Double Golds at one to two years fell off a cliff at three years. If you are trying to build consumer loyalty, and a consumer bought a case, he or she probably will drink most in the first year, but a couple might be saved. If they’re consumed at three years, it’s not good for the brand,” Masser says. The winemaker wanted a closure that could consistently protect the wine for up to five years.

Then screwcaps finally took off technically, and with all the good press about them, eventually consumer reaction came around. In 2011 Masser made the decision to spend $100,000 on a screwcap machine, as a mobile wine line isn’t an option in his area.

Masser has not observed pushback from consumers or the trade. Consumers say they like the convenienceand reseal-ability. “It’s easy to open, and it doesn’t leak. Cork leaks. Synthetics will push (with heat ).” Most importantly, “The consumer cares what it tastes like. If you put something in the bottle that tastes good, they will buy it. They are bringing it to a dinner party to share a good wine, which is a bigger reason than fear of embarrassment from the screwcap.”

Using screwcaps, Masser continues, “definitely changed the way we make wine, and made us better winemakers. We are very concerned about oxygen uptake and sulfide compounds pre-bottling. It used to be that oxidation at one year would balance out reductive notes. With screwcaps, that won’t save you.” They ditched yeasts that are known to produce hydrogen sulfide and changed to hybrid yeasts designed not to produce it. Avoiding hydrogen sulfide goes back to fermentation nutrition. Masser targets a starting level of yeast assimilable nitrogen in the 180-250 mg/L range, plus trace nutrients. He also uses Fermaid and yeast hulls.

Fruit (non-grape) wines add to Masser’s closure considerations. Roughly one-third of Beniga Creek’s production comes from 100% strawberry, blueberry and other fruit wines, all of which are very popular with consumers. Strawberry wine “is the most difficult wine and oxygen-sensitive wine you’ll ever have to make,” Masser says. “It will go south so quickly.” For this wine, “Screwcap has been a godsend.” The winemaker says he would not consider wholesaling strawberry wine to 650 Pennsylvania state outlets without a screwcap.

“Screwcaps haven’t been an easy thing to figure out, but it definitely changed the way we make wine,” Masser says. “It’s been something of a pleasure to learn it. I’m excited about it. It has a lot of potential for the future.”

An urban winery perspective
Adam Carruth is the owner and winemaker at Carruth Cellars, a self-described “San Diego urban winery” whose motto is “bringing grapes to the people. You can thank us later.” Carruth has grapes delivered in temperature-controlled trucks from the Northern and Central California AVAs of Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Paso Robles and the Santa Lucia Highlands. The system works, as the winery wins many awards, including a Best in Class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for an Alexander Valley Cabernet. The winery started in 2006 and currently produces 7,500 cases, all of which is sold direct to consumer.

Carruth believes his consumers are indifferent to closure types. He uses screwcaps on his Sauvignon Blanc as it is made in a New Zealand style, and for all other wines he uses natural cork sourced from Portocork. When it comes to internal taint-testing, he says he doesn’t do anything special. He trusts his vendor and has rarely experienced a corked bottle.

Reliability for sweet wines
Since 1990, George Cowie has been winemaker for Chautauqua Vineyards & Winery in Defuniak Springs, in the Florida Panhandle. Chautauqua makes 10,000-11,000 cases of mostly sweet Muscadine wines from local grapes and prices them from $8 to $25 per bottle. All sales are regional or direct to consumer. Cowie said that unlike Carruth, his consumer demographic is not “the millennial crowd.”

Chautauqua tracks bottling lots by having serial numbers printed on the labels, a sophisticated quality-assurance process not often seen in small wineries. The practice allows him to isolate and identify problems with materials and bottling equipment.

The winery moved to synthetic corks many years ago and now uses the Nomacorc Green 500 series for all its wines. “It’s a good looking closure with good functional properties,” Cowie says, noting that the improved oxygen permeability work works well with Chautauqua’s sweeter, fruitier wine style. Cowie notes that synthetics are “easier to use. When they’re in, they’re in. Plus, there is no cork dust.” Cowie says he is intrigued by screwcaps, as they would allow for some residual CO2 fizz.

He maintains that synthetics have been a nonissue with consumers. “The only disappointment was people can’t use them for cork boards.” Finally, Cowie offers this advice: “Go cautiously with any changes. Closure reliability is huge and can affect wine quality and customer loyalty. Never forget that customers are hard to get.”

Consumers are knowledgeable
Doug Allan is the brand manager for Quivira Vineyards and La Follette wines, producing a combined 25,000 cases in Sonoma County, Calif., and owned by Wine Creek LLC, which also owns Torbreck Vintners in Australia’s Barossa Valley. Allan has 11 years of wine marketing experience.

The wineries use UNIQ technical corks from Ganau and Stelvin screwcaps in wines priced less than $30. All wines priced above $30 are sealed with natural cork.

Allan says what matters most in marketing wine is wine quality, so the winemaker’s view of the closure’s effect on wine quality drives the decision. His view is: “A better product makes it easier to sell.” Considerations such as cost and market perception are secondary to quality.

Quivira has been using Stelvin screwcaps on its Sauvignon Blanc since 2011, and the $24 Zinfandel will move to Stelvin with the 2016 vintage. Allan says American premium wine drinkers buying below the $35 price point know about closures. “This consumer set is really knowledgeable. They have a better understanding of wine in general and know about screwcap benefits. Now you can go to $30 retail with a screwcap. It’s taken 25 years for screwcap to get that respect in the U.S. market.”

Allan sees the closure decision as varietal-driven to some degree. Within the $10-$15 segment, consumers are more readily accepting of screwcapped Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah and Moscato, but they are less likely to accept it in Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Cabernet-based blends.

He says screwcaps and technical corks are creating more consistent wine closures than in the past, leading to an overall improved product for winemakers and consumers. He recently tasted a trial using screwcaps with different oxygen transmission rates and found real differences.

Forget the rules
We have the perspective of wineries from Napa to Pennsylvania to Florida to San Diego and finally Sonoma. Their diver sity of wine styles, price points and target consumers gives rise to a wide range of winery-specific closure performance criteria. The take-away for other wineries is to avoid the cliché: That’s the way (or not the way) we do it in the wine industry. Instead, always do what’s best for your wines and your consumers.


Andy Starr, founder of management consulting firm StarrGreen (starrgreen.com) was the founder and president of Neocork, a pioneering synthetic cork venture, but has had no financial or other interest in any closure company for many years.

 
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