In the early days of this column, Randall Grahm, eclectic owner of Bonny Doon Winery, made wine news for his departure from planting traditional California grape varietals, opting instead for Rhone varietals such as carignan, grenache and syrah.
Grahm founded a group known in the trade as the Rhone Rangers, a group of New World winemakers who craft delicious wines from varietals typically grown in the Rhone Valley of France.
In 2002, Grahm garnered international notoriety for a funeral he held for the projected demise of cork closures for wine. The funeral was quite a spectacle, featuring a cork-filled coffin arriving in a hearse in front of Grand Central Station in New York City, where Grahm delivered a eulogy for corks.
These antics were staged to draw attention to a growing problem of cork closures causing wines to develop “cork taint.” Wine terminology for this problem is known as “corked.” If you are ever unfortunate enough to encounter a corked wine, the problem is immediately evident. It will smell like a wet dog or old moldy newsprint.
One solution, and the solution Grahm supports, is the use of screw cap closures for wine, thus avoiding the need for cork at all. Needless to say, this does not make cork producers happy, especially the Portuguese, who are major suppliers of this versatile material.
Today there are significant numbers of wines both expensive and inexpensive with screw cap closures, but cork remains the dominant closure. Most wine lovers like the ritual of cork removal, especially in restaurants where one’s server handles the task.
Most wine buyers have the perception that bottles sealed with a cork are better than those sealed with a metal screw cap. This is borne out by many studies but more recently by a Washington State University study regarding the effects of wine bottle closure type on perceived wine quality.
This study involved approximately 300 people from all walks of life who were led to believe they were tasting four different wines. Each wine was accompanied by a nondescript label indicating its type of closure, i.e. natural cork, screw cap, synthetic cork or glass stopper.
Participants thought they were tasting four different red Bordeaux blends, when they were in fact tasting red wine blends from two different local wineries that came straight from the barrel and had never been subjected to any kind of closure.
Participants were instructed to taste each wine and evaluate its appearance, aroma and quality. Not surprisingly, they found differences in all the identical wines and rated the wines thought to be closed with natural cork significantly higher than wines thought to be closed with screw caps.
Critics of this study postulate that a larger sample of participants would likely bring different results, but I doubt that. Numerous similar studies have been conducted, and natural cork inevitably prevails because it is almost in our genetic makeup to associate quality with price, and cork closures are associated with more expensive wines and therefore higher-quality wines.
In recent years, the cork industry has cleaned up its act, taking more care with handling raw material processed into cork closures. Over many years of consuming wine, the number of truly corked wines I have encountered can be counted on one hand.
Do wines sealed with cork taste better than those sealed with screw cap? Likely not. All wine closures should be neutral, not imparting any flavor to wine. But as long as natural cork closures are associated in the consumer’s mind with higher quality, there will likely be no more funerals for corks.
Pat Kettles write about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.