Wine-Cork Makers Battle Screw Tops

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -

The world’s wine-cork producers want you to know they’re sorry.

Two hundred fifty years of market dominance may have left a whiff of complacency. They didn’t always listen to your gripes about cork taint — that awkward moment when you pop open your prized cabernet and it smells like wet dog.

And they paid dearly. Screw tops that once sealed only “niche” booze like Night Train now cap about 2 in every 10 bottles of table wine in the world, even the expensive ones. Plastic-cork demand has also surged, now accounting for more than 10 percent of global market share.

“We got the proverbial kick in the pants,” said Carlos de Jesus, communications director for Corticeira Amorim, the world’s biggest cork company, based in the world’s biggest cork-producing country, Portugal.

In a bid to win back customers, the natural cork industry has launched a new advertising campaign directed at Northern California winemakers. Winning their favor is crucial — the U.S. is now the front line of the global wine industry, having surpassed France as the top consumer by volume this year.

The campaign highlights sustainable harvesting and builds off technical improvements that cork makers say they’ve achieved in driving down incidences of taint. And then there are the intangibles: The bottle stops are essential to making the right impression during the gift-giving season.

“Any wine worth its grapes deserves natural cork,” says the ad tag line, which is being aired on four major Bay Area radio stations and featured in digital-media ads.

At the core of the message is tradition. “One of the happiest sounds in the world is the pop of a bottle,” De Jesus said. “Why would you want to do away with that?”

The advertising blitz adds one more layer to an enduring debate within the $290 billion global wine industry: how best to plug up that pricey bottle of juice.

Natural cork producers’ global market share has declined over the last decade from about 95 percent to 70 percent. In response, they’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new technology and testing to address cork taint, and they’ve launched a series of marketing campaigns funded by the Portuguese government, including the latest, which cost more than $4 million.

“This has been a pretty hot debate for years,” said Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist at the University of California, Davis who has researched all manner of bottle closures. “Essentially, the natural cork producers realized they were losing market share and had to do something. They’ve been pushing back really hard.”

Bottled wine needs oxygen to develop its complex flavors, and breathable cork has been the answer since the 18th century. It’s not perfect, of course. Oenophiles know a percentage of cork-sealed wine can be ruined by too much exposure to oxygen or tainted by trichloroanisole, better known as TCA.

The chemical compound is caused by a natural fungus in cork that takes only the smallest trace to impart an overpowering mustiness in wines, likened to everything from a wet pooch to sweaty gym socks.

“Humans are like the bloodhounds for this compound; we can smell it in the parts per trillion,” said Doug Fletcher, head winemaker for the Napa-based Terlato Wine Group.

The cork industry said manufacturing upgrades over a decade ago have driven the share of TCA-tainted wines down to less than 1 percent, though some critics say it’s closer to 5 percent or more.

It was a big enough problem that, starting in the 1970s, wine producers in Australia and later New Zealand began eschewing the time-honored cork cylinders for aluminum caps that could be twisted off and resealed.

The change was originally met with skepticism. PlumpJack Winery in Napa Valley, the first high-end American producer to take a chance on screw caps in the late 1990s, was scorned for making the switch.

“We got faxes and voice messages saying, ‘Your career is over,’ ‘It’s a screwy idea’ and that restaurants would have to start charging a ‘screw fee,’ ” said John Conover, PlumpJack’s general manager.

That was short-lived. The metal caps have won widespread acceptance in New World wine-producing regions such as the U.S. — especially for varietals like sauvignon blanc that are supposed to be consumed a year or two after bottling.

At the same time, plastic corks began making inroads with some of the biggest wine producers in America by offering competitive pricing and predictable performance.

“Our corks never crumble and never break,” said Jeff Slater, director of global marketing for the North Carolina-based Nomacorc, which produces about 90 percent of the plastic corks in the U.S. and now seals more than one-tenth of the wine produced globally.

“We still use cork for our high-end wines,” said Fletcher of Terlato. “We use the screw caps for competitive-priced wines. But if you ask me, I prefer using more screw caps.”

One reason why: The technology for wine-cork alternatives keeps evolving.

The wine landscape has been littered with these next big things, from the MetaCork to the Zork. Amorim, the Portuguese cork giant, and the world’s largest glass-container manufacturer, Owens-Illinois Inc., partnered last year to release a twist-off cork called the Helix. Meanwhile, winemakers like Fletcher are bullish on a breathable screw cap called VinPerfect.

The Napa-based company’s founder and chief executive, Tim Keller, developed the product to solve what he called screw caps’ stinginess with oxygen and corks’ inconsistent structure. So the former Sonoma and Napa County winemaker made a cap, fortified with a liner, that allows precise amounts of oxygen through. The caps are tailored to a wine’s aging requirements.

“At some point, you realize the debate is over tradition versus quality,” said Keller, who has more than 150 wineries using his caps today. “And at the end of the day, the cork industry is the horse versus the car.”