In 2002, right after Mark Hautala joined the cork business, there was the notorious “Funeral for the Cork” held in New York City. Tombstones with “toxin 2,4,6-trichloroanisole” as cause of death, a corpse made of cork and the full pallbearer gambit was orchestrated. But alas, cork has since been resurrected (if you can argue it ever actually died) and companies like Lafitte Cork & Capsule in Napa have stood the test of time.
Hautala is now president of Lafitte, the industry has debunked concerns about cork taint, and natural closure use is growing each year. While some of this growth can be attributed to the fact that people are drinking more wine — and thus need closures — in general, those in the industry contest that a slew of misconceptions have been dispelled in recent years that also may have shifted consumer preferences.
“I understand the fervor that people had over screw caps and plastic corks and things of that nature,” said Hautala, “But there’s just no better closure than natural cork. Everything those other companies have tried to bend and mold their product, happens in the image of cork. They’re controlling the density of the foam, the foam plastic, to let in more or less oxygen, just trying to imitate the characteristics.”
Dustin Mowe, president and CEO of Napa's Portocork, also attests to the fact that cork has stood strong against alternative closures, regardless of how advanced technology has gotten over time.
“There's nothing better from a packaging product, because we can talk about cardboard — it gets cut down — or glass, which comes from sand and is a huge contributor to energy usage — and nobody has the story of cork,” said Mowe.
Due to the nature of cork harvesting, each natural closure sequesters a shockingly high amount of carbon, all without killing the tree. Cork is stripped from the tree in late spring or early summer, which then, in a cycle, forms new layers of cork for later harvest.
According to the Cork Quality Council, this allows for there to be an estimated offset of 113.2g of CO2 per cork, making the net carbon emission -112 grams per unit.
“It actually is breathing life to the planet, to the tree, by allowing its bark to strip and regenerate a little bit, and so it's actually a really beautiful process,” said Mowe. “Everybody has a sustainability goal within their companies, and cork is not just a checkbox … cork is a huge contributor to wineries’ overall environmental impact.”
While no one in the closure business contests the fact that cork works well and has positive externalities due to its sustainability, the fear of cork taint had many producers stopped in their tracks.
Mowe remembers when, in the early 90s, the natural cork closure market experienced its first sort of scare since he was in the industry.
“We went from 100 percent market share to, let's call it 70 percent, and so that was really a huge shift,” he said. “The cork industry had to respond with quality control measures, but also manufacturing practices that made cork a lot better and more neutral, and so cork started growing back again.”
Nowadays, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of bottles with a natural closure have wine taint, leaving TCA contamination (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) far less of a concern when popping open a bottle.
Another potential barrier to the cork industry, though, was the fact that it wasn’t always reaching every price point or type of wine. However, the proliferation of composite corks (which are made from the ground-up remains of punched-out corks) and other closure types has alleviated much of this market tension, allowing companies like Portocork and Lafitte to expand their clientele.
“Now you have natural corks in various sizes, qualities and so that can fit those other wines, and so I think that has been the biggest boom for the cork industry,” said Mowe.
Oh, and that rumor you heard that there is a cork shortage? Just that — a rumor.
“It is true that wine is making a resurgence, so we are using more of that product than we have in prior years, but there isn’t a shortage,” said Hautala.
While both companies are committed to their natural-only philosophy when it comes to cork, they don’t anticipate a “Funeral for the Screw Cap” or writing a eulogy for plastic stoppers anytime soon.
“I think synthetics are pretty much going away, but it’s still a matter of us and screw caps, and then you also have the emergence of canned wine or bags in a box,” said Mowe. “I always say anything to get people in wine, because if we can grow consumption, we’re going to grow the closure market.”