How Millennials (Almost) Killed the Wine Cork

How Millennials (Almost) Killed the Wine Cork

A new generation of wine drinkers came of age with screw caps and plastic bottle stoppers, but cork producers are mounting a campaign to win their loyalty: An Object Lesson.

AP Photo/Armando Franca

AP Photo/Armando Franca

No one is completely sure who first came up with the idea for cork wine stoppers, though legend holds that it was the 17th-century monk Dom Pérignon. Perhaps he does deserve the credit; perhaps some other cellar master was the first to abandon convention and seal his glass wine bottles with cork stoppers over wooden plugs. Regardless of who created the wine cork, the invention would go on to become wildly successful: For the past 400 years, cork has been the preferred material for wine closures.

The idea caught on because it was a good one—cork resists moisture and rotting, it helps wine age, and it provides an effective leak-proof seal. At the beginning of the 21st century, though, cork experienced a fall from grace, as the issue of “cork taint”—a phenomenon associated with spoiled wine—became more prevalent. The primary cause of cork taint is the presence of the chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). But TCA isn’t limited to cork; it’s also found naturally in wood, water, soil, fruit and vegetables. This means that other factors, including the storage of wine in wooden barrels, can contribute to wine spoilage. But because cork and wine have long been so inseparable, and because cork is a known source for TCA, the phenomenon of wine spoilage was named for the ubiquitous cork stopper. It was a nightmare for the cork industry.

How common was it? In 2005, Wine Spectator magazine tested 2,800 bottles of wine for TCA. Seven percent of the bottles were contaminated. For consumers, it seemed the chances of buying spoiled wine were relatively low. But for a winemaker, whose name and reputation are on the line with every sip, a single bad bottle could damage the brand’s reputation and undermine the entire business.

As a result, many vintners began abandoning cork in favor of alternative closures, like aluminum screw caps and plastic plugs, which also had the added benefit of lower cost. Importing cork from the Mediterranean can be expensive, especially for wineries in New Zealand and Australia; by 2010, most wineries in those countries had switched to screw-cap closures, which were also gaining prominence across the world.

Though it has recaptured some market share in recent years, the cork industry is now fighting against the newly discovered appeal of plastic and aluminum. A wine-shop manager told me screw caps have “just about taken over the market,” especially with lower-priced wines. Screw caps are just easier to use. “And people like that,” he said. “Even wine drinkers.” Aluminum screw caps once sealed primarily cheap malt liquors and quart bottles of beer; today they cap 20 percent of the world’s table wines. Plastic stoppers have also surged in popularity, now accounting for 10 percent of the wine-closure market. By some estimates, cork has lost nearly 40 percent of the wine-closure market since the late 1980s, a loss most apparent in low-priced ($10 and under) wines.

Much of cork’s current struggle can be attributed to one group in particular: Millennial wine drinkers, a generation that has less of an allegiance to traditional cork closures. A 2012 report by the Wine Market Council, a nonprofit association of grape growers, wine producers, importers, and other affiliated businesses, revealed that 65 percent of older Millennials (over the age of 25) drink wine daily or several times a week; half of younger Millennials (21-25) fell into the same category. The report also revealed that roughly two-thirds of Millennials “frequently or occasionally” purchase unfamiliar brands of wine, and 60 percent admitted to being swayed by “fun and contemporary-looking” labels. The type of bottle closure, by contrast, isn’t an important factor in purchasing decisions—and when it is, the lack of need for a corkscrew may well be an enticement.

Patrick Spencer, the executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, an organization working to preserve the Mediterranean cork forests and their inhabitants, believes that misinformation about cork—prevalent at a time when many Millennials came of drinking age—helped erode the material’s popularity. “At the turn of the century, probably 85 percent of all wines were still sealed with natural cork,” Spencer told me. “This is also the time when the rumors about cutting the cork trees down, cork shortage, and wine spoilage of 10 percent (due to natural corks) began to surface.”

“You have a perfect storm for this age gravitating toward alternative closures,” he concluded.

* * *

Before cork taint frightened so many winemakers into abandoning cork, the material had helped to successfully preserve fine wines for centuries. In fact, the 2010 discovery of 168 bottles of champagne in a Baltic Sea shipwreck was a testament to this ability: The food biochemist who led the scientific team that tested the 170-year-old champagne called it “incredible.”

Cork’s sealing qualities stem from its natural compressibility—a result of cork’s unique cell structure, which flexes under pressure while allowing trapped air to function as a counter-pressure. This feature allows a cork to be pressed into a smaller physical space and yet spring back to its original form when removed. Cork’s compressibility is perhaps most apparent when uncorking a wine bottle, but it can also be felt when wearing a pair of cork-soled shoes, for example, or when walking on cork floors. Step after step, cork absorbs the pressure and then instantly springs back to its original form, no worse for the wear.

Following the cork-taint scare, the cork industry set out to improve both its product and its image. Cork producers invested in new equipment and worked to refine production techniques, contributing to a sharp decline in tainted wine. Recent tests by the Cork Quality Council show a 95 percent reduction in TCA since 2001.

They also began promoting cork’s environmental benefits, noting that the production of cork wine stoppers is a “carbon-negative” process: The seven million acres of cork forest around the Mediterranean offset 20 million tons of CO2 each year, and the trees are not cut down to produce cork closures—because only the bark is removed, the production of cork products is completely sustainable.

Once stripped from the tree, the cork bark grows back and is harvested again a decade later. This process is repeated over and over throughout the tree’s lifetime, which may exceed 200 years. Stripping a cork oak of its bark also enhances its ability to absorb carbon dioxide; in Portugal alone, cork trees help offset over 10 million tons of CO2 every year.

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