Cork, Screwcaps, or Plastic? Author George Taber Talks Bottle Stoppers

Three decades ago, author and journalist George Taber turned the wine world on its head with his famous four paragraph Time magazine story on the Judgment of Paris. That story, often referred to as "the most significant news story ever written about wine" put California alongside the world's top wine regions and sparked a "who's better?" debate that rages to this day. Now Taber has turned his attention to the latest raging debate in the wine world: Corks. In his new book, To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle, Taber examines the past, present, and future of cork as it fends off the advances of alternative wine stoppers and divides an industry.

IW: Why this book now?

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GT: It’s the hottest topic around among wine professionals, and opinions are held very strongly. Just last night in Stellenbosch, South Africa I had dinner with a top wine person and we discussed the issue for a large part of the meal. Many wineries are doing their own testing and may be changing. Everyone is thinking about it in some way.

IW: The failure rate for traditional corks ranges from 3-5%. With such an abysmal success rate, why do we even use cork?

GT: Cork has been used for a long time and still has a lot of loyal fans. Of course, it also has many ardent critics. I think it’s an old Greek saying that you shouldn’t be the last to take on the new or the first to discard the old. Many wine people have told me that they don’t want to make a rash decision because of still unknown things about screwcaps or other closures.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

IW: Why can't the cork industry just improve its success rate?

GT: There is now some anecdotal evidence that the incidence of cork taint is going down. Again my dinner companion last night says that he’s seeing less of it. A long time elapses between the time the cork is grown in the forest and when it’s pulled from a bottle. There is no doubt that the cork industry for decades tried to dismiss the problem and thought it would go away. They acted liked the arrogant monopolists that they were. In the past five or so years they have spent heavily on new equipment and the first decent research ever done on cleaning up corks. But the results are not yet being seen in the bottle.

IW: Synthetic corks and twist-off caps are increasingly more common as alternatives to cork. What are the pro's and con's of these?

GT: The first pro for producers is certainly price. A screwcap costs about the same as a low-priced cork. A plastic one is much cheaper. But they both have some faults. Plastic doesn’t give as good a seal as natural cork, and there are recurring problems with oxidation because of that. Screwcaps ironically give too tight a closure and don’t let in the minute amount of air that helps wines, especially reds, improve in a bottle. As they say, wines in screwcaps are Pinocchio wines---they’ll never grow up.

IW: In your book you discuss the history of the cork. What would your average wine enthusiast be surprised to learn about it?

GT: I think the average consumer might be surprised to see how long cork has been used. They might also be surprised that the problem of cork taint has been around for a long time, although it was not as bad as recently. I personally loved the story that one of the first things ever seen under a microscope was a piece of cork. The structure of the cork reminded the scientist of a monk’s cell, and that is the origin of the word cell as the building block of all living things.

IW: What are the biggest misconceptions in how people view the various devices used to seal their wine bottles?

GT: The biggest is that there is a perfect closure. All of them have their advantages and their disadvantages. Not enough research has been done to date to sort out the problems and find the solutions, if the problems can be solved. Another big misconception is that screwcaps mean cheap wine. It’s more complicated than that.

IW: Necessity being the mother of invention, what, if anything, does science or the winemaking industry have on the horizon to solve the "cork issue"?

GT: I think you’re going to see both better corks and better screwcaps. One of the promising cork products is Diam, which is a manufactured cork made from cork material. It seems to give the consistency of a man-made product and also seems to be a clean cork, although it loses some of the cork structure. Another product still in development is a second-generation glass stopper that works like an ampoule. Penfolds has been doing experiments with that, and the winemaker there is very excited about the early results.

IW: Your prediction: In 50 years, what will be the common bottle stopper used for wine?

GT: Fifty years is a long time, but I don’t think we’ll ever again have just one type of closure. Cork had a monopoly, but I don’t think there will ever be another monopoly. And that’s tood. Cork will have a place; screwcaps will as well. But plastic will also be strong because it’s the cheapest closure, and glass stoppers will probably be used for some wines.

IW: Finally, there are two movies -Judgment of Paris and Bottle Shock- currently being produced about the famous Judgment of Paris. If you had your druthers, what actor would play the role of "George Taber"?

GT: I think Don Knotts would have been good, but he unfortunately is dead. My wife thinks it should be Brad Pitt. I guess I’ll just have to see what they do.