Technology may pop the (natural) cork right off wine

VINTAGE POINT

September 27, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Every wine enthusiast has had the same depressing experience.

You bring out an expensive bottle of wine for a special occasion. The guests are looking on, palates aquiver in thirsty anticipation. You pull the cork, you pour.

And the wine smells like sweaty gym socks and tastes like toxic waste.

You've just made the unwelcome acquaintance of 2,4,6-Tri-chloroanisole, TCA for short.

TCA is a nasty little compound that turns natural corks, made from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber), from life-preserving stoppers into deathtraps for fine wine. In wine parlance, wines that have been tainted by TCA are "corked."

No cork-stoppered wine is immune. The best producers try to buy only the best grade cork, which cuts down the incidence of corked wines, but some bad corks inevitably slip through. Estimates of the percentage of tainted corks range from 0.5 percent to 6 percent.

For winemakers, it's a major problem.

They complain bitterly that customers don't blame the cork when that happens, they blame the winemaker. They rail against cork brokers for sticking them with a defective product that ruins their wine.

Well, Lermer Packaging Co. of Ontario, Calif., has an answer for those griping grape-crushers: Put a Cellukork in it.

Cellukork is a chemically inert synthetic cork made of ethylene vinyl acetate.

Begging the pardon of you traditionalists out there, but this could be the answer. If this product lives up to its billing, natural cork could go the way of the leather and sealing wax stoppers used in Roman times.

St. Francis Winery in Sonoma County is one of a handful of California wineries experimenting with Cellukork. The winery put small percentage of its 1991 chardonnay in Cellukork-stoppered bottles as an experiment. So far, the winery reports no complaints.

When a bottle was sampled here recently, the Cellukork stopper came out at the end of a corkscrew with a healthy pop. There was no crumbling, no breakage, no little bits of cork to fish out of the wine.

Cellukork is smoother than cork, but similar in its ability to compress. Its color is identical to new cork, but close observation reveals none of the grain or nooks and crannies of natural cork.

The wine it was preserving seems just fine. It's a light, elegant style of chardonnay, not bold enough to satisfy flavor freaks, but there was no sign of deterioration or off-flavors. It was just about where a 1991 chardonnay could be expected to be at this stage of its development.

Cellukork is a recent invention, so there is no actual data on how long it can preserve great wines that require decades to achieve maturity. There is no telling whether subtle differences between naturally corked wines and identical wines preserved with Cellukork will emerge over time.

Defenders of tradition -- not to mention the natural cork industry -- undoubtedly will howl over the sacrilege of replacing a natural product with a synthetic. They will warn of dire consequences.

When screw caps were being proposed as an alternative to natural corks, the traditionalists had a point. Screw caps look cheap, they've always been associated with low-grade wines, and claims that they can hold wines for decades are unconvincing.

Cellukork is different. It preserves the ritual, and since it is a plastic product there is no telling how long it might last. We'll just have to keep a close eye on those bottles.

Might there be problems down the road with Cellukork? Maybe. But we know the current performance of natural cork is not satisfactory. Wine consumers should give their enthusiastic support to wineries that test this technology.

Some wine industry observers see a bright future for Cellukork as a stopper for their popularly priced wines but hesitate to use it in their more expensive, long-lasting wines, fearing consumers' reaction.

Forget that. It's much more frustrating for consumers to come up with a corked bottle of $35 wine than a corked bottle of $5 wine. The prediction here is that American consumers would accept synthetic corks on the greatest wines -- if they do the job.

I, for one, look forward to the day when I'll be able to open a 20-year-old bottle of Chateau Petrus with no concerns that the cork will crumble, break in two or have contaminated the wine. Whether that comes through improved natural corks or a new breed of synthetics is immaterial, but I'd bet on the synthetics.

A selection of wines from the "lost cellar" of Baltimore lawyer Edwin Baetjer will be among the items on the block Oct. 4 when the American Heart Association's Maryland affiliate holds its annual wine auction at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

The wines, which had been stored for at least five decades in an underground vault in Mount Vernon, were discovered by accident in February. Mr. Baetjer, a bachelor who helped found the firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard, apparently neglected to tell anyone about his hoard of fine Burgundy and Bordeaux before he died in 1945.

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