In the last year or so, the cork-or-no-cork article has been a staple of wine journalism, with writers and winemakers making pronoucements about the fate of the old cork in the face of the rise of the synthetic cork and screwcap.
I've noticed a pattern in these articles. Almost without exception, the cork is given up as dead before the first paragraph is over. Alternate closure is on the rise; it's de rigueur in Australia and New Zealand already; there are sightings among the finest winemakers of other countries. The conclusion: resistance is futile.
The articles usually refer to a raging debate worldwide on the subject, but there is precious little debate in the pieces. If you don't side with the screwcap lot, you're thought a backward dope. Advocates point to the amount of wine lost every year from oxidation due to corks. A recent article in the Sun emphasized this point. Cork partisans are intended to lay down their arms in the face of these sobering statistics, and protest no more. And, indeed, it is a strong argument.
But, before I explain why I am still for the survival of the cork, let's get one thing straight. The backing of alternative closure has nothing to do with modernity or progress or the saving of precious vino. It has to do with money. Every sommelier, every distributor, every importer, every winemaker I've talked to about corks vs. screwcaps has told me point blank why they prefer (if they do prefer) the latter: screwcaps will cause them to make more money.
So, why should anyone stick with unstable corks? Two reasons, by my sights. And they're damn good ones. One is political, the other aesthetic. First the political. I remember taking a course at the International Wine Center when I was a naive little wine lover, when the instructor brought up the subject of corks. He was all for screwcaps to cover the earth as quickly as possible. (I think part of the reason for this knee-jerk support of screwcaps is that wine people, aware of their reputation as fusty traditionalists, want to appear hip and forward-looking. In other words: corks are square.) I raised my hand and asked whether a move to screwcaps wouldn't put hundreds upon hundreds of laborers in Portugal—where the cork biz has long been centered—out of work. The instructor screwed up his face. "Well, that's no argument for being against screwcaps."
I've wondered ever since: why the hell not? Does the welfare of countless families, largely poor, have no place in this discussion? And how is the idea of rich winemakers and restauranteurs saving money more important that entire families, many of whom have harvested cork for generations, losing their entire livelihood? The attitude seems callous and ruthlessly capitalist in the extreme.
Then there is aesthetics. And, say what you will, aesthetic concerns are an important part of wine. We care about the appearance of the wine, and rendering of the label, the shape of the bottle, the cut of the glass it's poured into, the way the wine is presented when brought to the table. Every aspect of making and drinking wine is done with a little bit of art.
Put simply, corks have poetry, while synthetic corks and screw caps are flatly prosaic. The latter are there to stop up the wine and nothing else. They offer nothing to engage the mind or eye. Look at a cork and you can imagine the labor and craftmanship that went into making it; look at the name and design printed on the sides and you understand the pride and care taken by the winemaker. Synthetic corks and screwcaps all look the same. The say nothing more than: I was manufactured by machines along with thousand others like me in an ugly factory that blights the surrounding neighborhood, where I employ dozens in mind-numbing jobs.
Humans, in the name of progress, tend to rush headlong toward the new, the utilitarian, the practical. They willfully strip their existences of all beauty and novelty in the name of getting along. Ornamentation is not strictly needed on a building; therefore, dispense with it. Concrete is easier to lay down than bluestone; go with the concrete. Jeans and a t-shirt are easier to don and wear than a suit and tie, so put that suit in mothballs. It all makes sense, and the world gets uglier and uglier.
As the years go by, there is less and less romance in the world. Why rob the world on one more bit of romance by so hastily consigning the cork to the ashheap?