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Put a Cork in It or Screw It: The Practicality of Wine Closures

Natural corks, often used as wine enclosures, have been used for centuries by winemakers and have been shown to contribute to the sustainability for habitats of certain endangered species. The Cork Quality Council reported that conservation and development of cork forests can inhibit desertification of cork forests through North Africa and the Mediterranean region. Cork trees do not require soil preparation or much irrigation, and are harvested every 10 years. Additionally, cork trees can live for 200 years, thus making the cork industry “a near-perfect example of renewable production.” The manufacturing process for corks is also environmentally friendly because they are biodegradable and generally do not require the use of chemicals in order to wash and dry the cork. The use of chemicals during this process are generally safe, such as hydrogen peroxide for the final washing of the cork. Despite this proven benefit to the environment, companies that produce natural corks have faced stiff competition in recent years.

Closures used by winemakers come in many forms to help seal off the wine from exposure to oxygen, which can taint or alter the quality of the wine. The various types of wine closures used range from the traditional, natural corks, to screw caps, synthetic and glass closures. According to an LA Times article, the global market share for natural cork producers has declined from 95 percent to 70 percent. The decline has been attributed to cork taint occurring more frequently with natural wine corks. The Guardian released an article in 2010, which indicated that some winemakers have proactively taken steps to dramatically reduce traces of trichloroanisole (TCA) in natural wine corks.

Even with the improvements in quality control and new systems of washing the corks adopted by cork producers, the chances of the occurrence of cork taint has not be completely eliminated—although it occurs at very low rates. Despite this, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that screw caps only comprise of 15 percent of wine closures around the world, approximately 70 percent of wines contain natural cork closures, and less than 15 percent of the markets use synthetic or plastic corks. Certain countries have been more receptive to the idea of screw caps and many of their wine producers now use screw caps for most of their wine, such as Australia (85 percent), and New Zealand (45 percent).

According to a U.C. Davis blog, approximately 60 percent of the top wines in the U.S. use synthetic corks, which have some advantages over natural corks such as: synthetic corks are less likely to have traces of TCA, and synthetic corks help to block too much air from entering into the wine bottle. Screw caps have also proven useful to preventing tainted wines. Screw caps also have some disadvantages, such as “suffocating” the wines and giving an appearance of cheap wine to consumers who have become accustomed to the more traditional wine corks.

According to Wines and Vines, many winemakers who use cork closures lack the adequate knowledge about how much oxygen transmission each cork actually delivers, which is a crucial concern since the oxygen content transferred between the cork and the wine is what contributes to tainted wine. Unlike screw caps, a cork can say a lot about the wine. For example, some corks contain markings that indicate where the cork was made and the origins of the wine. A cork that has an altered, narrower shape could indicate how long the cork has been in the bottle. Degradation of wine corks could indicate unfavorable conditions used to maintain wine, such as improper storage and variable temperature changes that could contribute to tainted wine. See Meat Mkt., Inc. v. Am. Ins. Co., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38118, at *3 (2013) (the plaintiff alleged the wine corks showed signs of degradation in a breach of contract case to collect on an insurance claim).

Since the early 2000s, some California wineries have swapped their use of the typical wine corks for the more economical screw caps. As noted by ABC News, many California wineries were impressed by studies that were done in Australia, which had already adopted the screw cap. Despite this recent trend, many California wineries have returned to the traditional wine cork because the corks are better for preserving the quality of the wine for a longer period of time, it has a broader appeal to consumers who perceive wines containing natural corks as being better quality, and the natural cork is more sustainable than any other wine closure. While it is not perfect, the natural cork is likely to remain prevalent in the wine industry in the future according to Andrew Waterhouse, an enology professor at the University of California, Davis.

Currently, the TTB regulates the closures for wines and other alcoholic beverages. With the requirements for such enclosures, the regulations go as far as requiring that the closure be constructed in a way that it allows “breaking in order to gain access to the contents of the container.” Otherwise, wine makers are given a lot of leeway to regulate and manage the closures so long as they meet the minimum requirements of the TTB, state regulations, and regulations governing the jurisdictions where the wines are imported.

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Written by Stephan Passalacqua

Contributed by Sonya Bryant

© 2015, Law Offices of Stephan Passalacqua.

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