You ever heard of Pavlov? Ivan Pavlov was this Russian guy who was curious about digestion and involuntary reflex actions. He discovered that dogs became very excited and salivated right before you fed them. He also found that you could make them salivate if you rang a bell at feeding time. After a few weeks of this, just ringing the bell would make the dogs go nutzo. For this realization he became a favorite of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (who saw a short road to brain-washing) and was awarded a Nobel Prize. His salivating pack of hounds became known as “Pavlov’s Dogs” and were last seen touring with Quiet Riot in Lithuania.
All of the good folks at Wine is Life know what Pavlov was talking about and appreciate his unique genius. You see, we salivate like dogs every time that we hear a cork pop out of a bottle. But we also get kind of excited when we hear the “click” of a screw top getting started.
So which one is better?
Back in the day, wine was produced directly for consumption. If you made it, you drank it. Wine wasn’t really meant to be stored for any great length of time. If you did decide to seal off your amphorae, you used straw and clay. When we began to get all bottle-happy we started using rags that had been soaked in fats and oils. Sealed up the bottles, but all of our wine tasted like bacon. So we invented corks.
Cork comes from the oak tree Quercus suber, and is commonly grown in lands around the Mediterranean, like Portugal, Spain, Algeria and Tunisia. Cork trees can grow for up to 250 years, and cork forests are home to a pretty wide range of critters, like the Barbary Macaque (a silly monkey) and the Iberian Lynx (a serious cat), both endangered species. We use cork for a variety of uses, but the most common use is to preserve our wine. The actual cork comes from the bark of the tree, and that bark grows back in about 10 years or so.
But here’s the skinny: When we started getting all green and eco-friendly we decided that trees had feelings too, so we started looking for alternatives to cork. We created synthetic corks and invented the screw cap for wine bottles. And which one really is better? Don’t they all, after all, do the same thing?
Let’s start with the real McCoy: cork. Cork is, in fact, sustainable. As we’ve said, you only use the bark, and the cork oak is one of the few trees that can thrive and grow new bark. It also has to be harvested by hand, so it provides jobs for several thousand people. In addition to habitat for animals, it repels insects and builds great soil, so is beneficial to growers of other things. The cork oak is so good for the people who harvest it that many areas have laws banning cutting the darned things down.
Cork does, however, allow air to slowly seep into a wine bottle, and interaction with oxygen is one of the quickest ways to skunk your wine. Cork can also introduce Trichloranisole into your wine, making it smell and taste like a wet dog. Not that anyone but Pavlov should know what a wet dog tastes like, but it is a condition known as being “corked” and affects about 1% of all naturally stoppered wines.
Now, the synthetic corks: It’s kind of like the purist who buys all of their music on vinyl instead of CD. Well, synthetic corks are, to a certain extent, vinyl. So think about that. They are not biodegradable, and produce about ten times the greenhouse gas as a natural cork. They’re generally made with petrochemicals, so if you’re concerned about what goes into your body or how we treat our big blue marble, this should be of some concern.
Then the screw top. Again, not the greenest choice. You use about 10 times the raw energy to make a screw top as you do a natural cork, so the footprint stinks. Bt at the end of the day you’re really just trying to seal up your wine, right? Most wines are popped and consumed within 8 hours of purchase, so it should only matter so much, right?
A team of researchers at the University of California at Davis are going to try and get to the bottom of the proverbial bottle on the best method for sealing wine. They have wine chemists, medical radiologists and biomedical engineers who are going sit on 600 bottles of wine for a couple of years, then open those puppies up and see who lasted the best. They’re going to evaluate 600 matching bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with natural cork, synthetic cork and screw tops.
And how cool would it be to have a business card that said, “Wine Chemist?”