05 December 2007

Book Review - To Cork or Not To Cork

Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle
George M Taber

Wine maturing in oak barrels is a familiar sight. But did you ever question why bungs closing those barrels are made of plastic, not cork? Dennis Burns did so when he toured a California winery. He was told natural cork could impart a taint that ruined wine, which satisfied him until he reached the tasting room and saw corks being pulled from bottles. If plastic was better than cork in barrels, he thought, surely it would be a better closure in wine bottles? Burns’s business was plastics and, although he knew little about wine, he was about to shake-up the industry when he went on to produce SupremeCorq, a plastic alternative to traditional natural corks.

Cork is a miraculous material. It is the bark of a species of Mediterranean oak tree. Cork bark can be stripped without harm from the living tree every ten years or so for generations. Cork will withstand both extremely high and extremely low temperatures and insulates against both; it absorbs vibration, can be squashed in half and will resume its shape, it can be pushed on one side without bulging out the other. And it has been used as a closure for wine bottles for more than 400 years. But, as everyone who drinks wine knows, it has one major fault, and a wine with that fault bears its name – the wine is ‘corked’.

If around 5% of all soft-drinks, or canned soups, or any other product were unusable because of faulty packaging it is unlikely their producer would remain in business. But wine-lovers expect, and have been expected, to bear the disappointment of spoiled bottles. Cork had no viable competition until recently when the cork industry began to be shaken out of centuries-old complacency by alternatives such as glass, plastic and screw-cap closures.

George M Taber tells in To Cork or Not To Corkthe truly fascinating story of wine, cork and alternatives. This is no dry, dusty history; Taber relates the very human tales of people whose living is intimately bound up in wine closures. Of wineries that lost millions and almost went out of business because of contaminated corks and of cork producers whose livelihood is threatened by alternatives. And of the inventors and entrepreneurs who think they have found a solution.

In many ways this book is a detective story. There is a villain that has been there since the beginning (a 1676 book blamed spoiled wine on cork defects), but its true identity was only unmasked as TCA by Hans Tanner in 1981, and it took years for his research to be widely known. TCA is a compound so powerful that if it was salt then just two grains in swimming-pool would make the water taste salty. The book relates techniques used to combat the villain and of skulduggery as proponents of various closures trade propaganda and insults. But there is no neat ending. The cork industry has cleaned up its act and invented ‘technical’ corks such as DIAM that promise taint-free cork closures. But modern screw-caps now close 95% of all New Zealand wines and since the vast majority of wines are consumed within days of purchase the question of which closure is best for aging wine is academic for most.

Taber tells this detective tale through the people involved. I was completely gripped by this book. You don’t have to know about wine to get involved by the personalities whose successes and failures Taber relates. Soda and mineral water drinkers might be bemused – their beverage will be perfect every time and they don’t care whether it comes in a can or glass or plastic bottle, and even served in the most expensive restaurant the bottle will have a screw-cap. But many wine drinkers expect the romance of a cork. Whether cork will be romantic for another 400 years is questionable. For me, the ‘crack’ of a screw-cap seal being broken with its promise of a taint-free wine is enough.

Whatever your position, To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle brings the debate right up to date, backed by facts and figures and quotes from the participants. My only niggle with the book is that, although Taber travels the world and has an international perspective, every now and again the reader is abruptly brought up by Americanisms such as expecting to know when Thanksgiving is and phrases such as “in the entire world the thwack of a perfectly pitched baseball hitting a perfectly swung bat” brings “joy to all but the most jaded”.

However, even the most jaded wine lover will enjoy and learn from this well written, easy reading yarn about that essential but disposable closure that must be removed before we can enjoy our favourite drink. If you’re thinking of a present for a wine-lover, this book will not disappoint.

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