Is choice of wine bottle closure dependent on effectiveness or marketing?

Closures

It is funny how the universe seems to push you to write about a certain topic. A couple of weeks ago, on February 2nd, a few guys representing the PlumpJack winery group visited Sherry-Lehmann with the release of their new line of wines called Odette. We were given a staff tasting earlier that morning, and I really was most intrigued by their story of how they made headlines in 2000 when they became one of the first producers to release a luxury wine, their 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, with a screw cap closure.

John Conover, general manager of PlumpJack, said they wanted to, “…change the way the game is done.”

PlumpJack

Those of you familiar with the PlumpJack Group know that it is a company that has large resources, and they make money from various ventures in hospitality. They have PlumpJack, CADE, and Odette Napa wineries, which are part of their group. And yes, this is not a little, struggling winemaker. But I started to think of the pros and cons in regards to effectiveness and marketing of different closures that would be relevant for small and large wineries.

It was serendipitous that my friend and creator of the #winelover community recently wrote a blog post about Coravin, the system that allows a wine drinker to draw off one glass at a time. But this is really only possible for corks, and so he questioned the validity of screw caps. This made me think about this topic even more and hence, here is my post on closures.

In 2013, the Wine Business Monthly Closure Survey Report, which helps to determine market trends in wine closures and perception by wineries, showed that natural cork ranked higher than the other alternative closures with the exception of price, product performance and ease of removal. Moreover, in the case of synthetic closures, there were even slightly negative perceptions in three attributes (overall rating, consumer acceptance and perceived environmental impact). Does the effectiveness of closures such as natural cork, synthetic, technical and screw cap, match consumer perception? Hmmm….

Quick note: I have excluded the glass closure Vino-Seal or Vinolok due to the fact that only a tiny amount of producers use them due to their high cost.

Natural Cork: Why are they the reigning king or queen of the closure world?

The traditional closure for wine bottles has long been the natural cork. It is cheap, readily available, comes from a renewable source, is biodegradable, is a good oxygen barrier and has an awesome anti-slip property. Corking machines have an easier time with inserting natural corks… they actually have some give… and for a small percentage of wines, they are great for maturation. Did I say maturation? I know, some experts question whether maturation continues in the bottle after what was initially started in barrels for wines meant to age. Some believe the wine is in an anaerobic state and it is actually a slow chemical change. So that may not be the strongest point.

But when it comes to marketing, traditionally, natural corks are associated with high quality. The ceremony of opening a bottle with a natural cork is a long tradition that has been prized in many long established wine consuming countries. That is changing… and not only do some winemakers want to change that perception, but some regions are out to change it too.

Why would anyone have a problem with natural cork?

CORK TAINT. The problem of cork taint has resulted in the reduction of the use of natural cork by producers. General estimates for cork taint seem to fall between 2-7%, although most of these studies do not involve chemical verification of the TCA in bottles, and there is no existing study that has a large enough sample size to be 100% valid. If you know of one please let me know!

Interestingly, the wine trade’s thoughts about TCA were challenged by an article in Decanter last year that reported scientists in Japan claimed that TCA does not produce a bad odor. Instead they state that TCA shuts down a taster’s ability to smell. I thought that was an interesting tidbit. Okay, getting back on track with closures and I’ll save the in-depth about TCA for another time.

Synthetic: I’m going to make this quick…

I’m not going to spend too much time on synthetic corks. Why? Have you ever seen and felt a synthetic cork? If so, you know why. They look and feel synthetic… ahahaha.. they are cheap. Which is fine when you are opening a bottle under USD $6… but if you are buying a wine for a special occasion, spending more than you typically spend, then touching a cork that has material that reminds you of a surgical glove really spoils the mood. And they are difficult to pull out. I have known wine consumers to return bottles because they could not get the synthetic closure out.

At one time, synthetic closures were known to damage corking machines because the material was too hard. They have improved, but because they will never be able to conform to filling the space at the top of a wine bottle like cork, they will never have the guarantee that cork gives as an oxygen barrier. I know some corks could be faulty… but I’m not going to get into that issue at this time. Synthetic closures are only suitable for immediate consumption.

In my opinion, synthetic closures have the lowest rating for effectiveness and marketing.
That wasn’t so quick, but I guess I needed to go off on a rant about it.

Technical Corks: Looks like a cork, but not a cork

This is the cheapest closure based on cork, also known as agglomerate cork. It is a cork where cork granules are stuck together by resin-based glue. Agglomerate corks are only suitable for wines with a short shelf-life because the resin disintegrates after a few months in contact with the wine. This is not so much of an issue since most wines are consumed immediately, but best to store the bottle standing up if you are going to wait a few months to drink it. Also, the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has conducted trials that showed technical corks absorbed more non-polar volatile compounds than cork. In other words, they are flavor scalpers! But the worst offenders in scalping the flavors of wine are synthetic closures. Oh yes, another nail in the coffin for synthetic closures.

I do not think that the above negatives are that bad in regards to an ideal closure choice for moderately priced wines that will be consumed immediately. They look and feel like cork (yes, some are much better than others), and they provide a good seal for the short term. And they are a lot less expensive than cork. Good for effectiveness, marketing and retail price!

Too good to be true

The technical cork Altec, by the French company Sabaté, was initially seen as a great advancement in technical corks with a more uniform, fine textured closure. Unfortunately, in 2001, they were sued by many wineries, one being Van Duzer in Oregon, for having unacceptable TCA levels in their Altec corks. Funny enough, initially customers thought it was glue taint.. well, not funny at the time. Sabaté took steps to eliminate this problem by washing the cork particles with super-critical carbon dioxide, which removes any residual TCA.

The state of technical closures today

There have been some great advanced achievements in technical corks. Twin Top, developed by Amorim, was based on technology used in Champagne. It is an agglomerated cork with two sections of natural cork at each end. Sabaté has come out with Diam, which is not only a technical cork that is treated with super-critical carbon dioxide, due to the issues discussed above, but it comes in different versions that allow for various levels of oxygen transmission rates.

But I think more than anything, Sabaté needed to improve their image after the marketing disaster of Altec. Even though they fixed the issue, a change of the name was necessary for successful sales.

Screw cap: Game changer

The effectiveness of the screw cap has certainly been a big topic within the wine trade in the last year. Over the past decade, screw caps are slowly gaining acceptance among the trade with their positive attributes of not causing taint, not suffering from extreme quality variation and they do not need a special tool to open them. There have been many trials by the AWRI that have shown screw cap as the best oxygen barrier when applied properly. They have the lowest oxygen transmission rates, and hence, lower doses of SO2 may be used…. Again, if they are applied properly! But also, AWRI trials have proven that they do not absorb flavor compounds…. no flavor scalping here.

Kareem Massoud, winemaker and family member of Paumanok Winery in Long Island, NY, invested in a screw cap bottling line in 2007. He said that he was convinced by its effectiveness when he worked a year at a New Zealand winery, and he uses screw caps for all his wines that are meant for immediate consumption. Besides the initial cost of the new bottling line, screw caps are also much more cost effective.

And two years ago, Stelvin released liners that are designed for screw caps that have different levels of oxygen transmission rates. Woot! Woot!

Yes, there is a lot of awesomeness when it comes to the effectiveness of screw caps. But what about marketing…

Yes, this closure is not trying to pretend to look or feel anything like cork. It says, “I am different, and I want you to know I am different.” That is me trying to pretend what a screw cap would say. Yes, Australia and New Zealand loves them. What about France?!

Lynn Marchive, Domaine des Malandes in Chablis, uses cork and screw cap on all her different quality levels, such as Grand Cru and 1er Cru. She said her choice of closure is dependent on the intended market. She uses cork with most of her wines that are above the Bourgogne appellation status that are sent to the US, and she sends all of her wines to Japan with screw caps, even the Grand Cru. Her decision on closure is based on what the market demands.

But there is an issue with effectiveness…uh-oh…

Two years ago, a Masters of Wine dissertation (it is currently no longer called a dissertation, but a research paper) was published in an Australian wine trade magazine. It presented evidence that claimed to show that screw caps cause more damage to wine than cork.

Say what?!

There were 22 retailers surveyed, most in Sydney area, and examined around 11,500 bottles. The result of this study was alarming. The overall physical damage level of the wines with closures that were screw caps was 26%. The screw caps that were damaged enough in transport to cause significant changes in the wine were 8.2%. In addition, 7.2% of screw caps were applied incorrectly. But many have argued that the sample size was too small for its claims to have validity.

And of course there is the idea of the Coravin, and how this may change the game for the game changer.

I think there are valid pro and con arguments for all of the closures. I do not 100% lean toward one or the other (except I do not like synthetic… I think I have made that clear….hehehe). But I really like how John Conover, PlumpJack winery, explained why they choose screw cap for their top wine 15 years ago. He explained that he believed in failure, so much so, that he believed there should be a prize for those who have the biggest failure each year. Because that is how you change the world, change the game. It is about taking a chance. It is how we leave our mark on the world. Some may disagree and some may agree, but at least there is a conversation.

And that’s what life is about… not so much finding what is the perfect answer, but enjoying the conversation.

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Odette wines tasted on February 2nd with PlumpJack, which comes from the Northern part of Napa Valley in California. “Adaption” wine uses grapes from the vineyards of CADE, PlumpJack and Odette in Napa. The Chardonnay was the only wine under screw cap.

-Odette Estate “Adaptation” Chardonnay 2013:

Slight spicy notes, very little french oak used, mainly stainless steel, moderate body, no MLF, so fresh and bright with white peach flavors

-Odette Estate “Adaptation” Cabernet Sauvignon 2012:

High alcohol (14.7%abv) but hides it well, and I am not a high alcohol girl, sweet cassis fruit, decent amount of tension with well-knit tannins and vivid acidity

-Odette Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012:

Firmer, lots of deep dark fruit flavors, and a hint of charcoal.. there is a nice savory/sweet quality to it… cocoa nibs wrapped in tobacco leaf

-Odette Estate “Adaptation” Petite Sirah 2012:

Opaque color, muscular body, chewy tannins, exotic spice, smoked bacon and blackberry jam

 

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