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The green benefits of cork

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Articles - August 2010
Wednesday, July 21, 2010



Cork is an important part of the wine industry. Maybe not as critical as the grape, but hard to think of a bottle without it. Salem-based Cork ReHarvest, an environmental nonprofit, is working to bolster cork’s importance as a manufactured good with a new cork recycling program.

The Cork Quality Council estimates 13 billion corks are used worldwide each year, and 1 billion in the U.S. Only one-third are recycled. “It’s a throw-away for most people,” says Cork ReHarvest executive director Patrick Spencer. There is enough used  cork currently in the industry to put a cork in every bottle of wine consumed in the U.S. for the next 100 years.

Spencer founded Cork ReHarvest in 2008. To create the recycling program, Spencer created partnerships between Cork ReHarvest and wineries, Whole Foods, and Corvallis-based molded fiber manufacturer Western Pulp. Consumers bring corks to collection bins at Whole Foods stores. Trucks take the bins to Whole Foods distribution centers and then they are shipped to Western Pulp. Western Pulp expects to receive approximately 1.35 million recycled corks in 2010. It grinds down the corks and combines them with newspaper to make wine-shipping boxes.

It’s not clear whether the recycling program will financially impact the wine industry. Cork becomes contaminated once a wine bottle is opened, and cannot be reused to cork another, even if it is recycled. Spencer says recycled cork has a number of uses, including in flooring, shoes and packaging.

Winemakers hope the recycling program helps reverse a trend of using plastic corks or screw caps as closures. Cork has come under attack because it can ruin a bottle of wine with “cork taint.” In response, says Susan Sokol Blosser, founder of Sokol Blosser Winery, “there’s been a concerted effort to develop other closures.”

Even though plastic corks and screw caps are cheaper than corks, winemakers readily use corks because they are renewable, sustainable and create jobs for people living in the Mediterranean area where cork trees grow.

“Cork is one of the few renewable resources that we have available to us in the wine industry,” Sokol Blosser says.



Patrick Spencer, Director Cork ReHarvest
0 #1 Some additional factsPatrick Spencer, Director Cork ReHarvest 2010-07-27 11:44:46
I want to thank Oregon Business for featuring our organization and it's program in this article. It would be a major oversight to not mention Willamette Valley Vineyards contribution to our organization. Without WVV's support, both financial and logistical, there would be no Cork ReHarvest program. Founder Jim Bernau's commitment to sustainable winery practices have been a major part of WVV's 26 year history. We are honored to have the opportunity to work so closely with one of Oregon's business leaders, so committed to the health and sustainability of our planet.
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Alison Sokol Blosser, Co-President, Sokol Blosser Winery
0 #2 A more sustainable Oregon wine industryAlison Sokol Blosser, Co-President, Sokol Blosser Winery 2010-07-28 13:49:39
As proponents of the use of natural cork, we’d like to thank Oregon Business for writing this piece on what has long been a debate in the wine industry and for including Sokol Blosser Winery in the discussion. We applaud the work that Cork ReHarvest and their longtime supporter Willamette Valley Vineyards have done to further consumer education on the use of natural cork and their advocacy for and commitment to cork recycling. We look forward to partnering with Cork ReHarvest to help further our mutual goals of building a more sustainable Oregon wine industry.
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Ned Goodwin
0 #3 Cork is risqueNed Goodwin 2010-07-28 15:44:52
Cork not only ruins bottles with cork taint, but is also responsible for random oxidation and inconsistent quality among bottles from the same vintage and producer albeit, under cork from different batches. Environmental claims are vague at best from the pro-cork brigade given the amount of wine that must be discarded due to poor quality cork. Think of the transport and distillation involved, not to mention pent up anger as another bottle, supposedly representative of site and a winemaker's sleight of hand, is tossed down the sink. Given the proven ageability of screwcap (which are not necessarily cheaper than cork as the article above falsely states), until a better closure is developed, I would rather have capped bottles-fresh and delicious-than bottles under cork that may be stale or just plain off.
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Erik McLaughlin, Willamette Valley Vineyards
0 #4 Thank you for the coverage on natural corkErik McLaughlin, Willamette Valley Vineyards 2010-07-29 12:31:25
Thank you for the article to help educate consumers about the importance of natural cork. Not only are the environmental benefits clear once the facts are brought forth, it is encouraging to see how well and quickly the cork industry has rectified many of the issues that Mr. Goodwin brings up in his comment.

The quality of natural cork was suspect up until several years ago (and can still be amongst those note using high quality cork). But as the cork industry faced massive loss of market share to alternative closures that rely either on petrolium based products or bauxite mining (for aluminum production) they got their act together very quickly.

I will grant that failure rates were unacceptably high (nearing 10%) as recently as five years ago. Now with improvements to how cork is being harvested, stored, transported, sanitized, and processed the failure rate is down to nearly 1%. A rate I will accept to do what is right by the environment, support this carbon-sink industry, keep thousands of multi-generatio nal workers in employed, and maintaining the tradition of a natural closure for our naturally made products.

Thank you as well, to Alison and our friends and colleagues at Sokol-Blosser for helping to spread the facts about wine closures and participating in the dialogue.
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Martin Bell, Forrest Wine Estate, New Zealand
0 #5 Cork vs other closuresMartin Bell, Forrest Wine Estate, New Zealand 2010-07-29 17:01:49
In support of Mr Goodwin, we here in New Zealand have chosen to use screwcap for good reason. Those multi-generatio nal families in Portugal that are producing corks have never once supported us, never provided us with good quality products, even when we ordered them. The rates of failure of the closure were too high and we were paying too much. Therefore we moved to screwcap, and I do not think we will move back. 1%, as Mr McLaughlin states, is far too high a number still. There is no other food industry in the world where a number like that is even acceptable. If you knew 1 in every hundred of a particular brand's tomato soup in a can was going to be faulty, you would never buy it (if it ever got on the shelf in teh first place). Yet it is acceptable in this industry.

Wine can be aged in screwcap (refer to the Riesling trials of the AWRI from the 1970's that are still going today), it has less variability between bottles and most importantly, it is a guarantee to the customer that there will be the wine in the bottle that the winemaker intended. On top of that, the screwcap can be recycled. It is aluminium, and like cans, can be used again as a screwcap rather than packaging that will be..... (delaying the inevitable, methinks) thrown away! This would put less pressure on the bauxite mines of this world. All that is needed is a plan (like the one in the article above) to put the recycling in place.
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Patrick Spencer, Director Cork ReHarvest
0 #6 Wine is in fact a argriculutal product.Patrick Spencer, Director Cork ReHarvest 2010-08-02 12:51:50
Mr. Bell your statement "There is no other food industry in the world where a number like that is even acceptable." leaves me a bit confused. As a member of the Forrest Wine Estate team, you must be aware that in your own vineyards there is loss of product due to any number of conditions that affect the grwoing of grapes.You might even be dropping 1% of your fruit before harvest. What about evaporation in barrel, losses during bottling? Those "losses" are factored into the cost of a bottle of wine you and every other winery in the world sell. Not to mention that every agricultural and food producer factors in loss (higher than 1%) into the cost of their product, without it there would be no profitable food producers. And when you went to screw caps and reduced your cost of closure and eliminated your loss from cork taint, did you lower the cost of your wine to the consumer?

Really, the Portuguese NEVER sent anyone in New Zealand a good cork?

You and everyone who chooses to promote alternative closure usage, never address the environmental issues that the United Nations, World Wildlife Fund,the Rainforest Alliance and the Global Environment Facility have all documented. Aluminum and Plastic are not renewable or sustainably sourced. They infrequently recycled and in recent studies have show to be leaching endocrine disruptor's into the wines they are sealing. Endocrine disruptor's are the leading suspects in colon and breast cancer. The cork forests are a carbon sink and oxygen provider and offer one of the highest levels of forest biodiversity on the planet. Find me any information about the positive environmental benefits of mining for bauxite and turning petrochemicals into plastic and then we can have a rational discussion.
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0 #7 Put a cork in itjed 2010-08-31 16:51:32
While it is true that no one wants a tainted wine, there are many "taints" and many issues. And screw caps are not a panacea. Consider this...many wines are treated (especially in NZ) to "prepare" them for screw cap. They have copper and other fining agents added to avoid the off character ("taint") from reduced (and funky) aromas of the original wine (see reports by Alan Limmer PhD, Stonecroft Winery NZ and others). The same "issues" are often not issues for cork finished wines. Why treat a wine to suit the closure (that certainly isn't good or preferrable)? Also, many screw caps are poorly applied (especially among small producers who often produce many of the great wines) because it's not an easy closure to apply. Then the whole batch risks being oxidized (not 1% but 100%). Screw caps are less forgiving about storage than cork (and put a wine at risk). These are just a few of the isssues (and "taints" faced with screw caps). There's a whole book written by proponents of screw caps (Taming of the Screw) just to get all around all the difficulties and issues (and "taints").

Taint is not even near 1% for those who do good QC on their whole cork program (and those who are willing to pay more than the cheapest amount).

Part of the issue in NZ was the fact that Kiwis wanted (expected) corks cheap and weren't willing to pay for quality (nor QC). So they ended up with what they paid for (poor quality corks and some with taint were sent to NZ or eastern Europe, while those in wine regions who paid for top quality--such as California--rec eived much better cork and much, much lower incidences of taint). And many of those who stuck by cork as a natural, historical, sustainable product also spent a lot more on QC and research (private, not just public) and held cork suppliers' feet to the fire to deliver better quality (which all seem to agree is the case).

The truth is, there is no perfect closure. But cork is getting closer and closer all the time, while screw caps and others are starting to look more and more ridiculous all the time (especially in light of the negative environmental impact they have, as others have highlighted).

Think twice (or more).
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