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Cork Or Caps? 

by Christina Kelly & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's a romantic scene played out time after time -- the waiter brings a bottle of wine to the table, inserts a corkscrew and produces the pop that signals the beginning of a wonderful evening.

Only instead of a pop, in the future you might hear the cracking sound of metal breaking as a screw cap is removed from a moderately priced bottle of wine.

One of the hottest debates in the wine industry today isn't about vintages, locations, cropping techniques or cute animal labels. It is about whether to replace the cork with a screw cap -- not very romantic, but certainly a more practical approach to wine closures.

A decade ago, most people associated screw caps with the type of cheap jug wine that never promised much in the bottle. But times have changed, and as cork production drastically increased in the 1980s with the proliferation of the global wine industry, the quality also plunged dramatically. With the drop in quality came "cork taint," or trichloranisole (TCA), a contamination that occurs during the cork sterilization.

A wine that suffers from cork taint has a dank, musty aroma like wet cardboard or laundry left too long in the washer. It can be so severe that even the novice wine drinker will notice, but unfortunately, cork taint is not always so pronounced, making the wine seem just a little "off." Regardless of the origin of the wine, price or brand, all wines suffer from cork taint, but estimates vary from state to state and country to country.

According to the Department of Enology and Viticulture at U.C. Davis, a conservative estimate of cork taint is between 5 percent and 10 percent of all wine. The magazine Wine Spectator, the bible of wine enthusiasts, recently estimated 15 percent of all wine is lost to cork taint. "It has become increasingly evident to most of the wine business that it is only a matter of time before bad corks spread like a plague," writes the Spectator in a recent article. "That seems to be exactly what is happening. In a retrospectative tasting of 1991 cabernets, nearly 15 percent of the wines tasted were spoiled by bad corks -- a disturbing figure."

It boils down to a business decision -- whether winemakers want to automatically give up as much as 15 percent of their business by selecting a metal closure on their wines.

"If corks are ruining even 5 percent of our wine, then we will look elsewhere," says David Forsyth, general manager for Hogue Cellars in Prosser. Hogue converted all of its value wines -- 350,000 cases -- to screw caps in 2005 after studying the issue for years.

"I believe we will see many more wineries choosing screw caps over cork as people get tired of paying good money for corked wines."

Hogue has its Genesis and Reserve series of wines that are still using natural cork, but Forsyth says the winery is considering a switch. The winery has a more expensive wine series called "Terroir" that is sold only at the winery. These wines are closed with screw caps.

Industry experts say it is not just the loss of wine, but the loss of brand loyalty from consumers. A slightly tainted wine will cause the consumer to think the wine is not very good and they may not purchase that wine again.

And it isn't just inexpensive wines. Two years ago, I opened a 1998 cult Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Napa for my wedding anniversary. The wine retailed for more than $100 per bottle. Sadly, the wine was corked and tainted, causing a disappointment to the evening and even a little resentment, despite the fact that I knew it really wasn't the winery's fault.

"There is no telling how many people won't buy a particular wine anymore because they did not recognize that it was tainted," says Alex Dyer, a distributor in the Napa Valley. "Most people won't think, 'Well, let's try another bottle to see if it is just cork taint.' They just won't buy it again."

Cork producers are defending their product, albeit slowly. The Portuguese Cork Association, representing about 80 percent of all cork exporters, has funneled millions of dollars into solving the problem, with the goal of eradicating TCA. Cork forests are growing -- with 373,000 acres of new cork forests planted in the past 20 years.

Natural cork keeps wine from oxidizing because it keeps out most of the air in the bottle, allowing just a tiny bit through the cork -- which actually helps wines, especially the reds. The screw caps eliminated the very slow permeation of oxygen into wine, which works well for aromatic white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. In New Zealand, for example (which mostly produces white wines), nearly 80 percent of the wines are closed with screw caps.

But many producers of red wines remain skeptical of a metal closure, and some believe the natural cork helps soften red wines as they age. Some winemakers, like Rob Newsom of Boudreaux Cellars in Leavenworth, say they will never switch. Newsom can spend up to $1 per cork, versus the screw cap, which can be as inexpensive as 20 & cent; per bottle.

It is a debate that's not going away soon. And industry insiders are suggesting that wine stewards, sommeliers and others create new traditions for the opening of that special bottle of wine.

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