Cork, Plastic, or Twist? The Cork Industry Tightens the Screws on Winemakers

More wineries are moving towards plastic stoppers and aluminum caps and away from traditional cork.  Some would say this is unfortunate for a host of reasons.  Harvesting cork is an ancient practice that keeps a cluster of cork trees, which are almost entirely in Portugal and Spain, alive.

More winemakers around the world, however, are turning to synthetic alternatives. Wineries in Australia and New Zealand gravitate towards metal caps because importing cork is expensive.  Some foodies would argue that synthetics avoid cork mold that can taint wine while providing an easier way to seal a bottle—and any neophyte who has mauled a cork while opening a new bottle would probably sympathize with that argument.  While many high-end vintners still use cork, synthetics are still gaining in popularity, so now the cork industry is pressuring the winemakers and distributors to stay with cork for environmental and economic reasons.  The 100% Cork campaign features a Facebook page has over 15,500 members and counting.

Corticeira Amorim, a leading Portuguese cork manufacturer, has launched a web site detailing all sorts of facts and statistics.  The company touts a PricewaterhouseCoopers study explaining that synthetic corks create a carbon footprint exponentially higher than that of naturally derived cork.  Other studies explain that cork taint is overhyped; outline Amorim’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and articulate how cork recycling is increasing and how the results of which are beneficial for the planet.  All these reports and campaigns have the purpose of pressuring winemakers to come turn away from synthetics and return to cork.

The environmental and social impacts of cork’s decline are clear:  cork provides some of the few high-paying agricultural jobs remaining on the planet.  A decline in cork production could devastate cork forests, which house trees hundreds of years old and contain rare ecosystems that would disappear should cork production cease.  While many of us romanticize the Mediterranean (easy to do), much of this region has suffered from drought—cork trees protect local soil from drying out and halts erosion.

The questions for the industry are, how does cork perform compared to synthetics, and will emotional appeals to wine producers resonate and change business practices?  And why not develop other uses of cork?  One quick example: we installed cork flooring in one our bathrooms. Intuitively, one would think cork tiles would lack the durability of wood or tile, but several years later, it looks new and holds up well—even when spiked high heels stomp on it.  Surely there are other uses for this timeless product.  Preaching the emotional and environmental benefits probably will not be enough to halt the decline of cork as a wine sealer—but while that fight is a noble one, the industry could also consider other uses for this tree bark that would keep the industry thriving.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.