In late July we ran a story on the cork industry’s push to slow the momentum of synthetic alternatives to natural cork. American wineries’ use of cork has declined from 90% to 70% in recent years, and not just run-of-the-mill cheap table wine producers were switching from cork to aluminum or plastic.
Having been lulled into complacency while ignoring the complaints of tainted cork by some wineries, cork producers in Portugal and Spain waited until it was almost too late–plastic and aluminum stoppers are becoming more popular. Now the Portuguese government-backed cork industry is coming out swinging, and has ramped up its public relations campaign, rolling out a web site as well as staking out a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Flush with a budget of US$3 million, the 100 Percent Cork campaign is also hosting events and giving away tickets to events while hosting others. The initiative scored a coup, too: Rutherford Wine Company, a Northern California wine producer, has pledged to only top its bottles off with 100% cork.
The Portuguese Cork Association and its American counterpart, the Cork Quality Council, are treating Rutherford’s pledge as a victory, and has pledged to showcase Rutherford at various events the organization sponsors. As of press time, Rutherford has not responded in kind—there is no mention of the cork campaign on its web site. It’s a win-win situation: one party lands a marquee name, the other some free publicity.
While construction debris and packaging for consumer goods create the most landfill waste, the cork industry continues to tout statistics, as stated in a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, about the amount of greenhouse gas emissions synthetic stoppers contribute to the atmosphere compared to those from naturally harvested cork. But other reasons exist to direct wineries towards tree cork as a wine bottle sealer, and not just because of tradition. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) documents the value of cork trees and threats to their existence. Portuguese cork cultivators are determined to avoid the fate of cork trees in Northern Africa, where poor land management, harvesting techniques, and shift towards cash crops have decimated cork tree forests. While most cork trees are protected in Portugal—the evidence suggests that cork trees will not just disappear if the wine cork industry disappeared tomorrow—careful stewardship of the forests is what keeps these forests in Iberia thriving.
The 100 Percent Cork Site needs more heft in order to reverse the tide towards synthetic caps. The bullet points extolling cork are impressive, but need more data to back them up (is the cork forest really the 2nd largest “bio-gem” in the world? If corks are recyclable, what should consumers and restaurants do?). It is an uphill battle: the UK’s Tesco sells a majority of its wines with synthetic stoppers, and 85% of Australian wines and 45% of those in New Zealand wines use aluminum screw caps. For now the cork industry’s message drifts between advertising and educating: more of the latter is needed. And meanwhile, wineries need more of an incentive to return to cork—they need more convincing that cork were the best alternative. Oddly enough, the USA, of all places may be a sustainable industry’s greatest hope.