Thursday, July 25, 2013

You can't be slightly pregnant, but you CAN be slightly corked...

This morning, I received this email and attached note (from a big UK importer) to a blog post in which I referred to subtle variations caused by low-level TCA. The highlighting is all mine.

Hi Robert – I hope you’re well. It’s been a while since we met or spoke.

I thought you’d be interested to see a report I sent out today (below) to most of the commercial team within the company, the main reason being that I make reference to you at the bottom of the report and this has reminded me that I was going to write to you to congratulate you on a superb analysis (I had intended to comment on your blog but I didn’t get round to reading it until a few days later.)

Discussions on corks is a recurrent theme for us and this is obviously not the first email I’ve sent out to the troops, but I thought it good to tie in news of our disappointment with our new producer with your blog. Who knows: you might get a few more twitter followers from within our team.

Sent: 24 July 2013 19:12
To: Sales & Marketing Teams
Subject: The topic of closures

I am writing with an update on an Italian producer we were thinking of introducing and whose wines some of the sales directors may have tasted when we were going through the original tasting process.

We got very excited about this producer – we had been tracking him for a year – and we told those directors to get ready for the wines. But this email is to let them – and everyone else - know that we have decided not to introduce the wines and to tell you the reason why, as it is a well-debated topic.

We have rejected them simply because the corks they are using are not good enough.

The four wines all tasted superb during initial tastings. Negotiations went well, pricing and support was agreed, the presentation was superb, the company seemed to be dynamic and innovative. One thing nagged, however; a couple of the wines showed evidence of TCA. We asked for more samples. We tasted them and noticed an unevenness in the quality of wine. We – and the producer – persevered. Two weeks ago they sent 24 more samples (6 bottles of each wine.) We tasted every one. Within each batch, one wine would be superb and one wine would definitely have cork taint (TCA). The problem was with the other four wines. They were not obviously faulty, but they all tasted different to each other and they all had a kind of “stripped fruit” effect. It is this stripped-fruit issue which is at the heart of the on-going debate about cork. Anyone can spot a TCA-tainted wine; the problem lies with those wines where the cork has had an effect on the quality of fruit, but which is not obvious. They just don’t taste as good as they should – and they all taste different. Tired, bland, thin – these are some of the descriptive words used with these wines.

We told the producer, who contacted his cork supplier, who admitted that 0.5% of their products would cause faultiness, but who rejected our idea that the corks were causing unevenness in the wine quality. We have told them that unless they change the closure to one of our liking, we will not deal with them.

I am sorry, therefore, that we will not for the time being be dealing with this producer, but I also thought you might be interested in the reasons why. How often do we hear the phrase (or variations of it): “Funny, this wine tasted fine last week, but this is completely different”. Sometimes, of course, it is because the wines come from different batches, may have been stored and treated differently etc. But if they come from the same lot number and the same pallet in our warehouse, there must be another reason. Too often, that reason is the cork. Hence we will continue to ask our suppliers to look at other closures (while obviously bearing in mind that certain of our customers will not accept alternatives to cork.)

For anyone interested in reading more, the journalist and winemaker Robert Joseph is a great source of debate and he refers to this topic in a recent post (which primarily concerns the issue of wine judging and which is the best piece of polemic I have read in 20 years in the wine trade):


  1. You can’t be slightly pregnant, but apparently you can rush to judgment without consequence. In reading this blog, I was stuck by the myopic vision of Mr./Ms. XXX the UK importer, regarding the Italian winery with perceived TCA issues.

    It’s seems remarkable to me that in this age of easy access to vast amounts of information, via the internet and wine journals, someone who buys wine for a living apparently knows so little about TCA, its causes and the fact that even wines closed with alternative closures can be affected by TCA. This is not “late breaking news” but peer-reviewed research that has been in the press and on the Internet for quite some time.

    Regarding the corks that this particular Italian winery purchases, it is not only unfair but not scientifically substantiated that, “the corks they are using are not good enough”. Though there are many grades/quality levels for natural wine corks, and it’s very fair to say you get what you pay for, I question whether the UK distributor knows what company provided those corks and what their QC and manufacturing standards are.

    As an alternative to the “cork is culprit” school of thinking, I have included three links that illustrate the problem of Systemic TCA. Hopefully these articles will provide some added information to help diminish, “the cork is the only culprit” mentality. The last link references a study on French oak barrels with TCA. ki/Cork_taint

    As the executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, a non-profit forest organization, whose sole mission is to preserve and protect the Mediterranean cork forests, it’s important to state that, we receive no significant funding from or are representatives of the cork industry.

    Our “dog in this race” is the health of our planet. By turning to alternative closures not only are wineries helping to poison our planet and our bodies, but they also are helping to systematically degrade one of the worlds most important forest regions.

    I suggest that it is irresponsible to state that wines closed with alternative closures are somehow better for consumers and the wine, when many studies have shown that screw caps and plastic plugs have failure rates as high as 2%, (which is lower than the current rate for natural cork, 1%). It’s high time this campaign of misinformation comes to a stop; winemakers, wine writers and consumers should have access to the facts.

    Patrick Spencer
    Executive Director
    Cork Forest Conservation Alliance

  2. Patrick, thank you for your note - and for declaring your interest as a spokesman for the cork forests, but not for the industry.

    First, can I point out that it was the Italian winery's cork supplier that admitted to a fault-rate of 0.5%. The UK importer buys cork-sealed wines from many other producers and has no bias against cork per se. It simply sees no reason to sell evidently unreliable wine to its customers.

    Second, the chances of faulty barrels being responsible for variations within the same carton of wines are very small. Modern wineries assemble wines for bottling in huge tanks. The reasons for bottle variation in wines with the same lot number are almost certainly attributable to bottles, closures or possibly filters. Non-cork closures may be responsible for reduction character and filters can impart off-flavours. Neither will give TCA.

    Third, I am under the impression that Portgal's cork forests are protected under Portuguese law. Please provide evidence of the "systematic degradation".

    Fourth. the figures I prefer to use are the 3% TCA from the cork-sealed bottles among the 12,000+ bottles (of all closures) opened at the International Wine Challenge every year.

    Fifth, when it comes to misinformation, I would direct your attention to the story, placed by the cork industry's PR office that appeared in the UK press just before the London Intl Wine Fair 15 or so years ago that "revealed" an - entirely erroneous - link between synthetic corks and cancer.

    The environmental issue is open to discussion - especially now that Nomacork has launched zero carbon synthetic closures made from plant-based polymers derived from sugar cane. The reliability issue is another matter now that big wine companies like Pernod Ricard can offer the results of sealing millions of bottles with screwcaps.

    1. Dear Robert,
      Thank you for the excellent and engaging reply. I would like to reply to the 6 points you made, but first I’d like to posit a question about these Italian wines, as there are over 600 chemical agents that can affect a wines flavor profile, how do we know that the off flavors came from TCA and why was the cork the only culprit?

      1. The .05% failure rate of the natural corks. This rate would in fact be 1.5% lower that the current rate for screw caps, due to reduction issues and screw cap failures, (associated with bottling line issues and storage of stacked pallets of wine. Will the UK importer stop buying screw cap wines as well?

      2. Barrels being responsible for TCA. Nowhere did I state that the barrel was the sole culprit for “off” flavors. As for the statement, “Modern wineries assemble wines for bottling in huge tanks” true, but wines are aged in oak barrels first, unless fermented and stored in SS. All wines then go through a number processes before being pumped into holding tanks at the bottling line. Anywhere along that chain, TCA could have infected the wine, long before a cork was put into the bottle. The letter from the UK importer does not give us any information as to how the wine was made, from what region, is it white or red, is the winery old or modern, do they use chlorinated water to clean the winery, do they add Brettanomyces, (often blamed for “corked” wine) etc., etc.?

      3. Portuguese cork forests. There are 7 million acres of cork forest in seven countries, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The protection the Portuguese government provides the forest’s is related to laws regarding the cutting of the cork tree, not reforestation. The forests in Portugal are the most protected in the region, but not all cork comes from Portugal. Without going into a long forest conservation dissertation, below please find links to WWF, Rainforest Alliance and European Forestry Institute papers on the vital environmental importance of preserving and protecting the cork forests.

      4. “the figures I prefer to use are the 3% TCA from the cork-sealed bottles among the 12,000+ bottles (of all closures) opened at the International Wine Challenge every year”. Interesting that Prude enology professor Christian Butzke, stated after testing over 13,000 bottles of wine at the Indy International Wine Competition, (the largest scientifically organized and independent wine competition in the United States), that “TCA taint is at 1% or less”, wine writers and buyers disregard his findings and use their own…..

      5. The 15-year-old UK study. You might want to read the study that was done in 2011 that found “higher than normal levels of estrogenic activity in Nomacorc plastic closures”. This study’s validity is being challenged in court, right now in Austin TX. It will be interesting to see what the outcome will be.

      6. There is no peer reviewed scientific study that the new ‘plant based” Nomacorc is zero carbon, that we are aware of. What is the basis for such a statement? No one outside of Nomacorc knows what percentage of this closure is “plant based”. Is the sugar cane coming from the millions of acres of Amazonian rainforest being destroyed for sugar cane production? Lots of room for discussion here we think?

      7. We have no way of knowing how many wineries will switch to this new closure, but right now Nomacorc is generating 17 million tons of plastic waste, EACH MONTH, from its plant in GA, by anyone’s standards, that’s not an environmental closure.

      The United Nations has designated the Mediterranean cork forests as one of the 25 “Hot Spots” for biodiversity.

      These 7 million acres keep this part of the world from becoming a desert, something I think everyone involved in this discussion would agree, this is vital to the health of our planet.

    2. Seems like someone has already made up their mind...."The popularity of alternative closures raises environmental issues, but as Robert Joseph points out, scare stories about the imminent disappearance of Portugal's cork forests may have more to do with the 6.5m Euro being spent by the cork manufacturers on PR and advertising than with reality. There is little publicity being given to the fact that the cork forests are expanding by 4% - and that numbers of animals like the Iberian lynx that are supposedly threatened by the recent success of the alternatives have in fact been declining for a century".

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  4. Is local ecosystem whereby the trees are regularly stripped of their bark really helped by such intrusions? Surely leaving the forests to exist without human interference(I'm guessing local fauna and flora will be disturbed by such harvests) and leaving wine drinkers to avoid that "is it corked/oxidised" moment would be best for all concerned.
    It would also be interesting to hear what percentage of the cork produced in these forests go towards wine bottle closures; I've read it's as little as 5%, which means perhaps the industry needs new avenues or is simply antiquated and thus being replaced by more useful alternatives?

    1. The problem, Damien is that iwine closures are by FAR the most profitable 5%. Cork insulation etc bring in much less cash, especially as other options hit the market.

  5. Patrick, we can TCA taint and oxidation trade figures ad nauseam. You're right: we all choose the ones we believe in. As co-founder of the IWC and knowing the calibre of the particular Masters of Wine who run it today, yes, I'll trust it over the Indy event. Especially as the figures are backed up by other events in which I have confidence.
    The 0.5% you refer to was the one claimed by the cork supplier - not one I have any reason to believe, given the incidence of taint in the samples.
    I would love to know where your 2% screwcap failure figure comes from. I would merely say that reduction is NOT a screwcap issue (as has been shown by millions of reduction-free New Zealand bottles) but a winemaking issue. (Which can affect wines sealed with other closures).
    I fail to understand Point 2. The bottle variation occurs AFTER the "holding tank" to which you refer. Any taint in a barrel, pipe, pump etc would therefore affect every bottle on a line. The only reasons for bottle variation will be bottles, closures or the filter pads. Which do not give a TCA character.
    Brettanomyces is irrelevant to this subject. It is a separate fault that can occur in cork or alternatively sealed bottles. Brewers add brettanomyces to their brews; winemakers do no such thing.
    I cannot respond to Points 5&6.
    Point 7 is a valid one, as it is for other forms of plastic packaging.
    Point 8 is interesting, but quite frankly, I do not see the use of alternative closures leading to the desertification of 7m acres of forest.

    However, you have your boat to row. I am actually independent. I bottle wines with screwcaps, nomacorc and natural corks. Based on my experience of the three, like many other producers, I wish the market did not oblige me to use the last of these them

  6. Patrick,

    As my colleagues have expressed to you in other online forums, I recognize that we will always have a difference of opinion regarding closures. However, once again, there are several erroneous statements that you’ve listed above that must be corrected and set straight.

    • Our products are fully compliant with international food-contract regulations, including the FDA and similar European Regulatory Commissions. We work with all of our suppliers to ensure that all of our raw materials meet regulations. Nomacorc goes above and beyond requirements and takes regular measurements and conducts quality checks throughout our manufacturing processes and with assessments by independent third-party agencies. Making false claims about our product development and questioning our company’s character does nothing to benefit our industry, and scare-tactics do nothing for wineries and consumers.

    • As my colleagues have informed you in a different comment thread, we’re currently working with a 3rd party to validate our Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) on our Select Bio zero carbon footprint closure and will be releasing that information in 2014. Because we’re still confirming patents, we cannot share the exact percentage of plant-based polymers contained in the closure but we will in 2014. The sugar cane fields from which our raw materials are sourced are located in Brazil, away from the Amazon Forest, and only occupy 1.5% of Brazilian arable land. All of the plants are cultivated in a socially responsible way that does not impact food supply.

    • Once again, your so-called “facts” are false. We do not have a plant in Georgia and one quick click to our website would have provided you the locations of our facilities. Our headquarters is located outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. We are exceedingly transparent about our environmental and sustainability activity with a third-party audited report ( that is available for anyone to read. As stated in our Corporate Social Responsibility Report, Nomacorc produced 1,521 metric tons of scrap, 100% of which was sold to recyclers for reprocessing. So once again, your accusation of 17 million tons of plastic waste is false. Nomacorc has ambitiously pursued waste reduction projects over the years, and despite increasing our production volumes, we continue to reduce our material scrap rate year over year.

    • Your reference to a 2011 Study and a Texas lawsuit are misleading. You have failed to note that three of the five authors of the 2011 Study were employed by or otherwise have a financial interest in PlastiPure who in turn is the defendant in the Texas false advertising lawsuit that you mention. You also fail to mention that Nomacorc is not mentioned in this study.

    • You suggested that the outcome of the suit would be interesting. In that you are correct: After a two-week jury trial this July, the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas entered judgment on August 30, 2013 in favor of the Plaintiff and against PlastiPure, awarding the Plaintiff Eastman damages and imposing an injunction against PlastiPure for its false advertisements. The referenced study is discredited in a court of law.

    Our main goal is to provide a quality product, free of TCA, that can be used as a tool to serve winemakers’ intentions. We recognize the importance of sustainable manufacturing and business practices and continue to improve our efforts year over year. In the end, we strive to serve as a partner to the industry and help ensure that consumers have the opportunity to enjoy a wine every time it’s opened.

    Jeffrey Slater, Nomacorc

  7. Raising of legal walls, FDA and Zero Carbon...the conversation isn't leading to what Robert wants to hear apparently - that the wine industry take command of the conversation and gets to standby it's products with more conviction.

    McDonalds also has FDA approval for their meat paddies...and we all now know where the beef isn't in that meat. To be perfectly honest, the only zero carbon closure I'm comfortable with, is when my wine bottle is actually opened. We're all made of carbon for goodness sake.

    And as to the 'sistematic degradation' - I confer with Patrick.S that the single threat to Mediterranean cork woods today - could very well be the abandonment of forests. Should winemakers be lured further away, we will have yet another industry that will have contributed to the breaking with a natural and productive connection to sustain and upkeep of local forests and ecosystems.

    1. Thank you Patrick. I think we may have to agree to differ.