Let's Pull the Cork

The cover of Marvin Shanken's glossy Wine Spectator is usually occupied by gorgeous vistas of vineyards on the Rhône or glamorous restaurant interiors in Venice or Las Vegas. But the current issue (cover-dated March 31) is sober indeed: stock photos of two of WS's most respected critics, under the bold black headline: "The Great Cork Debate." The question for debate is simple enough: After a couple of thousand years as the Western world's favored air-tight closure for containers of potable liquids of all kinds, is it time to admit that cork is outmoded? It's not that cork is any worse than it used to be at sealing a bottleneck; at least it's been a great improvement on the ancient-world runner-up, oil-soaked rags. But cork, made from sheets of spongy bark from the cork oak, has a serious problem—it's a great breeding platform for microorganisms producing 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA to its intimates), which in portions as small as five parts per trillion can make any wine taste "off," funky, flat, or foul. Everybody acknowledges that "corked" bottles cost the industry a lot of money: Anywhere from one to three bottles a case may be affected. So what's the problem with screw tops? They work just as well on wine as on soft drinks and cost a fraction of what corks do, so why don't we just lose the cork? Ah . . . well, you see, "the virtues of cork go beyond mere science." That's how the Spectator's pro-cork debater, James Suckling, puts it. "Pop! It is a sound every wine lover knows. . . . It is the music of wine itself, an echo that evokes a world of history and culture and a pleasure that touches all our senses." Suckling has lots more of the same: "Removing a twist-off . . . delivers about as much joy as opening a bottle of ketchup." Cork helps fine wine improve with age: "To rob wine of this unique and mysterious, even magical, evolution is to rob wine drinkers of one of the main reasons they pay a premium for fine wine." But nobody's saying that the people who pay $125 or $250 or $450 for their fun can't have any kind of closure that they want (personally, I think they ought to give oil-soaked rags a try); however, they really have to stop acting as if they're who all wine is ultimately made for. I paid $25 for a lousy bottle of Chablis the other day. Sure enough, it was the cork that ruined it; a second bottle of the same label and same vintage was a knockout. But why waste the time and the money finding that out? Give me a tin top any time, if what's inside delivers. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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