Without Reservations
By Paul Reidinger

A corker

A FIRST FOR me: just last week I helped our server uncork a bottle of wine. Usually service staff is rather proud about this sort of thing, but, as our server explained – scene: cool new SoMa spot – "these plastic corks can be very difficult to get out."

Plastic corks? This was news, or perhaps I have been inattentive. I offered to help, and the bottle, an Austrian white with its recalcitrant stopper, was handed to me. It did take a bit of effort to prise the cork free, but not much, and it escaped with a gratifying thup. While we enjoyed the wine, mostly we were fascinated by the pale green cork, which was examined in turn by everyone at the table.

A novelty? I thought so, until a few nights later I opened a bottle of one of my favorite reds, a primitivo (or zinfandel) from Apulia (the heel of Italy's boot), and found another plastic cork. It too put up a spirited fight before giving way with a good thup.

So perhaps plastic corks in wine bottles are not really a novelty. Perhaps they are the wave of the future, and a fast-approaching future it is. Traditional corks have been used to stop bottles of wine for about 400 years – but the material used to make them is obtained almost exclusively from slow-growing cork oaks in the western Mediterranean. (About 85 percent of the world's annual supply of 13 billion wine corks is produced by Portugal alone, and the industry there accounts for about 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product.)

Natural cork is rinsed with chlorine to lighten its color and to sterilize it. But mold can take hold anyway, and if the mold interacts with residual chlorine, the resultant chemical, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, will impart a wet-cardboard flavor to the wine. Up to 5 percent of the world's annual production of wine is ruined by cork taint.

Plastic corks do not host the mold. Nor, for that matter, do they need to be bleached and sterilized in a chlorine bath. And because they are extruded and molded, they retain a slight bit of sponginess that assures a perfect seal. Other than being slightly more difficult to pull out with a conventional corkscrew, they seem to be an improvement in every respect over traditional corks.

While 95 percent of wine is still bottled with natural cork, the trend is clearly toward plastic. That could cause economic woe in Portugal, and it leaves uncertain the fate of those forests of cork oak whose bark is no longer needed. Demand for buff servers, on the other hand, should quicken.

Contact Paul Reidinger at paulr@sfbg.com.

June 25, 2003