I’m a mom of three young kids. That means I like to have a glass of wine with breakfast, lunch, and dinner now and then. And since my kids seem to grow out of their clothes and shoes seconds after I’ve purchased them, I like to get a good deal on a box bottle or two. Luckily for me, there is stiff competition in the wine industry, which means I can get wines from around the world at prices I can afford.
Yet with competition comes increased need to attract customers. And some companies are resorting to a new strategy: Alarmism.
Consider the recent suggestion by some wine companies that some corks are not just inferior, but dangerous. That might seem silly to some or just a lousy marketing stunt to others, but it’s a familiar and all-too-effective tactic used on moms who are constantly encouraged to police their homes for threats to their families.
What They’re Wining About
So what’s all this drama about wine corks? Should we all take that pop as a warning sound?
First, one should know winemakers use several kinds of corks: natural, screw top (my personal favorite), synthetic, agglomerate, vinolok, and zork (check out this instructive tutorial on cork types in Wine Enthusiast). The first three types are the corks with which most Americans are familiar. The last two—vinolok and zork—are considerably pricier to use, so they are not widely used.
The variety of corks has developed to meet different needs and preferences. The traditional, natural corks continue to be used but because they can sometimes cause “cork taint,” or wine spoilage due to a contaminated cork, many wineries have moved away from natural corks. Some have chosen to go with screw tops, others use synthetic corks, while still others use agglomerated corks, which are made of natural cork fibers and may include tiny plastic granules that serve as a sort of bacteria guard between the cork and the wine and control oxygen flow into the wine, protecting it against spoilage.
This innovation has helped winemakers, who at one time only had only one option—natural corks—and who had to absorb the cost of bottles of wine spoiled through cork taint. This new process improves corks by mixing natural cork material with a product that staves off bacteria and helps control the flow of oxygen into and out of the bottle. This means winemakers have less production loss, which means they don’t have to raise prices to account for those losses. That’s good for consumers—like me—interested in a good deal on wine.
The Great Chemical Boogey Man Arises
Unfortunately, some have sounded an unnecessary alarm about agglomerated corks, suggesting the trace amount of chemicals contained in the cork might contaminate the wine. Studies, both independent and those conducted by the cork manufacturers, refute this and show that no chemical is leaching into the wine.
The Food and Drug Administration concurs, writing in February 2015 that the agency has “identified no safety issues with this use of TDI-based PU in agglomerated corks,” adding that the agency “is not contemplating any enforcement action against the agglomerated corks or wine, is not recommending that wines already sold or in the supply chain with agglomerated cork closures or agglomerated corks be recalled, and is not recommending a cessation of the marketing and purchasing of the agglomerated corks for use with wine and beverages at this time.”
Of course, there is one proven way to get a dose of chemicals when consuming wine—drink the wine! That’s because wine itself is filled with chemicals. For instance, red wine contains ethyl alcohol, glycerol, as well as certain minerals like potassium, zinc, and copper. And cork taint—the very thing against which the agglomerated cork protects—is caused by the introduction of…wait for it…chemical compounds 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA).
If that seems scary, don’t fear. The amount of TCA or TBA required to ruin a nice bottle of wine won’t do a thing to harm you, except put you in a bad mood by ruining a bottle of wine you were hoping to enjoy. So, instead of giving in to alarmist nonsense, let’s celebrate invention, progress, and modernization—specifically this innovative new cork that keeps wine fresh, bacteria-free, and reasonably priced.