Wine cork alternatives: yay or nay?

Corks are the traditional closure for wine, especially for red wines in need of aging. Wine afficionados expect to see high-grade natural cork when they open a bottle of wine; however, there have been newer advances in closure technology that include screw closures. Some regions, especially Australia, are actively promoting the advantages of these alternate closure techniques. Screw caps eliminate many of the issues with corks: cork taint, weeping corks, prematurely oxidized wines, leakage, and air ingress penetration. The wine industry in Australia promotes advantages that appeal to consumers, as well: not only will you be able to store wine upright, but you will also never have a “corked” bottle of wine. Corked wines are mere waste and spoilage. For customers who buy fine wine, they will feel cheated when the wine is undrinkable, especially for wine they paid a premium price to acquire. Wine experts know that “corked wine” is not uncommon; it is estimated to be 1 of every 12 bottles. Other estimates range from 1-10%. Wouldn’t it make sense to reduce a 10% loss rate by doing away with corks?

Some New York wineries are using synthetic corks because they are about half the price as natural corks. However, as with natural corks, there is a wide range of quality available. Synthetic corks have a higher oxygen transfer rate than natural corks in most cases. They are not the best choice for wines that need aging. However, for wines that are not aged by the consumer, advantages of the more costly natural cork is never realized. Reducing cost by $1 a bottle might sell more wine to price-sensitive consumers.

So why do many wineries continue to use the more expensive, traditional closure? Consumer perception – the wine appears premium when there is a natural cork. In the end, that may sell more wine. And the debate continues. New science vs. age-old tradition.

Factors to consider when choosing a closure:

  1. Longevity – what is the life expectancy of the wine?
  2. Consumer perception – is this a fine wine or an everyday table wine blend?
  3. Cost – while fine wines are an investment, is your product geared toward price-sensitive consumers?
  4. Risk of taint – what is your current rate of spoilage?
  5. ROI – switching to a crew cap closure requires an investment of at least $20,000 for new bottling equipment. Is the change cost justified?