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Murray Almond's "From the Left Island"
The Cork Industry Spins out the Fear Factor
23 March 2003

The Cork Industry has launched their latest marketing salvo in their efforts to convince us to overlook the issues of TCA taint and inconsistent seal that afflict corks. In the past they've used the Iberian Lynx, Girl Guides, 'tradition', and the odd deceptive claim to push cork onto the winebuyer.

This time it's (dim lights; cue thunder) Fear!!!

The subject line of message in the Inbox was startling; "CORK - DANGERS OF WIDESPREAD SCREWCAP USE"; the line roared, all in Capitals, to emphasis the DANGER of these evil products.

Fearfully I wondered what this risk would be; poisoning; a new form of taint, discoloration, fluid loss, third degree burns, dismembered body parts, or the return of disco. I was really quite alarmed, and therefore impressed that their headline had worked so well.

I opened the document to find out what the fear actually was; "Premium wines stand to lose their marketing clout in the face of widespread use of screwcaps, an industry leader has warned". Ah, the penny drops; the Cork Industry, with the Managing Director of Cork Supply Australia, Mr Neil Walsh as its mouthpiece, is trying the "railway tracks" angle to spread fear about screwcaps. The term 'railway tracks' comes from the US, where the unfortunates and rejects of society gather to drink liquor out of paperbag covered bottles sealed with (shudder) screwcaps.

He goes on "… (using screwcaps,) will cause a backlash, because some people may start to associate screwcaps with cheap wines which would result in enormous damage to the premium labels." (Cue more thunder and dimming lights).

Mr. Walsh's justification for this claim is to point to the "flanged bottle" used by Robert Mondavi to bottle his premium wine in around three years ago. Mondavi has decided to change back to standard bottles after "extensive consumer research showing the widespread use of the flange bottle meant that it did not convey an image of quality as it once did."

The last sentence gives the game; and Neil's argument, away. Mondavi changed to the flanged bottle for image only, it was a marketing gimmick, just as with the other odd bottle shapes used around the place, with angled sides, deep punts, long necks and thick glass, all selected for image. These bottle shapes did not do a thing to the flavour of the wine. Mondavi changed the bottle shape back, so as not to waste money on a gimmick that did nothing to the customer's perception of the wine. My take is that Mondavi is allowing the wine to stand up for itself.

Mr. Walsh, time to replace spin with fact, a screwcap is no flanged bottle; winemakers and wineries switched to screwcaps to improve the presentation of the wine in a meaningful way, by directly addressing the issues of TCA taint and inconsistent aging that have plagued cork ever since it started being used as a seal for wine. The switch to screwcap has been made for the benefit of the Wine, not just the image. Rather than truly addressing the issues that face cork as a seal; the Cork Industry trots out yet more spin.

The article also attempts to push the concept of "screwcaps equals cheap", once again the 'railways tracks' simile, by pointing to screwcaps being cheaper than cork in the manufacturing process. This little number ignores the changeover cost to the bottling line and other associated costs. But let's take the claim at face value. You have an alternative seal, that allows that wine to age consistently, that does not have the risk of carrying taint into the bottle, and will eliminate customer returns of tainted wines; and costs less. Hmm, tough choice.

The fear here is Mr. Walsh's, and he's trying to pass it on to us. The remainder of the article refers to a survey referred to in the article notes that more than one in two wineries are considering using screwcap. This is wonderful news for winelovers, to have the confidence of taint-free wine that is able to develop properly and gracefully in the bottle. According to the article "However, they said they would continue to use natural cork for the higher-priced bottles largely because of cork's ability to facilitate the proper aging of wine and overall consumer acceptance." While I accept the consumer acceptance view; after all screwcaps are new and the cork industry is spending an impressive amount of money boosting the negative connotations of everything except the known faults of their own product, I am sceptical of the comment about cork's ability to facilitate proper aging being a true reflection of the wine company's attitudes, based on past interpretations by the Cork Industry of similar surveys.

According to wine industry figures; faults attributable to the use of cork as a seal run between 3-7% depending on who you ask, this is disgustingly high and would be labelled a disaster in any other industry, especially for food and beverage. It's particularly so when there are ways the industry can directly address the issue, by looking at alternative seals, as they are now doing.

The Australian consumer has shown itself to be not as gullible as Mr. Walsh hopes. New Zealand has shown similar fortitude, as have wine lovers in other countries. Premium Rieslings in screwcaps have been accepted well by the market, the small number of other varieties now in screwcap have shown no drop-off in demand as a result of change; this is despite Queen Adelaide appearing in a screwcap.

Evidence is that screwcap is actively preferred over cork as a seal for wine, where the buyer has a choice between the two. If it wasn't, why are we seeing the compound growth in wines sealed in screwcap? The Kiwis have gone from none in early 2001 to over 14% of production by the end of 2002. A dangerous development indeed!

World famous Wine Critic Robert Parker has been moved to write, in discussing TCA tainted wine "I'm seriously starting to hate the cork… The Cork Industry better spend some serious money finding a solution to the problem". I agree, a far better investment for the cork industry than high cost marketing spin on spurious "dangers" of screwcap use.

Mr Walsh finishes "This move to lower price point wines (from the 'premium' $15+ bracket) will have a damaging impact on the 'prestige' of wines closed under screw closures."

Wrong conclusion completely Mr Walsh. The outcome will be an increase in availability of taint free wines, that also support consistent aging, that can only benefit the wine buyer, and therefore the industry, and that's nothing to be frightened of.

© Murray Almond
23 March 2003

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