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Controversy uncorked

• Oregon's top vintners are taking a new look at the humble screw top

If you think Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is having trouble with cork, consider the contaminated-cork problems confronting winemakers in Oregon and throughout the industry.

Sometimes the corks that winemakers use to seal wine bottles Ñ and that wine drinkers love to open with such fanfare Ñ are tainted with a chemical called 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole, or TCA.

It's a problem that has plagued vintners from the time corks were first used to seal wine bottles.

The chemical develops during the process of turning tree bark into cork.

It can cause wines to develop mild to strong musty odors or moldy flavors, resulting in 'quite a negative customer experience in a lot of cases,' said Michael Osborn, general manager of the WillaKenzie Estate winery in Yamhill.

'TCA may affect a wine just enough that it doesn't taste good,' Osborn said. 'People might think they just don't like the wine, and they may never try another bottle. That's the single biggest industry risk we face.'

Industry analysts say from 5 percent to 10 percent of all cork-topped wines can be contaminated by TCA.

'A failure rate like that wouldn't be accepted in another industry,' Osborn said. 'Our industry has come to accept it as commonplace.'

WillaKenzie's own analysis showed that tainted corks contaminate roughly 4 percent of its wines, Osborn said. As a consequence, the winery is trying a controversial but increasingly popular solution: replacing corks with metal screw caps on some of its wines

WillaKenzie Ñ which produces about 18,000 cases a year of pinot noir, pinot gris, pinot blanc, gamay noir and pinot munier Ñ will put about 15 percent of its production this year in cork-free bottles.

The percentage probably will increase in coming years, Osborn said.

Many wineries embrace change

Purists and traditionalists may shudder at the idea of screw caps ÑÊusually associated with cheap 'jug' wines.

And there are those who can't bear to give up the romantic ritual of having a waiter open a bottle of a pricey wine and offer the cork for a sniff before pouring the wine.

But Osborn and other Oregon winemakers Ñ including Stephen Cary of Yamhill Valley Vineyards near McMinnville and Rollin Soles of Argyle Winery in Dundee Ñ believe that screw caps are the best of a number of imperfect solutions to a problem that could damage a winery's reputation.

'Why should I sacrifice all the hard work I did if it all comes down to whether the cork is good?' asked Soles.

Argyl ÑÊwhich produces about 40,000 cases a year of sparkling wine, chardonnay and pinot noir Ñ started putting screw caps on bottles just this year.

It took awhile, Soles said, to buy a $25,000 machine to put screw tops on bottles, to design artwork for the caps and find bottles that take screw tops.

Initially, about 30 percent of Argyle's wines will be bottled with screw tops. Eventually, the winery's entire output will be sold in cork-free bottles.

Yamhill Valley, which has used plastic corks exclusively since 1991 to avoid the cork-taint problem, also plans to convert entirely to screw-top bottles, Cary said.

'Synthetic corks were a nice intermediate step,' said Cary, who last week supervised the first-ever screw-cap bottling of a Yamhill wine at a bottling facility in McMinnville. 'But we're looking for an even better seal.'

Cary's winery produces the 'pinot family' (noir, gris and blanc) along with some Riesling. He said even cork-bottle purists could come to accept screw caps 'if you build an attractive one. Ours is quite lovely.'

Cork has its fans

Despite the obvious advantage of screw caps, not all winemakers are converts.

Scott Huffman, winemaker for Chateau Benoit in Carlton, is among the dissenters. I'm 'putting my faith in the cork industry,' he said.

Huffman recently returned from Portugal, where 80 percent of the world's corks are made. (Spain produces nearly all the rest, with Sardinia supplying a small percentage.)

Cork producers, aware of winemakers' dissatisfaction, are developing a new manufacturing process that will eliminate nearly all cork taint, Huffman said.

'I like the cork in the bottle,' said Huffman, whose winery produces about 18,000 cases a year of pinot noir, pinot gris, Riesling, chardonnay and Muller-Thurgau.

'I like the romance (of opening a wine bottle and sniffing the cork). You can't hand someone a screw cap to smell.'

(Chateau Benoit is owned by Dr. Robert Pamplin Jr., who also owns the Portland Tribune.)

Dick Ponzi, who co-founded Beaverton's Ponzi Vineyards in 1970, said his winery is 'taking a more cautious approach' and plans to experiment with screw caps on a small portion of Ponzi's production.

Like Huffman, he is closely watching the development of new, taint-resistant corks.

Cork-free bottles are more palatable to wine drinkers when they cost $10 or $12 each, Ponzi said. When wine costs $50 to $100 a bottle, consumers like to stay with tradition.

'Right now, we're trying to pick the best-quality corks to avoid some of the problems,' said Ponzi, whose winery produces about 15,000 cases a year of pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay and 'miscellaneous whites and roses.'

Environmental concerns are among the reasons that Russ Rosner, winemaker for Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee, has opted for a go-slow approach to screw caps.

'I hate what cork does to wines, but it is one of the few things that is organic and sustainable,' he said. 'And we can't bring ourselves to use a synthetic device, which uses petrochemical reserves. They are not recyclable.

'Until someone comes up with a more perfect closure in terms of long-term storage, I'll probably stick with cork,' he said.

Restaurateur offers options

Peter Kost, owner of Lucy's Table, an elegant restaurant on Northwest 21st Avenue that serves WillaKenzie's cork-free pinot noir, has no objections to serving screw-capped bottles of wine to guests.

'From a restaurant standpoint, each bottle will be consistent,' he said. 'Screw caps give you more confidence to go through so many bottles.'

Also, screw tops are easier for the staff to open, he noted.

The menu at Lucy's Table tells diners when a wine will be served from a cork-free bottle. It's a chance to educate wine drinkers about cork's potential problems, Kost said.

Besides the WillaKenzie pinot noir, Kost's restaurant features one other cork-free wine from New Zealand, where winemakers are more readily switching from cork to screw caps.

Australian winemakers also are adopting screw caps, said Argyle's Soles.

European countries Ñ with centuries of winemaking tradition and the source of almost all of the world's cork Ñ are slower to adopt screw caps.

For more information about the tainted-cork controversy, visit the Web sites at www.screwcap.co.nz, www.corkwatch.com and www.cellaringwine.com.

Contact Mary Bellotti at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .