Giveaway: To Cork or Not to Cork, by George Taber

bookcork.jpgIn my classes, I pour dozens of bottles from around the world and, inevitably, one is “corked,” or contaminated by the chemical compound TCA (technically, 2,4,6-tricloroanisole). Of course it never arrives at the right moment (which would be during our discussion of sending wine back at at restaurant) and I don’t always have a backup bottle. But it’s a fun learning experience since we can all take in that mmmmoldy odor of wet newspapers stuck in a basement for two weeks.

But what’s a fun problem in a class setting can ruin dinner. The problem of “cork taint” was only scientifically identified in 1981. Since then it’s been a huge point of contention whether the industry should stop sealing bottles with bits of tree bark and shift to another closure, such as screwcaps, that eliminates the problem of TCA.

George Taber traces the arc of the cork story in his very readable book on the subject, “To Cork or Not to Cork.” Three copies of the book have landed here at the Dr. Vino World Headquarters and I’ll be giving them away in a random drawing. To throw your name in the hat, post a comment with your thoughts on corks, which can be as succinct as: love ’em, hate ’em, or indifferent.

Post your comment by Wednesday at midnight ET to qualify for the random drawing on Thursday. Check your email and this post that day to see if you are a winner.

To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle, by George Taber ($26, Scribner)
Related: “Poll: Judge these books by their covers
Bringing closure: a screwcap-cork showdown

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52 Responses to “Giveaway: To Cork or Not to Cork, by George Taber”

  1. Corks? I think they add to the ritual of wine enjoyment, using a traditional corkscrew to carefully pull out the cork.

    However, that ritual can be brought to an unexpected and abrupt end if your wine is corked, so really, it doesn’t bother me.

    Having said that, I often expect a more expensive bottle to have a proper cork which really is silly.

  2. I’d be pleased if all wine bottles went to screwcap closures. Why risk having a ruined bottle of wine? Why load me up with extra equipment just so’s I can get into that bottle?

    Twist, crack! glug, glug, AH….

  3. I hate them. Somehow I manage to break them and leave bits of cork in the wine. But as an insecure single guy, I can’t bring myself to buy screwcaps.

    Plus, I detest the taste of metal. So much so that I prefer to use chopsticks or plastic cutlery. So, I worry about residual metal taste in my wine. Is that a wholly unfounded fear?

  4. My customers (retail wine sales) are finally starting to accept screw caps, though we all thought we’d out grown wines with screw caps. The hard part is to convince someone that a bottle with a screw cap makes a good gift. They tend to assume the receiver won’t appreciate the screw cap or will think they were cheap. Personally I like plastic corks in cheaper wines just for the aesthetics. I like the variety of colors they come in(!), though most people I’ve talked to don’t like them for one reason or another. I’m saving them for some kind of craft project, though I don’t know what yet.

    As far as corks made from cork go, I’m anxious to see how the experiments with aging work out in bottles with screw caps and plastic corks. I think all wine that is made to be consumed sooner rather than later should move away from cork corks, and I suspect that something will be found qualified to replace cork corks in wines intended for aging. Sentimentality is not a good reason to keep risking good wine.

  5. I love screw tops for my short term bottles. So much less hassle. Anything for aging I prefer cork.

  6. I don’t know enough about the difference to say! So i’m indifferent 🙂

  7. I think screw caps are superior in three ways.

    1. They are recyclable.
    2. You can store the bottle upright or anyway you wish and you will never have cork taint.
    3. They are hip and make it easy to get to what really matters.

    People with big hang-ups about tradition reeaally need to lighten up.

  8. I have a restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and serve a lot of wine. I find myself in the middle of the cork debate almost daily. Keeping in mind that alternative closures to cork are being developed to solve the cork taint problem, it only makes sense that eventually the $100-$400 bottles I sell will have a different closure. I hope it is not the common screw cap. It has no finesse, sounds rough, and doesn’t have much visual appeal. Sure, some marketers like the extra marketing space, but it still cheapens the whole package for many of us.

    One closure that I have seen that may be a great start is the “zork.” This type of closure has a look sort of like melted wax on top of the bottle, although it may actually be vinyl. You open the bottle by pulling a non-descript tab on the bottom of the closure and spinning it around the bottle a couple of times. You end up with a pull top closure sort of like what you find on high end liquor bottles that makes a nice understated pop (not like a 70’s power-pulled cork) when you pull it off the bottle. This is a much nicer presentation than the neck-wringing screw cap.

    I am glad they are working on closures that allow for the continued romance of opening, and rich packaging of our more coveted wines. I don’t want to see our manager instructing our servers to try to go over the top when opening a screw cap with a special arm rolling, wrist popping (add a pop off someone’s nose for flair) catch routine that begins with that value-deadening “crrrrack!” noise.

  9. I think ritual is an important part of enjoying wine – and of enjoying life. As we plummet headlong into a world where convenience and functionality become the sine qua non for living, holding onto the rituals around using a bit of tree bark to seal a bottle of wine becomes more important. If you bristle at the vulgarity of using plastic or foam cups/glasses for serving of wine, or even of beer, then you’ll know what I mean when I say “Hail to the cork!”.

  10. I was in the hate them court until I saw the process at Amorim this summer(the largest producer of corks). Very interesting to see what money can do. They have almost a 0% taint rate, but the main problem is there are hundreds if not thousands of producers, many of which sell bad cork, and don’t have the science to fix it like Amorim does. Hence all cork is, well, tainted with a bad name.
    Also I’ve seen studies that show that Cork breathes and that within a very short(3months or less) period of time, oxygen levels can be shown to demostrate air exchange within the bottle and the outside when cork is used.
    I do love screw caps for the early, early wines, but think of this. Cork is renewable. Screw caps have a LARGE carbon footprint that the Stelvin lobby doesn’t want people to see.
    Dr.Vino I know you are into knowing the Carbon footprint of wines, make sure to factor this in.
    If cork taint rates could be dropped to less than .1% of wine, a number that is very similar to rates of reduction in screw topped bottles, would people still be against them.
    I’m still on the fence with the young’ens but not so much other wise.
    Oh and I’d love to read the book!

  11. I too run a restaurant wine program and constantly hear chatter about different types of bottle enclosures. Some, who seem not to drink much wine, still believe that a wine with out a cork must be a cheap wine, while others trying to impress their friends like to discuss the virtues of synth. corks or alernative closures.

    I personally am all for synth. corks and glass enclosures. If what you are really concerned about is the quality of wine then why not. Corks are traditional and synonomys with wine but they can also ruin just the thing they represent.

    I have even heard of some French producers that are starting to put stelvin enclosures on their high end bottlings but leaving their lower end to cork. Some of the smartest marketing I have heard of.

    I am all for tradition but only when it makes sense.

  12. I must say there is nothing like the sound of a cork being pulled out of a bottle… and a synthetic doesn’t cut it. Also, for long term cellaring I view corks in a similar manner to laser eye surgery – until someone else takes the risk of testing long term performance I don’t want to risk it.

  13. In a world where so many clamour for the demystification of wine, fueled by the drive to sell more wine, I cannot help but feel that the screw-top closure is just another way to dumb the wine down. I for one love the mystery of the wine, that no matter how much I drink of it there remains an ethereal quality to good wine that cannot quite be pinned down. The screw cap is like a putting a plastic frame on great art, it is like reading Dostoyevski as a text message. Can’t we for once not frame our world in aluminum? I work late into the evening quite often, and as I find myself contemplating a choice of bottle,the screw-pull in my hand helps me shed the weight of the world. I look at the screw-capped bottles and I let them lie. I’ll serve them at a party perhaps, where the personal appeal of the pull is pointless, but when my wife and I relax and I choose the bottle to relax with, or anytime that I want to feel immersed in the experience of the wine, then I will always choose the cork, for as long as that choice is left to me.
    As for the “hip” metal cap, I would like to remind that author that hip can come and go, but classic remains classic.

  14. I agree with Chris. Ritual and tradition can’t compensate for an undrinkable cork-tainted bottle, especially one that I’ve bought someplace special (such as on a vacation) and I can’t replace. So, leave out the cork unless you want folks to cellar the wine.

  15. I agree with Chris. Ritual and tradition can’t compensate for an undrinkable cork-tainted bottle, especially one that I’ve bought someplace special (such as on a vacation) and I can’t replace. I don’t have a cellar, so maybe I’d feel differently if I were keeping the wine for more than a couple of years.

  16. I’m all for different types of closures on bottles of wine. However, I’m not completely sold on screwcaps, they just don’t feel right to me. Cork closures are definately my choice for any wine I’m going to be keeping around for any matter of time. I think I’ll always tend to lean towards the classic closure, even just for nostalgia’s sake. Plus, theres nothing like the very light sound when a cork is pulled out of a bottle.

    On the other hand, if everyone switches to screw tops…my corkscrew collection will go up in value!

  17. I love corks. There’s no better feeling then cutting off the foil, digging into a nice soft cork and pulling it out. I’ve found that screw-caps often leave the wine feeling tart — almost effervescent, as if it were carbonated. The flavor normally goes away with a few swirls in a glass or just a little air.

  18. I can’t emphasize how strongly I support cork as a result of visiting Amorim. What I thought to be an archaic and impractical choice as a wine
    closure has now become a practical and environmental choice that needs our support – or so I feel. As Ryan said, the carbon footprint is growing every day, and I feel it is our responsibility to do anything we can to lower it both for ourselves and for the longevity of a substance we love, wine. Cork is a sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable and natural crop, while screwcaps are not.

    The cork forests of the Western Mediterranean cover 2.7 million hectares and the region is one of the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. Over
    100,000 people are employed in the forests, which rely on the wine trade for about 70% of their economic value.

    According to tests conducted by Cairn Environment for Oeneo Bouchage in France, screwcaps produce the largest carbon footprint giving off over 10kg of CO2 per tonne per year.

    Research by the Australian Wine Research Institute have found that reduced or ‘rubbery’ aromas can develop in wine sealed with a screwcap. And that wines under synthetic stoppers typically lose their fruit characteristics, whereby developing oxidized aromas. Although cork does allow some oxygen into the wine, it tends to preserve the intensity of the fruit and minimizes reduced characteristics.

    In short, good products come from good producers, and for years, many of the cork companies were not being regulated as thoroughly as they are now. Yes, there are still plenty of companies who are taking the easy way out, whereby increasing the chances of you getting tainted wine, but the numbers have decreased exponentially over the years.

    The debate is not an easy one, but I do think that we need to look to the future and the implications of our choices, rather than only our present desires to have good wine now. We want our wines safe, this much is clear. But many cork companies are on the right track and I feel it it important that we continue to educate ourselves as to their efforts, as well as share our criticisms directly with them.

  19. Corks for wine to age, but screw tops for anything meant to be drunk young. They are easier to open and preserve freshness

  20. I have had some very nice wines with screw off caps. I am not enough of a wine snob to think that cork is all that can be used.

  21. I just wanted to respond to Michael about the “hipness” of the screw cap. I agree 100% that classic never goes out of style so please let me make myself clear. As a young guy that loves wine(22), I do not necessarily associate corks and tradition with great quality wine. That being said, the amount of wine I have drank compared with the majority of you folks is significantly less. In my experience, some of the best wine I have purchased was bottled using a screw cap. I associate screw caps with forward thinking producers and wine makers. This does not mean that using technology and shunning tradition is the way to go, I merely think there is something to be said for the simplicity of the ‘twist, crack, pour’ method.

    Regarding the “carbon footprint” of the screw cap and not knowing the answer myself, I ask those who claim this as evidence to consider the carbon footprint of flying the cork across the ocean to be used for bottling. Perhaps its negligible but I think it would be interesting to compare.

  22. Corks are fine normally, but at the end of a long day, it’s a great convenience to twist that top and start the fun part: drinking the wine!

  23. Personally, I’m a Noma-cork fan. All the satisfaction of pulling a cork, and none of the taint.

    The equivalent benefits to natural cork – such as slow oxidation – are still up for grabs, I believe…

  24. I enjoy the convenience of a screw cap for every day wines but can’t really imagine what it will be like to pull out a 20-year-old cellar treasure and simply unscrew the cap. Also I can’t imagine what kind of development such a wine would show. Until I smell and taste a screw-capped cellar treasure, I will remain skeptical.

  25. Corks do bring out the real ambience of wine drinking. Personally, I would rather have my waiter open a wine cork of a reserve wine at a dinner table than to remove a screwcap. Aagghh !!!

    But for day-today wine drinking, I dont mind the screwcaps on my NZ reisling or even the newly discovered tetra-packs of the three theives !!!!

  26. Since I’ve yet to experience “cork taint”, I love corks and still can’t get over screw tops. Screw tops still remind of us of really bad wines a few decades ago. That being said, what about synthetic corks? Isn’t that a good compromise?

  27. there is something to be said for the ritual of cork removal… and, subsequently, something oddly lacking when a server presents your wine in a restaurant– only to do a quick writs twist and be done with it.

    Ritual aside, I love a good screwcap on a weekday wine.

  28. Alternative closures will win as they become more technologically sound and environmentally acceptable substitutes for natural cork. They will let the wine age appropriately, be cheaper and hopefully not affect the environment too much.

    And yes, I will remain eternally romantic and continue to enjoy wine in spite of this.

  29. I prefer good cork over a screw top, but I won’t turn my nose up at a good red with screw top.

  30. Corkscrews should go the way of the buggy whip. I do like the romance of a horse and buggy, but is it worth putting up w/ all the #*&!? I say get w/ the times and lose the cork.

  31. I am happy when I discover a wine I like has a screw top as it is much easier to open and to store any unfinished wine left in the bottle. Most of the time I am able to efficiently remove the corks with my Rabbit or Oster electric wine opener, but every once in awhile the corks refuse to come out and trying to get them out makes the wine filled with tiny annoying cork particles which is of course very annoying.

  32. The corks time should soon come to an end. As a regular and long time wine drinker, I’ve lost count of the number of bottles that we’ve dumped due to the dreaded “cork taint”. Although there definitely is something missing when I twist open a bottle of wine like a 2 liter bottle of soda. I would like to see maybe more alternative material corks. mainly because I also have a huge collection of cork pullers that I’d hate to see go to waste.

  33. I think right now each have their own place. I’d love to see longevity studies on screwcaps for something like a Bordeaux, Burgundy, or a California cab but until some reliable research comes along (UC Davis maybe), I’m fine with both. Corks for aging and screwcaps for anything that should be drunk young but I don’t shun either.

  34. I just finished this book and genuinely enjoyed it! Though at times, it seemed the same saga over and over again in different regions, I think he did a great job of covering this topic as neutrally as possible.

    Until we can get over the romance of ‘uncorking’ a particularly expensive bottle of vino, the twist cap will be a hard sell in the international world of wine, despite it’s many superlative features.

  35. I’ll be the complete barbarian here: I like wine in a box. It’s more portable, it keeps longer, and the boxes tend to hold more wine than a traditional bottle.

  36. Corks are fine–in their place, which is the neck of a bottle of a wine meant to be aged (or as a board for posting notes).

    There is some amount of consumer education that needs to be done by the screwcappers. This became clear to me the day a woman walked into the wine store I used to own carrying a screwcap bottle that she said she couldn’t get open. We looked at it; there was a hole in the cap from a wine opener…

    In the end, I’ll take a screwed wine over a corked one anyday.

  37. In another sign that perceptions are changing, Henschke has released it’s Hill of Grace bottling under screw-cap. The price? a mere $550/bottle. Here’s a potentially bigger issue: the glass crisis. Apparently wineries in Europe are beginning to have serious problems accessing supplies of bottles. We might actually see an acceleration of the ‘boxing’ of (fine?) wine…get ready for more taps!

  38. I think we should institutionalize Pat Savoie’s classification of “screwed wines” and “corked wines.”

  39. Cork or no cork, that is the question. I think arguments can be made for pro’s and con’s on both sides. At this writing long-term research seems to be revealing that screwcaps are good at preserving wines’ fruitiness and other characteristics we associate with ‘young’ wine. The same bottle with a cork stopper, OTOH, reveals a much more nuanced wine with age. I think consumers drink wines with each of those qualities at different times and that there’s room in the market for both closures. Consumer education will help. Only time will tell for sure.

  40. Screw caps make sense when you consider that the aging of a wine has more to do with the reductive processes inside the bottle than any oxidation through air exchange. Also, when you consider the aging of beer, remember that there is no air let in a beer bottle that is capped, yet many beers (especially barleywines) undergo powerful and splendid transformations inside that perfectly sealed vessel. No chance of corkage either.

  41. As a winemaker, I screwcap many of my shorter-lived fruit wines and use the finest corks I can afford for my full-bodied, tannic grape wines that need a sloooow breath to mature correctly.

  42. I have to say i’m stuck… not because i dont have a corkscrew but i guess i feel in the middle. on the rare occasion i dont have a cork screw on me, i find corks a pain, but it doesnt quite feel like you’re really drinking wine unless you do pull a cork out. Screw tops are nice but they feel like i’m opening a bottle of soda-pop. But boxing wine….

  43. I think the idea is great, but that screw caps will never make a significant mark, at least not in my cellar. The aesthetic pleasure in pulling out a cork, especially from a bottle of red wine, (when the bottom is saturated with a pretty gradient of reds) is an unparalleled experience. Even synthetic corks don’t feel right, either, as others have mentioned.

    I would be open to another closure system that avoided the problems of natural cork and TCA, but only if that was as truly pleasurable as cork.

  44. I agree there is something about tearing away at the foil and digging into the cork with a corkscrew, however, I could go either way. A compromise is always synthetic corks for the feeling of pulling it out, without the TCA.

    Where I do draw the line though is screw tops on the bubbly.

  45. While I think that avoiding ‘cork taint’ by using screwcaps is probably a wise idea, I think it stands to take some of the fun out of wine drinking. I’m sure I’m not unique in this, but I have a wine ritual of sorts. I love picking out the bottle I’m going to open, getting the glasses out of the cabinet, admiring the label, and peeling off the foil. When I first started drinking wine, I used a generic “rabbit” corkscrew that I had gotten as a gift. Now that I’ve opened countless bottles (I must confess), I don’t need my training wheels anymore. I make it a point to use a manual corkscrew. It has become part of that wine ritual that is so important to me before that first sip.

    So, I still say ‘love ’em’ to corks.

  46. Cork has a certain “je ne sais quoi” that is not the same with screw tops.

    This being said, once I realize that the main difference is in my head, it is easy to get over it.

    To add, my girlfriend makes pin on boards with corks. I hope to have stocked enough to sell them for a fortune when everything has switched over. Maybe people will be willing to pay a lot to get back that “je ne sais quoi” 😛

  47. I think corks are swell but more and more I like the convenience of the screw caps. We were traveling once and we forgot to bring our corkscrew travel kit but I just knew that nowadays we’d be able to find at least one decent bottle in the local wine shop with a screw cap and I was right. I’m all for better spoil-proof versions of new corks but I don’t hate the screw-tops as much as the average wine drinker. There are more important things in life to hate (like Yellow Tail ads and kids at wineries–sorry).

  48. TCA’s can also be found in bottles with Stelvin closures but they can only feed on the cork itself and spoil the wine.

    The wine ritual is somewhat of a Western tea ceremony. Cutting the foil below the glass collar and pulling it off with the knife. Take a cloth and clean any residue at the mouth of the bottle. Picking the dead center of the cork and poking it with the tip of the corkscrew and then gently twisting it in. Putting your forefinger over the lever and pulling up with the other hand to lift the cork slightly. If it is a long Bordeaux type it will require more augering. The trick is not to go past the bottom of the cork and pull it out in the rest of the way in one piece. I have the uncontrolable urge to smell the cork for any unwelcome signs of spoilage and then twisting it off the screwpull and standing it upright. The cork is often stamped with the crest or trademark of the winemaker which should agree with the label. On occasion you will get a surprise which tells you something about the wine that is not mentioned on the label. I had a cork the other day that was humourous and said Whooh Whooh Whooh Cough Whooh etc. Sometimes you will get the website address of the vinyard. I am quite attached to my corks and rarely throw them away to my wife’s chagrin as I have hundreds of them.

    On the other hand I’ve brought a nice bottle to a dinner party as a goodwill gesture and had a corked wine which taught me to always have a backup. Natalie Maclean said that one of her Spanish bottles for Thanksgiving was corked. The statistics are as high as 2% so there is economic justification for the modern closures. When purchasing a wine from Australia or New Zealand I expect it to have the Stelvin type cap. They are easy to put back on if the bottle isn’t consumed in one sitting. They just don’t have the same crescendo of expectation and satisfaction as the old bark of the oak.

  49. High quality cork will be the preferred closure for aging wine for the foreseeable future. For wines to be enjoyed soon after bottling, screwcaps and some new synthetic corks are the only way to go in my book.

  50. I must say, I’m not terribly attached to the ol’ cork. Not that Stelvin closures eliminate faults or bottle variation, but it’s nice to unscrew a bottle and not have to worry about that horribly disappointing, tell-tale damp cardboard smell…

  51. Wow, what a great thread this turned out to be!

    I went over to and generated three numbers–Donny King, Darrel, and Nick, come on down! Well, at the very least, let me know your mailing addresses.

    This was lots of fun. Check back soon for another giveaway…

  52. […] families. The book has been nominated for a James Beard award for best wine book in 2007. (As is George Taber’s To Cork or Not to Cork, which we previously gave […]


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