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Synthetic stoppers: where do they fit in?

In the great wine stopper debate, natural corks and screwcaps are the options we hear most about these days. As screwcap supporters and cork cheerleaders argue the finer points of their chosen closures, a third contender seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle: the synthetic stopper. Just a couple of years ago, before screwcaps were deemed acceptable, synthetic stoppers were the No. 1 alternatives to natural corks. What about now? Are they still in the running?

A recent Wines & Vines survey indicates that they are. Twenty-two percent of the winemakers we questioned were using synthetic stoppers, and 90% of the synthetic stopper users said they were happy with the closures.

Though many wineries have reported problems with oxidation and stopper extraction in the past, synthetic cork manufacturers have been striving to eliminate these issues and improve their products. Are their efforts working? Let's find out.

Mixed Feelings From Wineries

Perhaps the most widely publicized example of a winery that embraced synthetic stoppers, and then rejected them, is Bonny Doon Vineyard. In the mid-1990s the winery abandoned natural corks in favor of synthetics. Two years after making the switch, problems began to surface. "The tragic flaw with the synthetic corks is that wine seems to age prematurely when bottled with them," said winery representative John Locke. "We found that the free SO2 levels dropped rapidly after bottling, and there must also have been some oxygen exchange, as the wines tired very rapidly. There is now an improved formulation (in synthetics), which is thought to address these concerns. We have, however, moved on."

Despite the problems experienced by Bonny Doon, many wineries are turning to synthetic stoppers as a "happy medium" between natural corks and screwcaps.

In 2001 Chalone Wine Group began using synthetics for young-drinking wines like Sauvignon blanc, as well as half bottles. Starting with the 2002 vintage, Acacia will bottle its entire line-- including its $60 Beckstoffer Las Amigas Pinot noir--with synthetic stoppers. Also under synthetics will be all of the Echelon Vineyard, Sagelands and Dynamite Vineyard wines, along with selected wines from Jade Mountain, Edna Valley Vineyard and Canoe Ridge Vineyard.

According to Ken Morris, Chalone Wine Group's director of communications, cork taint was the main reason for the switch. "Our goal is to eliminate corked wines," Morris said. "Given the amount of corks we purchase, (the synthetics) actually ended up costing us a little more this year, so it's not a question of economics. We're trying to make sure customers taste the same wine we make."

"We are pursuing consistency by switching from a highly variable natural product to a consistent manufactured product," Acacia winemaker Michael Terrien added. "The grain of cork oak, just like that of white oak for barrels, comes tight or loose, depending on growing conditions. We see greater variability in free SO2 measurements of aged bottled wines closed with bark than with synthetic, and that variability of free SO2 may be due to the density differences between bark. We prefer to use a closure that is consistent with regard to free SO2 depletion than one that is both better and worse depending on the cork. Variation should come with vintages, not corks."

When the company first began experimenting with synthetic stoppers two years ago, Morris said, their performance wasn't always exemplary. "We had complaints that the molded corks were hard to remove with the table corkscrew used by restaurants and that they were hard to get back into the bottles after removing." Terrien added that there were also some problems with initial insertion of the stoppers. "The corker required adjustment to accomplish consistent insertion depth and consistent vacuum in the head space," Terrien said. Eventually, they found success with Neocork's extruded stoppers.

Consumer response to the synthetic corks has been mostly positive, though a few raised concerns in the beginning. "During the first six months of sales of the 2001 vintage, several consumers e-mailed me with concerns," Terrien said. "One explained that he was worried about getting cancer from synthetic corks." According to Morris, getting consumers to accept synthetics is a matter of education. "In a couple of cases we've had customers ask, 'Why synthetics?' They think we did it to save money. Usually we explain we're trying to eliminate corked wines and explain the background-- then they're willing to try them."

Casella Estate Wines, makers of Australia's red-hot [yellow tail] wine, is also placing its bets on synthetics. In 2003, the company will bottle 5 million cases of [yellow tail] with NuKorc stoppers.

"What concerned me most about using natural corks, was not those consumers who complained when a bottle was corked, but those consumers who did not complain," explained John Soutter, sales & marketing manager for Casella Estate Wines. "Screwcaps for wines resold quickly would be ideal; however in my opinion, the consumer still enjoys the experience of opening a bottle of wine with a corkscrew in the traditional way. I think the investment in the education process to convince consumers their wines are far better in screwcaps would be more than my budget could afford."

Soutter said there have been some customer complaints about the synthetic stoppers--mostly extraction issues--but overall, they are performing better than ever. "We now see consistent improvements in dimensions and densities in synthetic closures, and these are eliminating some early problems," he said.

"Some consumers react negatively to a synthetic closure, (but) our experience is that by far the majority continue to accept that we are providing them with the freshest and most flavorsome product possible. Do we lose some consumers because they object to the synthetic closure? I am sure we do, however I am confident that we retain far more customers because their judgement is not being adversely influenced by the effect of natural cork taint.

Like Casella Estate Wines, Iron Horse Vineyards made the switch to synthetics two years ago, after winemaker David Munksgard had an eye-opening experience with cork taint at a public tasting. After pouring the wines for guests, Munksgard said, he discovered that several of the bottles were corked. "So we made an announcement, saying, 'Anybody who has a corked wine please raise your hand and we'll bring you a new glass.' No hands went up. People didn't know the wine was corked, but they knew they didn't like the wine." That was enough to convince Iron Horse to use synthetic stoppers for all of its still wines. To help consumers understand the winery's choice, each stopper is printed with the message, "We chose this cork to assure you of the quality of our wine." Since making the change, Munksgard said, they've had "nothing but compliments, especially from people in restaurants.

Keeping Synthetics in The Game

In response to recent advances by natural cork producers and the growing popularity of screwcaps, synthetic stopper companies have made various improvements to their products.

"New materials and coatings are constantly being developed to improve the performance of synthetic closures," said Joyce Steers-Greget of Supreme Corq in Washington state. "One of the many benefits of a manufactured product is that you can engineer enhancements into the product. We are constantly working on improving our product performance."

According to Wes Ward of Nomacorc LLC in Zebulon, N.C., the issue of difficult extraction and reinsertion of synthetic stoppers is a thing of the past--at least for his company. "Some of the earlier synthetics had some extraction force problems, and some still occasionally do," Ward said. "This paints a bad picture for us synthetics. In actuality, Nomacorc solved the extraction force challenges early in the development of the closure. The extraction behavior of a Nomacorc differs from natural cork in that the initial pull is somewhat higher but once the seal is broken it is extremely easy and smooth to extract.

Changing the shape of the stopper can also make a difference. "A synthetic cork's ability to be reinserted into the bottle is somewhat dependent upon the shape of the edge of the (stopper)," said Supreme Corq's Steers-Greget. "If the edge is rounded, like a Supreme Corq closure, it is easier to reinsert. If the edge is blunt, the closure can be more difficult to reinsert."

Size is another important factor in preventing extraction problems, according to Jeanine Hettinga, president/CEO of The Guardian Cork Company in Des Moines, Iowa. "Some companies have had difficulty with resin corks pulling due to oversized corks for their bottles," Hettinga said. "There needs to be more attention paid to the interior dimensions of the bottle before hitting the bottling line. We ask our sales representatives to get us a dozen empty bottles first just to measure. When available, we purchase a dozen bottles of the clients' selected wine and test with them as well. These are then held for future test pulling. Corks are not a 'one size fits all."'

As for oxidation problems, Wes Ward said, they can easily be avoided by choosing a synthetic stopper with a tight, consistent cell structure. "If one were to cut all synthetics in half to see the inside of the cork, they all would look quite different from one another," he explained. "Many of the injection molded synthetics out there have a very inconsistent cellular structure that will resemble Swiss cheese. This inconsistency leaves a large path for oxygen to pass through much faster, resulting in oxidized wine.

Olga Kostic, International Marketing Manager for NuKorc Pty. Ltd. in Australia, said her company is making further improvements to prevent oxidation. "NuKorc is working on closures with increased oxygen barrier properties, with the belief that the limited oxygen ingress of NuKorc allows a suitable shelf life for the vast majority of wine in the market," she said. "This varies with wine style, of course, but we think that up to two years is fine for whites, and reds with their higher oxygen absorption properties will go much longer...NuKorc will give a consistent shelf life around which stock rotation plans can be made, rather than the maddening 'random oxidation' that occurs with natural cork of all grades. This problem of random oxidation is also occurring in screwcaps."

The Future Of Synthetics

Despite the recent influx of screwcaps into the premium wine arena, the synthetic cork manufacturers I spoke with said they are optimistic about the future of synthetics.

"The wine world is accepting synthetic closures more and more every day," Wes Ward said. "Nomacorc has been in production for five years now, and we have at least doubled our sales every year since inception. The U.S. currently uses about 200 million synthetics annually, accounting for about 17% of all wine bottled under cork. We are anticipating for this figure to reach 40% to 50% within the next decade."

"Insertable closures--natural cork and synthetic--still command over 90% of the market," Olga Kostic added. "Change has not and will not happen overnight. There is room in the market for some time for all the players, and with some adjustment of market share, the best producers in each category will survive. And of course, every currently available closure is under threat from the perfect closure that hasn't been invented yet." In the meantime, Kostic said, her company will continue to develop new products, such as the NuSpark sparkling wine stopper.

"The outlook for synthetics is still very positive," said sales manager Marc Kauffman of Novembal (a Tetra Pak company) in San Francisco, manufacturers of Tage stoppers, which were recently introduced in the United States after 20 years of use in Europe. "Screwcaps are fine for certain wines, but it takes a major investment to be able implement them."

Though some may view screwcaps as a threat to the synthetic stopper industry, Steers-Greget of Supreme Corq said she is not worried. "Screwcaps have actually helped the synthetic closure industry, since there has been a lot of consumer press about the underlying TCA problem. This is one of the issues that synthetic closures address."

Hettinga of The Guardian Cork Co. expressed a similar view. "Screwcaps will probably continue to be used on inexpensive wines, and top-quality wood corks (will be used) for the most expensive wines. There is no reason why resin corks should not fill the vast majority in between."

For a complete listing of synthetic stopper contacts, see the Wines & Vines Directory/Buyer's Guide.
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Author:Caputo, Tina
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
Words:2049
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