Barking Up the Right Tree: Why I renewed my commitment to cork

A first-generation American, Martin is the first Master of Wine of Mexican descent. With a prolific career as a buyer, importer, educator, speaker, judge, writer, and winemaker, he has held influential roles in many sectors of the industry.

Today, Martin is General Manager for Sonoma-based Peter Paul Wines, works closely with Spottswoode Estate on climate action & sustainability initiatives, and consults across the full wine supply chain. Clients have included Vice Versa Wines, Copa Fina Wine Imports, and Vivino.com. He launched Reyes Selections in 2018, a small portfolio of his favorite producers, singled out from years spent sourcing wines globally for the US market.

It’s been a long ride with you, Mr. Cork. When my wine career started two decades ago, I was schooled with vivid lessons about the most romantical and traditional of all bottle closures. Our relationship with cork was “complicated.” The first priority for closures was simple but essential: protect the wine’s flavor integrity over time. Yet, such was the gut-punch of cork-taint letdowns that I distinctly remember announcing my undying professional preference for glass tops and screw caps (skipping those evil, colorful plastic corks) because of their unrivaled dependability.. I am certain many readers can relate.

Things are wildly different these days. Not only has the cork industry achieved great technological strides in tackling the TCA boogieman, having reduced taint rates by “99% since TCA records were first tabulated by the Cork Quality Council in 2001”  but our collective ethics and related priorities have evolved. The royal “we” finally digested the truth–albeit frightfully almost too late– that real-deal sustainability matters as much as wine quality (or anything else, really). Many in our industry have finally digested the notion that protecting our world’s gifts is as important as enjoying them. Don’t forget folks, these blistering summers will be among the coolest in our future. It’s not a platitude to say we have a responsibility to move past “that’s a nice thought” to “What should I really do about this?” Supporting cork is one of the more basic answers we (the wine trade) have.

The timing can hardly be more beautifully in sync with parallel developments.  First, the dramatic drop in TCA-affected corks eroded one of the more powerful reasons to seek alternative closures. Don’t get me wrong, alternatives have a place and are valuable for their own reasons. I grant that top alternatives initially display less variability in introducing micrograms of oxygen into the bottle. But a closer look might disabuse some of that concern. The variability isn’t from oxygen passing from the atmosphere through the cork, the cork is too compressed inside the bottle’s neck for that to happen. Instead, the few molecules of oxygen already present in the cork are the variable–a variable that dissipates after a few months. Indeed, from a holistic perspective that moves beyond its traditional allure, cork has too much sustainable mojo going on for any green fan like me to resist. I mean… check out this flight of facts:

First, cork oak trees are not cut down to make cork. Their bark is harvested roughly once a decade, a 20x repeatable process during the tree’s lifespan! To make matters even more awesome, a tree’s carbon intake shoots up as it grows back the missing bark.  Second, the ~7 million acres of cork oak forests are wildly-benificial, ecologically-thriving “carbon sink” engines. In fact, each year these forests “drink” the carbon equivalent of what 1.5 million cars generate. Effectively, one cork represents roughly 70 times its own weight in carbon; to say that we are sponging carbon from the air and converting it into bottle stoppers isn’t hyperbole! Finally, exploring how well the cork industry manages its own recycling & waste streams is a feel-good bit of research to go down some time. 
My return-to-cork journey reminds me of retro-package stories that are coming full circle these days. Remember those refillable Coke glass bottles from decades ago? That early-adopting, cost-effective, sustainable system was torpedoed by the wicked convenience of single-use plastic. What were we thinking? Today, many food and beverage industries are reconsidering their systems as, mentioned earlier, collective priorities have evolved. Indeed, the wine industry’s evolution is picking up steam, from reducing excess luxury packaging, migrating to lighter glass or alternative containers, choosing more recycled content, and regaining faith in our old faithful… the corks. I hereby confess my renewed love affair with Quercus suber for all the right reasons this time.

CORK FACTS:

  • 700 million euros have been invested in research and development over the last 15 years, which has made cork one of the most studied raw materials, ever. The result is evident in different areas. In addition to all the studies and advances in the traditional sector of stoppers, such as the fight against TCA
  • The Portuguese cork industry has always upheld the highest standards of quality in the different production and manufacturing stages, particularly in the production of stoppers, in which a great deal of work has been carried out to identify and eradicate possible defects. In this field, particularly notable is the project Quercus, implemented from 1992 to 1996, on the initiative of C.E. Liège (Confédération Européenne du Liège) initiative. Quercus involved seven countries and several public and private laboratories with an aim to study in greater depth sensorial anomalies related to tainted aromas/tastes in wine. Using suggestions from previous studies and the discoveries of this wide-ranging project, it was possible to increase knowledge of the compounds responsible for this type of anomaly, as well as 2,4,6 – Trichloroanisol (TCA), Tetrachloroanisol (TeCA) and Pentachloroanisol (PCA).
  • “Using steam to deal with TCA works, something we have known for 18 years when we launched our ROSA (Rate of Optimal Steam Application) system. So we are glad to see more cork companies adopting identical processes.” – Carlos de Jesus – Amorim
  • The cork industry is committed to providing the best quality stoppers to clients around the world. Heavy investment in research and development in recent years is visible throughout the manufacturing process, and ultimately in the product being delivered today. Quality control procedures are more effective than ever before, employing both human cognizance and advanced technology in laboratory settings.
  • Cork is in the Metro light railway carriages designed by Siemens, in the interior of the top of the range Mercedes Benz and inside the aircraft that cross the skies. NASA and the European Space Agency use cork in their missions. The thermal protection, frictional resistance and lightness are used as cladding plates on shuttles. Cork is also used in bicycle handlebars, as the flooring on public transports and as cylinder head gaskets in vehicle engines.
  • Cork is a perfect balance between environmental preservation and sustainable development. As a foraged and not cultivated material, cork bark is a 100% renewable natural resource.
  • The cork oak forest is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots and can retain 14,000,000 tons of CO2 per year. It is estimated that for every ton of cork produced, cork oak forests capture 73 tons of CO2. The harvesting of cork does not damage but improves the health of the cork tree. After the harvest, the bark regenerates for the next 9 years until the next harvest, while continuously removing CO2 from the atmosphere. A single tree can be harvested up to 20 times and capture 20 tons of CO2 over its 200-plus-year lifetime.
  • A new study by the Cork Quality Council (CQC), which evaluated the life cycle assessment of the three major closure types found that an average wine cork has a negative carbon footprint of -5 grams. But the net amount is -276 grams per cork when the biogenic carbon cycle of the cork oak forests is taken into account, as is specifically allowed by EU Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules based on Life Cycle Assessment standards established by the UN.
  • The net effect of producing 1,000 natural wine corks is that you remove around 250 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere, making it the most sustainable closure for eco-conscious wine drinkers.
  • Compared to others, plastic closures take 9 times more greenhouse gas emissions to produce, while aluminum screw caps take 24 times the emissions to produce than natural cork. Both Aluminum and plastic closures take four times the non-renewable energy to produce, compared to natural cork stoppers.
  • Until now, only the natural cork stopper has been able to provide this perfect balance, allowing for the consistent, slow oxygen transfer to enable the correct evolution of wine and the formation of tertiary-aged characters.

By Martin Reyes, MW, Reyes Wine Group – Owner

A first-generation American, Martin is the first Master of Wine of Mexican descent. With a prolific career as a buyer, importer, educator, speaker, judge, writer, and winemaker, he has held influential roles in many sectors of the industry. Martin’s wine story began with an over-indulgent dinner while studying in Paris as a Stanford undergraduate and, by 2003, he was stocking shelves at K&L Wine Merchants in California. After managing St. Helena Wine Center for several years, Martin was hired as the principal buyer & importer for prominent wine club programs for partners such as The New York Times, Food & Wine Magazine, and Williams-Sonoma. In 2015, he was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top Forty under Forty Tastemakers. That same year, he worked the harvest at Salomon Undhof in Austria.

Today, Martin is General Manager for Sonoma-based Peter Paul Wines, works closely with Spottswoode Estate on climate action & sustainability initiatives, and consults across the full wine supply chain. Clients have included Vice Versa Wines, Copa Fina Wine Imports, and Vivino.com. He launched Reyes Selections in 2018, a small portfolio of his favorite producers, singled out from years spent sourcing wines globally for the US market.

An internationally recognized wine professional and speaker, Martin has judged at Texsom International Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge (Panel Chair), Decanter World Wine Awards, USA Wine Ratings, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, and Taittinger Sommelier d’Or Competition, Mexico; and most recently, the James Beard Foundation, and recently won Best Paper Award at the AAWE Conference, Vienna 2019 for his research in wine purchasing behavior. He is a Speaker/Moderator & Organizer for IBWSS, Porto Protocol, Green Wine Future, and 2022 Napa THRIVES Symposium as well as co-hosts  the James-Beard award-winning podcast, The Four Top.

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