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"Bark to Bottle" (and How Cork Forests Are Getting Screwed)

Posted Mar 29 2013 3:18pm
So I did my "perimeter sweep" of Whole Foods, grabbing a bag of organic apples, a pound or two of bulk grains, and some milk, when I just about smashed into the "cork recycling box" that stands in the aisle between the wine and the olives. 

I bump into it every time, and it catches my eye every time, and I glance at the fast facts, such as that cork oak trees store carbon in order to regenerate their bark, and a harvested cork oak tree absorbs up to five times more carbon dioxide than one that isn’t harvested.  
But after the next bottle of Agriculturist is emptied and I cut that bottle into a vase (see how here ), I know that my cork is not coming back to Whole Foods to be recycled, however noble this project (called Cork ReHarvest*) is. I know that my cork is going where every other cork that has crossed my path has gone for years now. Into "the drawer."

I don't save the corks because they commemorate important anniversaries or special bottles of wine. I save them for the same reason I save seashells and birds' nests--because somewhere in my DNA, I just simply know that things of nature are valuable. Worth keeping.

What I didn't know, however, was that by buying a bottle of wine that uses natural cork, I'm also preserving a way of life, a threatened ecosystem, and a future of innovation. That screw top on Our Daily Red? Could screw things up.

Here's what I've learned (both from research and from my interview yesterday with Patrick Spencer from the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance ). 

* Natural cork comes from the cork oak tree (which is, interestingly, an evergreen), and thousands of acres of these remarkable trees have provided a livelihood for generations of farmers throughout the Mediterranean (specifically southwest Europe and northwest Africa, with the bulk of the action in Portugal).  

* The trees help turn what would be a desert into a divinely inspired forest ecosystem that includes the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and the Barbary Deer, not to mention a wide variety of plants with unknown future medicinal and other uses. 

* The cork comes from the bark of the tree, and is harvested with no harm to the tree. Kind of like shearing a sheep. (See cork get harvested and processed her e --it is ridiculously interesting.) (See my friend Farmer Sue's sheep get sheared here .) 

* It takes about 25 years for the first harvest, and then 9-10 years for each subsequent harvest, for a total of about 16 harvests in the tree's 200-year lifetime. (You do the math--did I screw that up?) 

* All cutting is done by hand by highly skilled laborers who are paid some of the highest prices in agriculture. The first two cuts of cork are used in insulation and flooring. Cork stoppers for wine bottles come from the higher-quality cork from the 3rd harvest and beyond. 

* Cork is currently the most popular material for wine stoppers due to its elasticity and compressibility, plus there is the belief that micro-oxidation through the cork over a long period of time may be a "secret ingredient" that helps aged wines develop their complexities. The ritual of removing a cork from a bottle is also part of culture, and the sound it makes is sometimes called, ever so poetically, "the music of wine."

And now is the point in the story when I must introduce the villain. The screw top manufacturers may break into a cheer right about here that goes, "2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate!" But really it's only 2, 4, 6, as in a 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole, nicknamed TCA. TCA is produced by microbes that live in the small pores of the bark. If it gets into a cork that goes into a bottle, it can cause that tainted, musty smell, which is often referred to as a bottle being "corked." Which is bad. Which is wasteful, and a total buzz-kill. Which is something neither winemakers nor consumers want. 

In the past, something like 5-10% of all bottles experienced this, and granted, it's pretty well agreed that the cork industry was slow to respond. The screw top and plastic stopper folks jumped in with solutions (good entrepreneurs that they are), and the cork folks saw their livelihoods and ecosystems being severely threatened by a drop-off in cork sales. They got on it, invested gobs of money in research, development, and quality control, and have reduced the tainted percentage to something like 1% (they're also finding lots of innovative new uses for cork as well, challenging designers, scientists, architects, and planners to discover new possibilities from interior design to aerospace engineering). Some of the wineries that went to screw tops found out that their wine would "sweat," so they switched back. Others dedicated to comprehensive principles of sustainability (solar panels, salmon-friendly processes, biodynamics, reduced waste, etc.-- see my interview with Paul Dolan here ) are looking for all aspects of their process to be environmentally-sound. Hence, an attraction to "bark to bottle" that cork represents.

I may have a chance to actually go to the cork forests in Portugal and see, touch, and smell this year's harvest in person (I hear it has a distinct, sweet smell). I may have a chance to look into the eyes of the men, women and children whose lives are changed by the economic impact of the wine I choose to buy. I may have a chance to find out if caring about a stupid little 30-cent cork when I vote with my dollars even matters. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, enjoy the music of wine when you uncork your favorite special or everyday bottles. Because that beloved ritual may one day be a thing of the past.

(Don't want to part with your corks either? See my little DIY project, How to Make a Fast, Easy, Cheap Herb Drying Rack, and clear out "the drawer.")

* the recycled corks are ground up and used for other things, not new cork stoppers
** a new logo indicating that the stopper is natural cork and not plastic is starting to appear on bottles now
eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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