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Quirks With Corks

A lot of wine writers have spoken about the ongoing debate regarding how best to keep wine in a bottle but I thought that I would chime in with my two cents. Corks, to me, are synonymous with wine. What are the first images conjured in your mind’s eye when the word wine is mentioned? For me it’s usually a wineglass or a bottle filled with the wonderful stuff. That bottle in my imagination is invariably accompanied by a cork – that most unique creation of nature, perfectly adept at maintaining and aging wine in an almost symbiotic relationship. I think it’s reasonable to say that the connotations we have and the associations we make are based often on tradition. So wine, a substance whose entire life span, from creation to consumption, is governed by tradition, has even stronger mental associations then most things. If you went to a fancy restaurant in North Beach and your wine was served to you in a pint glass I doubt you’d shrug, assume that they were just trying to be trendy and sip. No. You, being the gracious person that you are, would politely ask your server if perhaps they had a normal wine glass available. Sure, there are plenty of reasons that a wine glass is shaped the way it is: So that the wine is directed to the most suitable spot on your tongue; so that when you hold it your hand does not affect the temperature of the wine; so that your grubby fingerprints don’t mar the surface of the glass… But that’s not why you send the pint glass back. You do it because it’s just wrong. Now this conservative point of view might seem at odds with the California anything-goes attitude and approach to winemaking. I believe though, that that viewpoint doesn’t come from a sort of dogma which asserts that tradition is inherently stifling, but rather from a perspective of “Hey, if this really does work better then why the heck not use it?” If you show me a wine closure today that is superior to a natural cork in every way then I would be on board and gung-ho about it. But the fact is that insofar it looks as though we got it right the first time. In the 1600s, when glass bottles started to come into wide use, a clever man named Dom Perignon rediscovered the use of cork as a natural stopper and modern science has yet to better it. It allows the wine to breathe at a remarkably apt rate. It keeps the wine clean – as Robert says it acts like a “magnet for off flavors”. And from the beginning of the industry, the production of cork serves as a remarkable example of sustainable agriculture as the cork is harvested from the outer layers of the bark of Quercus suber  (which is actually good for the tree) leaving it to grow back. In fact, the only threat to the cork trees comes from the decline of the cork industry due to a rise in synthetic and alternative closures. While companies that manufacture synthetic corks made from plastic tout that their product is 100% recyclable, they often forget to add the footnote that that statistic is only true if the cork makes it to the recycling plant. Deerfield uses natural cork on all of our wines, except for one vintage of Sauvignon Blanc where we decided to dabble with Zorks (which are pretty neat actually) and I hear it from Robert that we aim to keep it that way. Cork surely has its drawbacks but until some mind blowing revolution occurs in the future I’ll look forward each time to that satisfying pop rather than the crack of a screwcap.

Also Robert recently added his opinion on natural cork to the public forum. It can be found on Deerfield's Facebook page.

While you're there become a fan if you haven't already!

Wine & Oak: An Inseparable Pair

Recently I had the pleasure of watching Francis Durand, a master barrel cooper with the esteemed Radoux tonnellerie, build a barrel right on Deerfield's crush pad. It was an amazing experience and there were plenty of industry veterans, including Robert, who had never seen the process themselves. I videotaped the whole thing and you can check it out on Cellar Rat TV. I was fascinated by the process and it really got me thinking about the marriage between oak and wine. It is an element of winemaking that is easily overlooked. Trucks would arrive during harvest with dozens of beautiful new handmade barrels and as I helped unload them I gave little thought to the skilled craftsmen who created them or their enormous impact on the wine we were making. My perception of the grapes' journey to the glass had glossed over the entire art of coopering. The grape is grown in the vineyard and transported to the winery where it is transformed into wine and then bottled. I realize now that the fire and hammer of the cooper are just as much a part of that journey as the beaker and refractometer of the winemaker are.

Winemakers have known about the benefits of aging wine in oak for two millenia and the Roman Empire can be credited with expanding the usage of the material for constructing the barrel. There is no substitute for oak. There have been many attempts at using vessels made of other woods like cherry, pine, walnut and chestnut but none have the unique structural qualities and flavors of oak. In the barrel, oak is the right balance between hardness and softness that it is both durable and malleable enough to be shaped into a barrel. It is just porous enough to allow alcohol and water to evaporate through it, concentrating the flavor of the wine, and yet the grain is tight enough that it does not leak. The flavor that oak imparts is just as important as its ability to carefully expose the wine to minute amounts of oxygen. Compounds found in the oak and complexity yet also serve to stabilize the wine and its color. Oak further serves the winemaking process after it has been bottled. The cork tree is actually a type of oak, whose bark we remove to produce the corks so strongly associated with wine. While many alternatives, synthetic and natural, have been proposed, corks still seem to work best, allowing exactly the right amount of oxygen into the bottle to allow the wine to age gracefully. Since the beginning people have known that wine aged in oak tastes better but the science behind it has only been pursued for the last three decades or so. The process of "toasting" the wood, or putting the barrel over a wood fire fueled by more oak, adds a unique dimension to the wine. I had the opportunity to stick my nose in the barrel after Mr. Durand finished toasting it and it wasn't until I inhaled that enchanting aroma that I understood why wine and oak share such a bond - they both offer an incredibly complex and rich sensory experience that only improves when they are combined.