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Did the Sommelier Society of America Really Just Endorse Cork?


Late last night I was scouring over my twitter feed when I saw a link stating that the 'Sommelier Society of America Endorses Cork Wine Closures' (thanks @caroline_tj!). Of course, I read the article and it went on to say that indeed America's 'oldest and foremost professional wine teaching institution' jointly announced the Society has 'endorsed natural cork as the preferred closure for wine.' Yes, that just happened. Click HERE for the link if you don't believe me. Don't worry, I had to read it twice myself.

Now, I'm not quite sure where to begin with this as such a statement from an organization 'apparently' representative of Sommeliers is not only antiquated, narrow minded, ignorant, ill-informed and outdated but an absolute sell out. So the question must be asked; is this society a true representation of the Sommelier Community in America. I would like to hope it's not.

To endorse a single wine closure is to dismiss all others and in doing so is just ridiculous. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that the vast majority of Australian and New Zealand wine producers have, thankfully, seen the light and embraced screw cap. With the American market as difficult as it is at present, the last thing we need is an association, such as this, publicly saying 'don't buy it'. How 'they' can dismiss vast quantities of high quality world-class wine because it is closed under an alternative seal; I have absolutely no idea.

Now lets have a quick look at the 100% Cork – Approved by Nature guys. This well backed, and obviously well funded, organization is responsible for such atrocious adverts as First Date, Smelling the cork and one of the most insulting and degrading examples of marketing I've ever seen, The Office Party. So take a few frustrating and kind of comical minutes to watch those adverts and then, again, ask yourself, how the hell can any self respecting sommelier association openly endorse such a company? I can only surmise, for cash. Worth noting the presenter in these adverts, Sommelier Garth 'douchbag' Lockwood, was originally quoted as 'Master Sommelier' though this was thankfully removed due to the fact he wasn't.

Vinography wrote a great post HERE and be sure to read the comments.

Regardless of your thoughts on what closure is best (and let's not go into that here) it is a matter of opinion and personal preference. It would be like an association only endorsing a single oak cooper, fermentation vessel, yeast, bottle type … whatever.

Over the past twelve months or so, I've had the privilege of meeting and tasting with a number of fantastic, highly knowledgeable and open mined American sommeliers as part of Wine Australia's immersion program. So I ask this question to them; is the Sommelier Society of America truly representative of the Sommelier trade or is it an antiquated sell out?

Please, please tell us and post your thoughts below.



America, Cork, Sommelier




Comments

Dominic Britten May 12, 2011

Links don't work.

Dan Sims May 12, 2011

Sorry Dominic, all fixed now. The issue of trying to post too early in the morning!

Charles Cunningham May 12, 2011

Well said Sir. I honestly can't remember the last time I cared about the sound of a bottle opening at the table, and if it was a wine that had been aged, it was opened at the bar and de-cantered anyway. 100% cork seem like a cork industry backed lobby group anyway - Morons!!

Andrew Graham May 12, 2011

Did someone say selling out? Very poor.

Ed Masciana May 13, 2011

Nicely said. Obviously they're still stuck in their own BS. These "sommeliers" are salespeople, pure and simple. There job is to sell wine. Why do they think they're anything else?

Lance Ignon May 13, 2011

I represent 100% Cork. We paid noting for the Society's endorsement. Their opinion is their own. And although the Society endorses cork, they are not against alternative stoppers.

As to our videos, most people get the joke. You can find them on You Tube under 100% Cork.

Feel free to contact us the next time you'd like to write about our campaign. Our contact information is on our press releases.

Best regards,
Lance Ignon

Michael Richmond May 13, 2011

I strongly endorse cork; perhaps for some of the same reasons others would reject it. I also endorse alternative closures as appropriate. Wine is an adventure. I revel in the subtle unpredictability that exists in each bottle, more prevalent under cork than screwcap. The strongest argument leveled against the use of cork is the possibility that a wine may have a taint or an off character associated with the cork, the OFF bottle. I suggest that their exists a counterpart to the OFF bottle, the ON bottle. There are those bottles that exceed your expectations rather than disappoint them. The micro-oxidative activity as well as direct contributions from the cork oak may potentially enhance as readily as detract. The strides made by the cork industry to prevent and intercept tainted corks is significant. I also appreciate the specialness of this closure that ties us to our roots. The same reason I use barrels rather than oak chunks in a tank infused with micro amounts of oxygen. I laude the sommeliers for taking a stand for the historical aesthetics of wine. I hasten to add that I have enjoyed many lovely wines bottled under screwcaps as well as polymeric plugs but the ritual and anticipation of opening a traditionally closed bottle adds a dimension i see no reason to forfeit. A cork costs $.35, a screwcap $.05. If I was a big guy making 100,000 cases or more that's a big deal. And for a beverage wine a screw cap is very convenient and serviceable. I don't make beverage wines. I make wines that call for some contemplation and an adventuresome spirit. I also stand behind all our wines and readily replace any flawed bottle.
Michael Richmond
Bouchaine Vineyards
Napa California

Phil Burton May 13, 2011

Michael is dead on- while screwtops have their place, cork is part of the adventure. In this world where quick and cheap is the order of the day, corks are part of the whole mystique and the romance of wine. The value of this can't be underestimated in our industry; the sommeliers are right. Also not mentioned is the whole ecosystem that has grown around the cork industry for hundreds of years- the value of cork oaks insures that these beautiful areas don't become developed. This may not mean much to most Americans, but if you travel to Portugal, it's a big deal.

Toby Bekkers May 13, 2011

So if you paid for a V-12 Ferrari and it turned out to be firing on 11 cylinders you'd still be happy?

Alexis Brock May 13, 2011

I spoke with a handful of fellow American (New York and Las Vegas-based) sommeliers regarding The Sommelier Society of America and cork. My research indicates that key players in the industry do not support the Society's endorsement and are on the whole, not affiliated with the SSA. Master Sommelier William Sherer, who is the wine-buyer for Aureole in Las Vegas, pointed out that any benefits cork provide for the evolution of wine in bottle can also be offered by screw cap via winemaking tweaks in the pre-packaging phase of production. He noted that the costs of cork taint are unacceptably high and ultimately unsustainable in business. In keeping with these views, Mr. Sherer bottles both the Albarino and Rioja-inspired blend he makes under his 'Iberian Remix' label under stelvin. When queried about the significance of the SSA in the American sommelier world, all sources agreed that it does not carry the same influence that the Court of Master Sommeliers, The Institute of Masters of Wine or The American Society of Wine Educators. In fact, not one sommelier interviewed had collaborated with the SSA in any way in the recent past. Suffice to say, this endorsement is most certainly not a reflection of the general mindset amongst US sommeliers.

Peter Bell May 13, 2011

As a sommelier I wonder what any of this has to do with me. Call me narrow-minded but I have no opinion either way on the closure. I have no opinion on the label. I have an opinion on what's in the bottle. If the wine is OFF (regardless of closure) I expect to get a credit or a replacement. If I do not get that then there is a problem.

Michelle Jacobs May 13, 2011

Um, forgive me but wouldn't it be fair to suggest that Australian and NZ public figureheads endorse alternate closures in opposition of cork? And, in fact, discount the value of using cork? Dismissing it as 'unacceptable', archaic etc etc. My question is, however, as I dont see in the article in question anything more than an endoursement for cork, I dont see where they say everything else is unacceptable? And that being the case, how is this any different to us sitting on the other side of the fence? Lets face it, fair to say no-one could give a damn about hearing a cork 'pop' at the table, thats just a bit of BS Penmanship and we all know it but does everyone have to get this excited about it? So what, so they endorse cork... We endorse scew cap all the time but no-one give us a hard time. I believe comments like 'Crawl back to your caves, Dinosours' are just more than a tad OTT.

William Wilson May 13, 2011

It's interesting to see the comments supporting cork. These are the same things which winemakers and sommeliers were saying in Australia ten or more years ago. My favouite example was from a major Hunter semillon producer who tasted a case of their top of the range after ten years ago in bottles with corks. They found that 3 were worse than they should be (OFF,) 6 were good and three seemed to be better than the others (ON.) At that time they argued for cork because of the ON bottles. Now they use the same example to promote use of screwcap for good reason and the repuation of Hunter Semillon and their winery has never been better. Even if you are happy to replace an OFF bottle the damage has been done, no amount of slightly better bottles will make up for one bad experience.

Michelle Jacobs May 13, 2011

You know, that last comment, and it's a classic, just reminded me that I have never heard anyone suggest that a wine is ever enhanced by use of a screw cap closure. It does elimainate a percentage of failure rate and thats valid but it doesn't answer the qualitiative debate of the good bottles out there under cork.

Andrew Graham May 13, 2011

Just to follow up on your comments Michelle, I'd wager that many here in Australia are not anti-cork, but anti the myopic 'cork is the way view' that is being espoused by the SSA. The fact is that, as Dan said, there are more closures out there than cork and, that many of them - arguably - may be better wine bottle closures. For the SSA to declare their support is to effectively put a flag that says 'we're either too ignorant to accept that other closures exist or we've been paid to say nice things about cork'. To put it another way, can you imagine if the SSA came out and said that they prefer oak barrels over stainless steel as fermentation vessels? Or if they came out and said they prefer cultured yeasts over natural ones?

Jacob P. May 13, 2011

There is graduate student research going on in the UC Davis Viticulture and Oenology department regarding all closures (including bags). All though there is some research in existence already, it is all pretty inconclusive. Hopefully this new study will shed some light on the closures issue and shut up all the damn wine snobs. I will always drink wine bottled with corks, however it is not the only way to go. To say otherwise is shear ignorance and snobbery. I have had some pretty damn amazing wines that were in bags, and some equally amazing wines that were bottled with screw tops!

Lance Ignon May 14, 2011

Although the SSA endorses cork, it does not reject alternative closures by any means. Thank you, Michelle, for making this same point.

In the end, the choice of closure is a matter of each person's individual priorities and taste, including the taste that different closures impart to the wine. See what Ed Sbragia has to say about this topic at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XughFvRft7Q

Lance Ignon
100% Cork

Dan Sims May 15, 2011

Thank you all for your comments; I truly appreciate the discourse and your thoughts.

Lance, I especially appreciate that a representative from 100% took the time to reply to my post. I do, however, still find it quite amazing there wasn't some kind financial contribution to the Association for their comments. Such a resounding endorsement surly must be worth quite a figure in terms of marketing dollars to 100% cork. And for someone who works very closely with the Sommelier Association here (Sommeliers Australia), I understand the financial pressures of running such an organization as well as the responsibility to not only its members but ALL sommeliers.

Yes, the closure of a wine is a matter of opinion though for a Sommelier organization such as this to say it is their 'preferred' closure, does actually insinuate that others are 'not' regardless of intention. I am sure you can see how that comes across.

This post was also not to create a closure debate, more about why and how could a sommelier organization endorse one over the other and whether their comment is a true representation of Sommeliers in the USA. I take issue with that.

Yes, cork is a great closure … when it works. Its failure rate is the greatest concern and a concern that will never dissipate. Working as a sommeliers my entire career I have poured vast quantities of high (& low) quality wine down the sink thanks to this 'romantic' piece of bark. In Australia & New Zealand (in fact globally), some of the best wine producers are thankfully embracing screwcap and yes, wines do and can age under it (the same as an 'ON' bottle under cork).

You would never buy a TV wondering whether it may or may not be an 'ON' or 'OFF' version.

Evan Byrne May 25, 2011

Just had a look at the 100% Cork videos.
I like cork closures - when they are good - and in any case, in Europe we are restricted to them for a lot of wine produced, but I can't see what these videos are going to achieve. I even harbour a suspicion that they are in fact made by screwcap/plastic/glass stopper producers. Who would normally buy a wine with a screwcap, happen to watch one of these videos and suddenly never buy one again? I can't think anyone would fall for it.
The environmental arguments are complex, and the moral overtones could likewise be debated or rebuffed but they are not for here.
Suffice to say: 100% Cork - only one letter needs changing...

Dirk Bromley June 22, 2011

First, how this could not end up about a debate on enclosures is a surprise.
Secondly, the ignorance shown by some the above comments leave me dumbfounded.
Let me be clear: Cork micro oxcidises wine as it ages,corked wine is the result of too much oxygen. Stelvin and screwcaps do not micro oxcidise, they keep the wine fresh. With an aged wine you will notice how it has fattened or developed. With an older screwcap you will notice the freshness not the well rounded qualities.
So Whites with screwcap, Red with cork. Australian producers have gone too far and shot themselves in the foot by screwcapping every wine. It is the dumbing down of wine.
Yes I know corked wine is frustrating in every set of circumstances, but thin, tinny wine is a big price to pay for screwcaps.

Dan Sims June 22, 2011

Hi Dirk,

Thanks for you comment though I maintain the point of this post was a discussion on how an association such as that endorses one closure over another and questioning the integrity of such a decision. Clearly it's sparked a closure debate; one that will always go on and on and on and on as it comes down to a question of preference and opinion often based on anecdotal experience with a high amount of, again, 'personal' preference.

That's also a big accusation you make against Australian winemakers, one that I have no doubt many would passionately contest. But hey, this is what blogs are all about, sharing your opinion and engaging in discussion. How many red wines under screw cap does the Merivale group have on their wine list?

Thanks again for your comments.

Cheers,
Dan

William Pollard June 23, 2011

Great post Dan and great feedback.

I used to be 100% cork, but now accept screw cap closures for ease of access on younger bottles of wine. Will drink from a few select boxed wines too, but that's another discussion.

Cheers!

Joel Watson September 13, 2011

I gotta say the ads about cork vs screwcap are pretty funny! Take it with a grain of salt of course. Did you know that on rare occasions wines under screw cap can also suffer from TCA? Also the way in which a wine ages is either oxidative or reductive and this to a large extent is directly related to closure. Throughout the history of wine we have used cork as a closure and those wines that are free from tca undergo a maturation process that is directly related to an interaction with oxygen. This is a fundamental process that creates sensory attributes in wine that have historical connotations . By changing the closure and denying the interaction of oxygen to the wine in bottle do we lose an historical perspective on how wine evolves? All subjectivity aside, scientifically, how do we face this prospect being that taste aroma compounds behave in vastly different ways depending on how they react with oxygen, or not. ie: reductive ( screwcap) or oxidative (cork). I drink wines under all closures and support innovation. Maybe cheaper wines are best suited to screwcap which will ultimately mean better quality cork for the greats..??

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