Sunday, January 15, 2012

Meatless Monday: Every Cork Has a Story

Those of you who visited over the weekend saw my Saturday Short on Corky (at right). And I promised that if you returned today you would learn a great deal about wine corks, where they come from, and why their existence is endangered. This may not be a typical Meatless Monday post, but it does concern a beverage, how it is bottled, and the far-reaching ramifications of the choices the wine industry has been making over the years. For all these reasons I think this brief tale of cork has value to readers concerned about food, health, and the welfare of the planet.

All the corks in our trivet were natural corks made from the bark of the cork oak tree  (Quercus suber) which grows in a horizontal band running across Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Northern Africa. Cork oak trees can live to be 150-250 years old, and their bark can be harvested every 9-12 years without any damage to the tree. From the 17th century until quite recently natural cork was the material of choice for sealing wine bottles. 

In the last few decades, however, synthetic corks and other bottle closures have been capturing part of the market share, partially in response to a phenomenon known as “cork taint.” This has caused a huge controversy among oenophiles. Information posted at the UCDavis site in 2001 estimated that 2-7% of all wine sealed with natural cork falls victim to “cork taint,” caused by TCA, a fungus-produced compound, that grows in cork fiber. While this article advocated continued use of natural corks and called for finding ways to reduce the defective rate of natural corks, others in the industry have chosen to embrace synthetic corks as a means for eliminating this problem. Synthetic corks are also considerably less expensive than natural cork and provide a vehicle for branding a product with a bit of bright pop on the top of the bottle. They do, however, have their own set of cons as this article clearly outlines. New Zealand vintners have taken even more extreme measures, advocating the use of screwcaps as an alternative to any type of cork, a solution with pitfalls of its own.  

A 1999 paper written by a scientist with the National Forest Research Station in Oeiras, Portugal estimated that some 60% of the current cork harvest went to the making of corks for bottling wine and spelled out the danger if the demand for natural cork should fall. The conservation group Fauna & Flora  International currently makes the claim that the demand for cork HAS decreased, and speaks of the trend among farmers to cut down the cork trees and to replace them with a more profitable source of income such as citrus trees. The choice of “natural” or “synthetic” clearly has an impact on far more than the taste of the wine inside the bottle. Fauna & Flora International is working with organizations and landowners in Spain and Portugal to secure and manage a belt of land that includes cork oak forest, which is home of the Iberian lynx

By now I hope you have come to appreciate the cork at the end of your wine bottle. If you don’t plan to make trivets, there is another way you can recycle your popped corks to a good use.

You may have noticed Cork ReHarvest collection bins at your local Whole Foods Store or a number of other locations around the country. Cork ReHarvest is a collection and recycling program started in 2008 by the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance. The conservation group has two goals:
  • To educate the public about the ecological importance of the Mediterranean cork forest and its role as provider of a vital source of income for family farmers who have worked the forests for generations.
  • and
  • To collect as many as possible of the 13 billion corks used each year before they reach the landfills, and to up-cycle these used corks, without increasing their carbon footprints. The recycled corks cannot be used for wine closures, but they do get turned into a variety of useful products which vary depending on the part of the country in which they are collected. In Nebraska, RecycledFish, a nonprofit association of anglers, is developing cork bobbers. In Missouri, Yemm and Hart is using the cork in floor tiles. You can read more here

So, you see, every cork has a once and future story. Please think about that when you pop the cork on your next bottle of wine. 

I often blog on food or food-related topics on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet.”

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