Cork makes a comeback in Wine Country
For a product that has been around hundreds of years, the natural cork industry would seem to be the last type of business to have a need to advertise its product in Wine Country.
But that’s what it did over the holiday season with a $300,000 campaign on local radio and Facebook where area wineries such as Jordan Vineyard and Winery, Francis Ford Coppola Winery and Rutherford Ranch Winery touted their use of natural cork.
While not a massive ad buy, the effort did represent a shift for natural cork producers competing in an estimated $2 billion worldwide marketplace. It comes almost 20 years after being placed on the defensive over cork taint tracked to the chemical 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, more commonly known as TCA, a natural compound that has been described as turning the smell of a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc into that of a moldy newspaper.
The TCA effects were costly as the natural cork industry slid from a market share of almost 95 percent in the 1990s to currently about two-thirds of the U.S. market, with plastic corks taking up a larger portion. Now the industry, which implemented a massive quality control and testing system in response to cork taint, is starting to get some of its swagger back. It is expanding locally and reporting revenue growth. The ad campaign is the most public example.
“We live in the shadow of a lot of problems that existed 15 or 20 years ago,” said Neil Foster, president of M.A. Silva USA, a Santa Rosa-based business that experienced more than 10 percent revenue growth last year in its cork business. It sells more than 100 million closures annually, ranging from 7 cents to $3 a piece.
“The reality is today’s cork is light years ahead of where it used to be based on the technology we use to test our cork,” Foster added.
The improved quality has translated to growth. The U.S. company, which opened its doors in 2000 and is a partner of a Portuguese family company, is building a $7.5 million facility across the street that will offer additional room for its bottle business and laboratory space where winemakers can participate in elaborate smell tests, with dozens of corks to sample for their choosing. It counts Williams Selyem and Kosta Browne wineries as clients.
“We will have the ability to do much more research and development,” Foster said.
The natural cork industry has been a crucial cog for the North Coast’s wine industry. All the big foreign players have set up their American operations here as well as major distributors targeting the U.S. wine market, the world’s largest.
Besides M.A. Silva USA, those include the Napa-based sister companies, Amorim Cork America Inc. and Portocork, Ganau America in Sonoma, Scott Laboratories Inc. in Petaluma, Lafitte Cork and Capsule in Napa, and Cork Supply USA Inc. in Benicia. Those seven also are members of the Cork Quality Council, a trade group that has set minimum standards for testing the quality of the cork.
Most of the cork sold in the United States is imported from Portugal and Spain, where bark from the cork oak tree is stripped every nine years for the raw material that ultimately ends up as cork. The bark is boiled, graded and then cut into flanks that will be punched into corks, overall about 12 billion annually. They also are washed and screened and tested before being shipped over to the United States.
After their arrival, members of the council also run the cork through independent laboratory testing in addition to whatever tests the companies do at their own U.S. plants, such as for dimension and moisture. For example, M.A. Silva USA was one of the first American facilities to get its own gas chromography and mass spectrometry machine to test for TCA, operated by those who have a background in biochemistry.
“The Cork Quality Council was instrumental in getting everything moving in the right direction,” said Carlos De Jesus, communications director for Portugal-based Corticera Amorim, the largest global producer of cork products. He noted its business for Portocork and Amorim Cork America have seen double-digit growth in recent years and each has about 15 percent of the U.S. market. “It took hundreds of millions to fix the problem.”
The lab efforts have paid off in reducing TCA. The council contends its screenings have shown that TCA levels are now 95 percent lower than in 2001, with taint from natural cork down to less than 1 percent.
“I do think the cork industry has made huge, huge progress,” said Kevin Sea, coordinator of the wine studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College, who has a doctorate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology.