The Confluence of Cork and Plastic

I love opening a new bottle of wine.  In particular, I appreciate now more than ever, wine bottles corked with actual cork.  Cork, that fabulous stuff that’s peeled from the outer layers of the cork oak tree, is so ubiquitous in our world that it’s actually become a verb.  Besides the actual wine, the cork stopper is a vital part of the wine experience.  I love how it’s kind of springy and soft, and the bottom end of it becomes stained with and smells like the wine you’re about to drink.  The printed name or picture of the vineyard on the cork makes it looks old and worn, like a treasured object from the past.

A few years ago, I had my first rude awakening that something was amiss in the wine industry.  I unwrapped a bottle of wine and saw…..plastic; a plastic stopper masquerading as a cork!  I thought, Huh!  What is this?  I thought I bought a nice bottle of wine.  And more and more, many of the bottles of wine I open have these horrible plastic stoppers.  I’ve since learned a few things about cork and why the wine industry is moving away from cork, and mostly it’s because the plastic stoppers are cheaper.  And also some blah blah blah excuse about the remote possibility that the cork stopper has the potential to taint the wine with an unwanted funky smell and taste.  I’m also seeing more and more wine bottles with screw-caps.  Screw-caps?!  Ugh, really?

Why is the wine industry growing so anti-cork?  No matter what kind of marketing blitz I’m faced with, I still associate screw-cap wine with the horrible swill we consumed in high school college, even if the wine tastes fine.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing.  It’s all relative, and it’s all about what you were exposed to from a young age.  I’ve come across many people in the course of my design work that harbor an unfair bias against furniture made of plastic.  They think it’s cheap, cheesy and low-quality.  Nevermind the many big name designers that created fantastic and well-made stuff out of plastic (like Verner Panton and Phillippe Starck to name a couple), some with price tags to curl your hair.


“But it’s just plastic.”

Just plastic indeed.

Well, my friends, plastic just may prove to be one of the most expensive materials out there from here on in, and I’m not talking about money.  Plastic, as we all know (or should know) is petroleum-based. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love plastic.  Plastic is a wonderful thing.  Every time I drop something on the floor, I do a little happy dance for plastic.  As I said before, there are beautiful, well-constructed pieces of furniture made of plastics that will, literally, last forever, and there are many plastics that can be recycled.  Our modern lives couldn’t exist without plastic.  I’ve just had enough of cheap, single-use, non-recyclable plastic.  Just take a look at the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and the plastic soup found in the Pacific Garbage Patch, the Atlantic Garbage Patch, and the stomachs of seabirds.  Mmmmmm, so many plastic bottle stoppers, plastic shopping bags, plastic wrap, cheap crappy toys….I swear if my pharmacist gives me one more plastic dosing cup with every prescription I fill, I’m going to throw it at him.   

To have the specter of an entire industry, a whole country’s economy (Portugal), an ecological wonder like the cork oak forests that can actually support both human needs and the natural environment, just disappearing to save a few cents per wine bottle, is very sad. 

So what happens if we believe the bologna sandwich being fed to us that the demand for cork is declining?  Ooh, maybe they’ll clear all that forest land to make room for more cattle-grazing, so we can stuff ourselves with more hamburgers!  Hey, what a super idea.  (Not.)

Here’s my homage to the lovely cork:

  1. It’s impervious to gases and liquids
  2. It’s also a little bit absorbent, which makes it great for coasters & trivets
  3. It’s lightweight
  4. It floats
  5. It resists rotting
  6. It looks great
  7. It absorbs sound
  8. It’s good for thermal insulation too
  9. It can be made into flooring and wallcoverings
  10. It’s soft and cushy on your feet, and it’s used to make shoes
  11. Not only shoes, but now clothing! Yes, clothing:
  12. It’s renewable (they just shave it off the trees and it grows back, over and over again)
  13. It’s biodegradable
  14. It’s flexible and durable
  15. It’s fire-resistant
  16. You can save your corks and make something crafty with them
  17. Check out these great little tables designed by Jasper Morrison made of cork by Vitra: 

But for all the really incredible uses there are for cork, the vast majority of it is used for wine bottle stoppers.  If the wine industry says bye bye to cork stoppers, it’s bye bye cork.

Here’s some more info on the mighty cork:  and of course:

So, wine industry, spare me the bullshit that no one wants cork anymore.  You made that up to save a few bucks.  And stop trying to tell me that plastic stoppers and screw-caps are better for the wine.  What I want is a list of winemakers that only use cork stoppers, so I can consciously choose to support the cork industry, otherwise, I might have to start ripping the foil off the bottles to check first before I buy.  I really don’t want to have to do that.

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