A toast to wine corks

David Laschinger

Browsing the Pioneer Press, it becomes apparent that wine clubs are popular and plentiful at Robson Ranch. Popping the cork and pouring the wine is a ceremony in itself, with the serious connoisseurs performing the ritual of swirl, sniff and taste. Several hundred bottles of wine are opened in Robson Ranch every month, and for hobbyists like me that means the potential of adding to my collection of corks.

The corks I receive are added to a bucket, which I take to the Robson woodshop on occasion. “Did you drink all of that wine?” I have been asked more than once. “I hope you are in a 12-step recovery program,” someone jokes.

My cork creations challenge my crafting capabilities. So far I have not undertaken anything as ambitious as what a former presidential speech writer, John Pollack, did a decade ago. He and several volunteers built a 27-foot “Cork Boat” using 165,321 wine corks. On Columbus Day 2002, Pollack and a small crew of family and friends made a 17-day journey down the Douro River in Portugal from the Spanish border to the Atlantic Ocean in the boat he had been dreaming about since childhood.

Pollack, and we less ambitious hobbyists, favor natural wine corks for our projects. In recent years, however, the percentage of real corks among the donations I receive has diminished, and wondered why. Researching this, I learned that some wineries prefer other types of corks, mainly agglomerates and artificial corks. Agglomerates are made from granules of ultra-clean natural cork mixed with flexible food-grade glue. Artificial corks are extruded from synthetic materials. These two alternatives are said to improve oxygen management, which helps maximize wine quality.

Natural wine corks come from the bark of mature cork oak trees. The bark is harvested every nine to 12 years from trees that often live more than 200 years. The bark is cut away with a hatchet or other hand tool, washed, sanitized to prevent wine taint, and usually painted with a winery’s name and logo. Ninety percent of cork comes from Portugal and Spain, thus the locale chosen for the Cork Boat journey. Traditional wineries are expected to continue using natural cork. To meet their needs and the demand for cork in other products, hundreds of acres of new cork oak trees have been planted in recent years.

It’s time to open a bottle of wine, raise a glass and toast the cork—and save it!