Pen Ultimate / The Turn of the Screw? No

The cork screw may be on its way out. Environmentalists are up in arms

I love having wine with my meals. Though I'm rather green when it comes to wines, white or red, I do read Daniel Rogov's columns in Haaretz, checking the prices of bottles that he grades 97 and above, and regretting that I can't afford the really good reds. I am trying to get the gist of this, but when I read about a particular wine's taste bringing to mind the flavor of cranberries with a whiff of blackberries, I have a very hard time trying to remember what the precise difference is between the flavor, taste and aroma of cranberries and of blackberries.

But that has never stopped me from showing off big-time in a restaurant. I peruse the wine list at great length (they all think that I'm checking the vintage and the label, but I am merely comparing prices), ask for the waiter's educated advice, make a choice, look critically as he wields his corkscrew to get the stopper out, move the wine glass in a very small circle on the tablecloth, check its hue against the white of the cloth, inhale it, take a sip, roll it around in my mouth, furrow my brow, let it go down all the way and, just before nodding to the waiter to fill the glasses all around, I take a look and a sniff at the cork.

As this all involves very intricate role-playing, I have invested some money in a collection of corkscrews that come in an infinite technological variety, and I practice opening bottles and tasting wine at home, sometimes in front of a mirror. Practice makes perfect.

So you can imagine the shock when one waiter - having brought the bottle that I painstakingly selected and after showing it to me with practiced movements - did not take out his corkscrew, but merely unscrewed the metal screw cap that stuck in the neck of the nicely shaped bottle, masquerading for a cork, like it was a cheap bottle of some artificially produced, light and common drink. At that moment, the whole intricate process of savoring the wine's taste lost its magnificent splendor for me.

That was not something I could just forget about. I made some inquiries and discovered that indeed there is a tale behind this. And it is a tale involving economics, chemistry, taste, technology and ecology. I got it all neatly summed up in a 36-page document prepared by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and published in May 2006, entitled "Cork screwed? Environmental and economic impacts of the cork stoppers market."

Now, what is the connection between the WWF - which, like TheMarker, uses the panda as its logo and mascot, and deals mainly with endangered species - and cork stoppers? It turns out that they are an endangered species, and their possible demise may cause a real ecological disaster in its wake.

Rural legend

The WWF document credits the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon (1638-1715) with the idea of using cork for preventing oxygen from getting into bottles of wine. A famous brand of champagne bears his name, and he is also credited by some for developing the process of producing champagne, or even inventing it. However, those two achievements seem to be a matter of urban (or, in his case, rural) legends, which casts some doubt on the many other bits of information presented as fact in the WWF document.

Did you know that 15 billion cork stoppers are manufactured every year, and that they all are harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree, Quercus Suber, which grows mainly in one area of the world, the western Mediterranean - particularly in Portugal and Spain - with some in Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, France and Italy? The cork-stopper industry accounts for 75 percent of the entire market of cork products (used also for insulation, flooring, etc.), and more than 100,000 people make their living from it.

Contrary to what you may have thought, stripping the bark off cork oaks does not damage them. It revitalizes them, and actually is the main reason to cultivate them. And while they are at it, standing there and renewing their bark with new layers of cork, those trees are apparently a wonder of biodiversity - a unique habitat for many endangered species, like the Iberian eagle, the black vulture, the black stork, the Barbary deer, and other exotic and rare birds and animals.

Down the drain

So what seems to be the problem? It turns out that people who do understand something, those connoisseurs whom I try so hard to emulate when choosing my wine, have come to the conclusion that the cork stopper does stop oxygen from getting into the bottle, but at the same time releases a chemical that taints the wine's aroma and even its taste. Their assessment is that 5 percent of the wine produced in the world goes down the drain because of the cork.

That is a lot of wine, you'll agree. And as the cork industry is localized in one part of the world, and wine - even some very good vintages - is produced these days in places as far-flung as the Americas, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the stopper doesn't come cheap. Small wonder that in places like New Zealand, they have started experimenting with possible replacements. Synthetic corks have proved to be ineffective, plus they wreak havoc with corkscrews. The metal screw cap, on the other hand (or, in the case of a bottle perhaps, on the other neck), has proved to be effective, cheaper and - at least in New Zealand - popular with the customers, who unlike me are not taken aback by its inelegant image.

Since 2000 the production and consumption of wine all over the world has been growing steadily, but the numbers of cork stoppers produced and sold has been declining at a frightening rate. The worst-case scenario noted in the WWF document is that the year 2020 will be "doomsday" for cork stoppers, Quercus suber forests, and consequently the rare birds and animals who reside there. And all that when cork is biodegradable and environmentally friendly, unlike metal screw caps, to say nothing about its style.

As far as I can tell, this all may be a matter of spins and counter-spins, with wine cognoscenti and producers fighting with cork manufacturers over shares of the market, each side recruiting taste arbiters and ecologists to plead their case.

Also, I'd be loath to lose a word like "cork," with its two hard consonants and a muted "r" sound, hovering in the "o" of the open mouth, ready to taste the red liquid poured out of the bottle after the stopper has been removed.

So every time I choose a wine whose bottle must be properly opened with a corkscrew, I'll not only be pretending to know something about wine, but also saving the life and ensuring the future of, for example, the Iberian lynx, of which there are only fewer 100 remaining, not counting the cubs.

What I like best about this story is that it seems completely irrelevant and utterly nimportant, certainly when compared to the things we read about in the paper every morning. Just my kind of story.