The State of Corks: A Winemaker's Dilemna

There was a time, boys and girls, ten years ago, when I could have gotten you corks that would have made you cry with how beautiful they were. And cheap, too - they were practically giving them away. That was in the glorydays when the Portuguese cork forests were NOT stripped to their limits, forcing the cork harvesters to use increasingly worse trees, in increasingly immature and problematic areas. Well, we have what we have now, and we cannot cry into our Cabernets about what we can do nothing about.

Here is what YOU need to know about corks:

Most wine bottles around the world have the same size hole-opening. I have seen some weird European specialty bottles but they are very rare.

Wine bottle will take a cork of either #7, #8, or #9 diameter. It all depends upon how tight a fit you want, and how you plan on inserting it (i.e., what type of corker you have).

Do not use #7 corks. They are far too loose for a decent fit - your wine will leak, your corks will seep, they are not the size you want. I don't stock them - I don't know how anybody can sell them to you with a straight face.

#8 are standard diameter. 1.5 inch in length is normal, 1.75 inch in length is extra-long. I like to use the extra-long on my longer-aging wines, the shorter on my fruit wines - or just use all extra-long - the price difference is fairly negligible.

#9 are great - if you can get them into the bottle without deforming them. They take slightly longer soaking times (not TOO long, they will turn too mushy) - and a corker that does NOT funnel them, but one that squeezes them evenly. With the corkers I sell, either the "dialysis" corker or the floor corker will work great - the basic one sometimes breaks chunks off the #9's as it squeezes them into a wedge shape. With the floor corkers, you do not need to soak them: just wet them down and shove them in - this is the best way to cork.

Most corks you will get at a bargain-basement price are no good for long term storage. Mine included. If you have a prize vintage that you want to lay down for three or five years, please invest in a decent cork. The "Trefinos" are great, even though they are an aggregate. I have not found any better cork in that price range in the last five years; if money is no object, I can special order "winery-grade" corks - beautiful, perfect corks - at about $60 or $70 dollars per hundred. (I have talked to local wineries that sometimes pay up to $2.00 PER CORK - yes, for each cork - to put into their bottles. They say consumers hate to see cosmetically-inferior corks, even though they just throw them out when the bottles opened...)

We have been able to find fairly inexpensive aggregate corks that work great for wines stored less than two years. Although one or two bottles may "ooze" some sappy liquid through the cork, we have found that most wines bottled with them age very well. And the price is very reasonable as well. Over the past two years, they have accounted for 80% of the corks we sell, and we hear no complaints about them.

OK - I hear you say - what about synthetics? Synthetic corks are good, but they tend to run expensive, about $30.00 per hundred. The larger problems associated with them are that they do not allow air to escape when they are inserted, so they tend to pop right back out. To alleviate this, you need to line the bottle neck with dental floss as the cork is pushed in, and then pull the floss out: this allows a channel to form which allows air to escape.

Also, they tend to scar if you do not insert them perfectly straight in. Natural cork will "heal" and seal the scar, but synthetic will leave a channel insode to out, thus ruining that bottle and allowing seepage and contamination. Only use synthetics with a very high-end corker, and only if you know what you are doing...