A visit to Diam’s high-tech cork facility

Most of the press trips that wine, spirits, and beer writers are invited on focus on what goes into the bottles we drink. In July, I was invited to Spain for a trip dedicated instead to the part that seals so many of those bottles: cork. Corks are one of those things we tend not to think about until they malfunction by crumbling apart, oxygenating a wine, or introducing “cork taint.” The growing acceptance of screw caps and synthetic corks is partly a response to the challenges of using natural cork. Our host in Spain, Diam, is a company that makes a sort of hybrid technological cork, combining natural cork material with new techniques for removing impurities and increasing consistency. They brought us to their facility in San Vicente de Alcantara to show off the process.

Preparing for this trip, I had romantic visions of the cork forests of Spain and Portugal. These visions were eventually fulfilled on an evening trek into the countryside, as seen in the photos above.

However most of our visit was spent here to learn about Diam’s technological process for transforming bark from cork trees into reliable stoppers that won’t ruin a bottle of wine. This was more industrial than romantic, but it was a fascinating learning experience.

We arrived a little too late in the season to see the local cork harvest, but the photo above (provided by Diam) shows how it’s done. The bark of cork trees is rich in suberin, a rubbery, waxy substance. In nature, the suberin prevents water loss by keeping moisture inside the tree. This same quality makes it great for keeping wine locked inside bottles.

Slaking the world’s thirst for wine requires a lot of cork. (Above: piles of fresh cork bark awaiting processing at Diam; you can barely make out a few people working on top.) Fortunately, harvesting bark doesn’t kill the trees, and after reaching maturity each tree can be harvested about once every decade. Driving through this region of Spain and Portugal, the brightly colored trunks of recently stripped trees stand out along the roadside.

After processing, traditional corks are made by punching through the bark. Obviously punched corks can only be extracted from sufficiently thick bark and much of the material is left behind. This can be put to other uses, including the technological corks made by Diam.

Here my friend Baylen demonstrates his invention of cork knuckles. Not a product offered by Diam — yet.

The Diam process begins by grinding the bark and sorting out the suberin-rich powder, which they call “cork flour,” so that it can eventually be reformed into a cork shape with food safe binders and microspheres. Agglomerated corks have been around in some form for years; it’s the step prior to agglomeration in which things get interesting.

Diam’s biggest innovation is treating this cork flour with supercritical carbon dioxide. In a supercritical state, created under very high pressure, fluids take on properties of liquids and gases. They are able to both permeate a substance and dissolve materials. By fine-tuning pressure and temperature to control its density, supercritical CO2 can be used to extract some substances while leaving others behind. If you drink decaffeineated coffee, there’s a good chance the beans you brew were treated in this way. The CO2 process is one of the main methods used to selectively extract caffeine from green beans.

Diam uses this same process to remove impurities from cork. The most important of these are TCA and TCB, the chemicals associated with cork taint. But lots of other stuff gets removed too, resulting in a cork that is neutral in its potential flavor impact on wine. (Above: quality control testing of corks by infusing them in water.)

A neat advantage of making corks this way is that other characteristics can be controlled too. By varying the elasticity of the corks, Diam can design them for less expensive, short-term aging, or for higher end wines intended to age for years. The box above shows their 1, 3, 5, and 10 year corks; they’ve also recently introduced a cork designed to last for 30 years.

They’re also able to control the permeability of the corks. Corks are naturally permeable, but a cork allowing too much air into a wine can ruin it. On the other hand, depending on the wine, a little bit of oxygenation could be a good thing. These corks come in varying degrees of permeability, allowing wine makers to choose the corks best suited to their wines.

Though conversation about corks tends to revolve mostly around wine, Diam also uses its process to make corks for beer and spirits (photo above courtesy of Diam). The corks for spirits raised an interesting question for me. I’ve rarely come across spirits I’d identify as suffering from cork taint, but on the few occasions I have the off aromas have surpassed anything I’ve come across in wine. Since spirits are much higher in alcohol than wines, and since alcohol is such a good solvent, I’d have thought that TCA would be an even bigger problem for spirits than it is for wine. Yet we rarely hear about spirits being “corked.”

As it turns out, I was half right. Spirits are a more effective solvent. But the team at Diam directed me to a scientific paper evaluating tasters’ ability to detect TCA in cognac, and it turns out the threshold level for perceiving it is much higher. The paper is in French, but in loose translation the tainted spirits had aromas of “mold, mushroom, wet mop, etc.” However the concentrations needed to perceive these notes unambiguously appear to be an order of magnitude larger than for wine. Higher alcohol seems to have a masking effect for the TCA. (I suspect that the tendency to store wine on its side, in contact with cork, and to store spirits standing vertically may also be a factor, but I don’t know for sure.)

One funny aspect of the Diam corks is that, at the insistence of wine makers, they have striations printed on them to mimic natural cork. A casual consumer could pull one out with a corkscrew and never notice the difference. Seeing the unfinished Diam corks come out and then get printed to resemble their purely natural punched cousins reminded me, of all things, of Howard Roark’s critique of the Parthenon in The Fountainhead:

“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

Because wine is tied up with tradition, that’s why. Despite the rise of synthetic stoppers, screw caps, and wine that comes in kegs and boxes, people still want to pull a plug of wood out of a bottle neck, even if that means occasionally dumping a corked bottle down the drain. And for wines that are meant for aging, corks are still one of most proven tools.

Are all these new high-tech corks really necessary? Claims about the rate of cork contamination are controversial. For one thing, cork isn’t the only source of TCA; it can enter wine at other stages of the production process, but the final consumer will declare the wine to be “corked” regardless of whether the cork is the actual source. Other defects, real or imagined, may also be attributed to the cork. (Working for several years in a top wine bar, it wasn’t uncommon to have “corked” wines returned that seemed fine to me. Did customers imagine it or just not like the wines? Am I less sensitive to TCA than other consumers? I suspect it was a little of both.)

Estimates of the rate of cork contamination range from 7% at the very high end to under 1% on the low end. The Cork Quality Council claims that rates have dropped more than 80% in the past decade thanks to improvements in the industry; they have a website, CorkTaint.com, dedicated to rehabilitating cork’s image and promoting studies showing low rates of contamination. Diam, for its part, declined to wed itself to a particular number.

Still, no one likes to open up a special bottle of wine to find that it’s been ruined by a fault that could have been prevented. The market now offers a lot of options varying in price, consistency, and longevity for sealing different wines, all of which have their place. The Diam corks are an interesting addition to that spectrum. I’m not a winemaker, nor do I pretend to possess the expertise to say which closures are best for which wines, but after this visit I certainly wouldn’t mind finding a higher tech cork in the next bottle I open.

Good news for wine growlers

Last month I noted that the Tax and Trade Bureau had issued a new ruling that would have made the increasingly popular practice of filling growlers with for wine for off-premise consumption a lot more complicated. Among other things, the rules would have required retailers to receive permission from the TTB to act as a bottling house and to keep up with various records and labeling requirements. Fortunately, the wine industry spoke up and the TTB has changed its mind [pdf]:

TTB recognizes that our existing regulations were intended to cover traditional taxpaid wine bottling activities, rather than the filling of wine growlers.

Accordingly, TTB has determined that it would be appropriate to engage in rulemaking on this issue so that we can modernize our regulations to specifically address the filling of growlers with taxpaid wine. This will allow TTB to evaluate what regulations are necessary in order to protect the revenue without unduly burdening businesses that wish to engage in this activity. This will also enable us to evaluate comments from all interested parties, including consumers, industry members, and State regulatory agencies.

In the interim, we are suspending TTB Ruling 2014-3 pending rulemaking on the filling of growlers.

Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter.

Say “Grrr…” to new growler regulations

Avid beer drinkers are familiar with the “growler,” a big jug used for transporting beer from a tap to one’s home. Filled and sealed properly, they keep beer fresh and carbonated for short-term consumption. (With caveats!) They’re great for when you want to bring home a beer that’s only available on tap or want to entertain guests. Living in Portland, one of the best beer cities in the world, I’ve taken advantage of this convenience many times.

In recent years, wineries have also begun selling their wine in kegs. In some situations — properly equipped restaurants, for example — this can more cost-effective and less wasteful than dealing with bottles. And, naturally, some places with wine on tap have also begun filling growlers. Oregon and Texas have both legalized wine growler sales in various venues and Washington is following suit. Here in Oregon, licensed wineries, restaurants, bars, and retailers are all free to fill growlers with wine.

Last week, however, the Tax and Trade Bureau weighed in on the practice. First the good news: selling wine in growlers is legal under federal law. Although states had gone ahead with wine growler fills, this was apparently ambiguous. It’s good to have it clarified.

Then there’s the bad news: Selling wine in growlers is going to involve a lot more red tape than selling beer. Under federal regulations, filling a growler with beer is considered filling a large glass and doesn’t impose additional burdens. (State laws, of course, may vary.) The TTB’s new ruling [pdf] clarifies that it’s not going to be so simple for wine. Specifically, the agency has determined that filling growlers with wine for off-premise consumption is considered bottling or packing for tax purposes, and that any person engaging in the activity must first qualify as a bottling house of taxpaid wine.

This means that before they can sell wine in growlers, businesses will have to apply to and receive permission from the TTB. And once qualified as a taxpaid wine bottling house, additional regulations will come into effect for wine growlers that don’t arise with beer:

1. Proprietors will have to “keep records of taxpaid wine received, bottled or packed, and removed.”

2. Proprietors will be responsible for measuring customers’ containers and ensuring accurate fill level and alcohol content.

3. Proprietors will have to label each container with “the name and address of the premises where bottled or packed; the brand name [...]; the alcohol content; the kind of wine and the net contents of the container.” They will also be required to remove or cover any preexisting labels on containers that don’t accurately describe the new contents.

It’s not clear to me yet exactly how burdensome these regulations are going to be, but the decision does seem to put the kibosh on dreams of making wine growler fills as ubiquitous and easy as they are for beer. With more restaurants and urban wineries offering wine on tap, growler fills were poised to be a new and convenient option. Here in Portland, for example, the forthcoming Coopers Hall announced plans to open with forty different wines on tap for on-premise consumption or take-away.

Assuming they stick with the plan, they’ll have to comply with these new regulations. I’m guessing that large retailers like Whole Foods will also find it worthwhile to qualify. But depending on how much of a hassle it is to do this, I expect many other restaurants with wine on tap may not bother.

The TTB notes that the Internal Revenue Code has different provisions for wine and beer and that this is the justification for the differential treatment with regard to growlers. Absent a change in the law, their hands may be tied. But from a policy perspective, it will be disappointing if this turns out to be an effective obstacle to the further adoption of wine kegs and reusable containers.

[Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter, a great source for northwest wine news. Photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Kaitlyn Tierney.]

Beware of CARE

Over at the Examiner, I take a look at the CARE Act, a wholesaler-backed bill that would essentially reverse Granholm v. Heald and exempt state alcohol laws from Commerce Clause challenge.

In search of the Rouge Gorge

erithacusrubeculaTwo of the most recent spirits to arrive here for sampling are the Floraison and Nouaison gins from G’Vine. These are distilled in France from Ugni Blanc grapes, the same grape commonly in use for distilling Cognac. The spirit is infused with grape flowers and other traditional gin botanicals before undergoing a final distillation. My preference is for the Nouaison, which is flavored with lime. However this post isn’t so much about the gins as it is about an unusual cocktail I came across while experimenting with them.

Credit for pointing me toward this drink goes to my friend Paul Willenberg. While tasting the G’Vine gins with me he remembered a drink he enjoyed in France called a Rouge Gorge, possibly named after the little bird pictured up top. Paul says he had it as an aperitif at Levernois. One of the only mentions of it I can find online is this:

Rouge Gorge: You Know You Want One

The place to drink this in Paris is the wonderful Alsatian restaurant “Aux Deux Canards” – try it with the pan fried fois gras.

Rouge Gorge – The recipe:

8 parts Cotes du Rhone, 5 parts good quality gin – Tanqueray or Hendricks, 3 parts Crème de Mure. Mix well, and serve slightly chilled in a brandy glass.

The combination sounds strange, but the perfume of the gin combines with the violet aromas of the Rhone wine and the fruitiness of the Crème de Mure to create an absolutely bewitching – and lethal – cocktail.

OK, this does sound strange. And it is strange. But it’s not totally off the wall. The original Martinez featured a 2:1 ratio of sweet vermouth and gin, further sweetened with a little maraschino liqueur. Though contemporary palates tend toward a flipped ratio, this isn’t that far removed from drinks served in the Golden Age of cocktails.

Still, the recipe above is a little sweet. Cutting down the blackberry liqueur brings out more of the gin. Here are the proportions I’ve settled into:

2 oz chilled Côtes du Rhône (Domaine “La Garrique” at Paul’s suggestion)
1 oz gin (G’Vine Nouaison)
.5 oz blackberry liqueur (Clear Creek)

I think the best word to describe this drink is “beguiling.” You take a sip, and you’re not quite sure what to make of it, and so you sip again. It’s better than you think it would be, and difficult to wrap your head around the flavors.

It’s a weird drink; I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Should it be enjoyed before dinner as an aperitif? After with cheese and bread? Where did it come from, and can I order one at a French bar with any reasonable expectation of the bartender knowing what I’m talking about? Googling has yet to reveal the answers, but if anyone else has experience with this unusual drink I would love to hear about it.

Nymph mania

Just when Alabama’s gourmet beer bill was starting to make the state look like a reasonable place to buy alcohol, the local control board has stepped in to ban a wine’s suggestive label:

Wine and scantily clad women may sound like some cad’s idea of a good time, but the combo spells trouble in Alabama, which last week banned the sale of a California-made wine bottle adorned with a naked nymph — helping boost its sales elsewhere in the nation.

Pursuant to the state’s administrative code, the Alabama Beverage Control Board ordered Hahn Family Wines to remove its Cycles Gladiator wines from shelves throughout the state, calling its label “immodest.” According to Hahn president Bill Legion, a small state board in Alabama rejected the artwork last year, but the ruling did not catch Legion’s eye. His apparent defiance of the state’s decision — he claims the paperwork “fell through the cracks” — led to the ban.

“It’s turned out to be a great thing for us,” laughs Legion, who says he’s received calls of support from oenophiles around the world.

The bottle’s eyebrow-raising label was designed in homage to a classic 1890s print ad featuring a lithe, long-haired cyclist clinging to a bicycle shuttling through a starry sky. The belle époque illustration has since become a popular poster, affixed to bike-shop bulletin boards and wannabe road racers’ walls.

Click through to see the label, which I think is perfectly delightful. Maybe Free the Hops will take on prudishness next?

A breathalyzer just to buy wine

The Pennsylvania government controls not just liquor sales but wine sales too, causing all kinds of inconvenience to consumers. The state is currently trying out a novel approach to making things easier:

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board here will test a self-service, wine-selling kiosk, to see if it can effectively prevent the sale of wine to underage consumers and those who are intoxicated. [...]

To purchase wine from the kiosk, a consumer would first insert her driver’s license for age and identity verification. The license barcode will be read, and the picture on the license will be matched with a video image of the consumer standing before the kiosk, Nick Hays, spokesman for the PLCB, told SN.

“The match is confirmed by Liquor Control Board employees, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, monitoring the transaction from a remote center,” he said.

Sobriety is confirmed by a built in breath sensor. It requires no contact and provides an instant blood-alcohol reading, said Hays. PLCB representatives can lock out purchases by consumers who are intoxicated. Transactions can only be completed with credit card payments.

Hey, that’s really smart! Or they could just, you know, privatize the market and let adults sell wine to each other. But that’s crazy talk.

A perfect Oregon day

The rain in Portland can be a bit much today sometimes, but every once in a while we get a perfect winter day with cool weather, mist, and Sun. Today was one of those days, so wine blogger A.A., a few friends, and I ventured out west to sip pinot noir and take in the beautiful scenery:

photo.jpg

(There’s actually a second rainbow there, but it’s hard to see in the iPhone photo.)

There are enough wineries to the southwest of Portland that one can drive out without a particular destination in mind. We visited three today, Torri Mor standing out as my favorite for both the setting and the wine. A.A. has a longer write-up here.

Spirited stigma

Now that I’m off employer-provided health insurance I’ve had to apply for individual coverage. The application understandably asks if I consume alcohol. Weirdly, it also asks what kind of alcohol: beer, wine, or liquor. I don’t know how to answer that. How many people who drink limit themselves to just one category? Oddly enough, as I was completing the application I was experimenting with a cocktail made with spirits and beer; even at that very moment I couldn’t answer the question accurately.

A more interesting question is why they were asking that. The health benefits of moderate wine consumption are well known, but they appear to accrue equally from consuming beer and liquor, and the application specifically notes the equivalence among 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1 ounce of liquor. I suspect that the question might be a kind of profiling, reflecting an assumption that people who admit to predominately drinking liquor are more likely to have problems with excessive drinking. Statistically, this might be true, but it doesn’t apply in my case. So I answered beer on the form, given that I enjoy it about as often as I do harder spirits.

Is there some other reason for the question of which I’m unaware?

Drinks links

Long-time readers know about Dublin Dr Pepper, the only version of the drink still made with sugar cane. Tariffs and corn subsidies drove the switch to high-fructose corn syrup in the 1970s. Unfortunately the Dublin plant has just a tiny distribution plant, making it a rarity outside of northern Texas. My friend Chad Wilcox introduced me to it a few years ago, and it definitely has a better taste. Chad notes that Dr Pepper week is coming up in Dublin, leading to this lengthy piece in the Dallas Observer.

In other drinks news, the Belgian company InBev is bidding for American brewery Anheuser-Busch. I can’t imagine how letting A-B getting taken over by Belgians could possibly make the company’s brews any worse, but nostalgic Americans are up in arms — including Missouri governor Matt Blunt, who’s looking for ways to legally block the deal.

It’s a big week for raw milk coverage, with stories this week from Marketplace and the Associated Press.

And finally, these seven deadly sins wine glasses spotted by BoingBoing are fantastic. Just don’t be the guy at the party who gets stuck with the envy stem.