The Nomacorc Revolution, Part 1

Wines in BC are sealed with a multitude of closures including natural corks, synthetic corks, and screw tops. There are a few other products out there with exotic closures but the majority are going to be sealed with one of those three types. This is a topic that really grabbed my attention when I read George M. Taber’s book “To Cork or Not to Cork” some years ago and I highly recommend reading it if you are at all interested in wine (which I know you are because you are reading this.) So when I was invited to tour the Nomacorc facility earlier this year, I jumped at the chance to head to southern US and, I had thought, warmer weather.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Nomacorc manufactures synthetic corks through a process called co-extrusion. Simply put, the inner and outer parts of the cork contain different combinations of plastic polymers so that the inside of the cork looks like foam while the outside looks smooth. It’s a off-shoot of another company that produces other soft plastic items such as pool noodles among other things. (FYI – I’m a big fan of pool noodles and was secretly hoping to see this part of the business but unfortunately, no luck. I will remain on alert for other opportunities however…)

First, a disclaimer: Nomacorc very generously payed for my trip to visit them in North Carolina in February. Yes, it was a wine and dine kind of thing but it was a fabulous chance for me to learn about something new and because I’m studying for my WSET diploma right now, I was eager to learn what I could. In fact, I think it’s something that most wine lovers are in the dark about and that people in the industry are really only starting to understand now that there is more scientific data to back up some of the early claims about closures for wine bottles.

20140522-222754-80874934.jpgSecond, another disclaimer: I hate plastic. I have always associated ‘plastic’ with ‘cheap’. Like a lot of people in my generation, I grew up surrounded by plastic toys, ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging, and general overuse of plastic “things” simply because they are cheaper to produce. I believe that the same items made of other materials were far more durable. To me, plastic signifies a race to the bottom. How cheaply can we make something so that we can sell it for less and make the most money in our big-box or dollar store?

Third, yet another disclaimer: I am not a scientist and therefore cannot claim that anything I write here is completely factual and devoid of my own opinion. I’m a wine blogger and that’s just not how we roll. If you are looking for that, I urge you to head over to my friend Becca’s blog, The Academic Wino.

Suffice it to say that with all that going into this trip, Nomacorc had to do more than a good sales pitch to get me not to cringe whenever I pulled a plastic cork out of a bottle of wine. I, like many people, saw plastic corks as cheap. I’ve fought with those brightly coloured, moulded plastic plugs for more time than it should take anyone to open a bottle of anything, only to surrender and push the cork down into the neck of the bottle. It may not have affected my enjoyment of the wine on that evening, I certainly avoided purchasing that same wine, or the other wines they produced, again.

My prior professional experiences with plastic corks were not altogether positive either. This occurred at a winery where I used to work and it involved a late harvest wine sealed with a Nomacorc. The cork would easily be pulled out about a half inch and then simply release itself without so much as a “pop” of even a “fft”. They sealed fine and I don’t recall any of them leaking at all but customers would often notice the lack of “pop”. Many staff members actually used to turn away from the tasting bar while they opened them. The newly pulled corks were tapered slightly and conformed to the shape of the bottle. The neck of the bottle looked like it was narrower than the opening at the top. Perhaps the quality of the bottle was not as high as I think most bottle necks are supposed to be parrallel, but I could be wrong.

So perhaps the Nomacorc is not really compatible with the design tolerances of the bottle used for that particular late harvest. But the negative image of the ‘synthetic’ cork persists and if I, as a wine professional, can’t be enthusiastic about a cork closure (and not show the wine being opening out of embarrassment) then my attitudes about it are going to influence the customer’s attitudes as well, even unintentionally.

20140425-194623.jpgBradley Cooper, winemaker at Township 7 in Naramata, BC, has been using Nomacorc products for part of their portfolio prior to his arrival for the 2005 vintage. They seal bottles of their quick-to-market whites and their Syrah and Chardonnay with Nomacorc Select 300’s. Mr. Cooper has received only limited negative responses to the use of the synthetic closures but stresses that any information like that is anecdotal and not empirical. Even still, he mentions that in general customers who spend over $30 / bottle expect a natural cork closure. Two of Township 7’s premium wines, a Chardonnay and a Syrah, have Nomacorc closures and I have enjoyed both of those wines frequently in the past although I don’t recall if I was shocked or put out by either of them having a synthetic closure.

So what is so special about Nomacorc’s closures and why would they bring me across the continent to visit the snowy metropolis of Raleigh, North Carolina in February? And did they change my mind about ‘synthetics’?

It all has to do with “oxygen management” and I see it as the final step for winemakers to control the quality and longevity of a wine after it has been bottled. This is revolutionary in my opinion and represents the last real frontier in control of product from start to finish.

To illustrate, I am forced to use highly romantic imagery. Please do not avert your gaze. That scene on the porch in “Sideways” where Maya talks about what she likes about wine (ending with the line how it “tastes so f^%king good” is all about that romantic unpredictability. The more adventurous wine lovers relish that idea of uncorking a new experience, even with a wine that they may have tried before. When you buy a case of wine and drink it over 5 years, the wines are going to be different and some people love that. It makes it special, unpredictable, and unique – symbolically human, in a way. When you tasted it at the winery, it started out as something that appealed to you so you bought a case. Over the next x-number of years it may change and evolve into something that will take you on a journey with different aromas, flavours, and textures. It can be quite exciting and that’s part of what I really like about wine.

20140610-172517.jpgThat’s what wine has traditionally been – different from bottle to bottle. Try two bottles of the same wine and it’s likely to taste a little different. There are so many variables that can affect a bottle of wine that it’s amazing anyone drinks it at all. A bottle of whisky is going to be a bottle of whisky no matter where and when it’s opened. Same with cola, or juice, or ‘fruit drink’ of your choice. Wine is simply not as predictable as those products.

Those romantic differences and variations between bottles are caused by small amounts of oxygen getting into the wine through the cork. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – that’s how wines age naturally. But it can be unpredictable and go too far causing oxygen-related faults (like having a Merlot that smells like raisins and prunes instead of fresh plums and berries).

So let’s take out the oxygen altogether by using a screw top. Seal ‘er up! That’ll solve it. The traditional wine media have been mysteriously unified and vocal about their support for the screw top for over a decade – it must be the answer.

Well, unfortunately no. Sealing oxygen out of the bottle only seems to produce different kinds of faults in wines that are aged. Screw cap manufacturers have figured out that this is bad and are now trying to find ways of allowing oxygen into the bottle with a screw cap. And oddly, screw caps are delicate since the only part that actually seals the bottle is a tiny little strip around the cap itself, which can easily be damaged via mishandling by any of the many people that bring your wines to the store. I’ve worked at wineries that are extra careful about stacking pallets of screw top-closed wines too high in the warehouse. I’ve also seen my share of dented tops. (Screw caps are another debate that I’ll leave for later…)

Nomacorc thinks they have the answer to all of those problems – wine faults caused by oxygen and durability – using their synthetic corks.

So, did they convince me?

(…To be continued…)