Cork on the grill

Executives of Amorim & Irmãos SA, Portugal's (and the world's) largest cork producer, answer consumers' questions about cork.

Cork fights back

My report and photos from visits to Amorim, with interviews about the state of the cork industry and its response to the challenge from alternative closures. Summary article now online

Portugal travel/wine reports

Lisbon (Saturday, Dec. 10) Arrival in Lisbon, seeing the sights, pastry in Belem and dinner at a neighborhood eatery in the Bairro Alta.
Síntra and Lisbon (Sunday, Dec. 11) We visit a scenic Portuguese royal palace in a mountain town near Lisbon, get a wine education in a lovable wine bar, and return to Lisbon for a first-rate seafood dinner.
Coruche and Espinho (Monday, Dec. 12). A cork-factory tour and drive through the cork plantations, lunch in the rural Alentejo and dinner on the beach near Porto.
Porto (Tuesday, Dec. 13) A working day of briefings and tours at Amorim's offices, production facilities and labs is followed by an unexpectedly jovial session with the Independent Winegrowers' Association members at one of Portugal's top restaurants, The Bull and Bear.
The Douro Valley (Wednesday, Dec. 14) A drive up the Douro river valley to Port country, where we taste at Quinta de Nova and Quinta Do Crasto and stay at the lovely Burmester Hotel Rural.
Douro Valley and Porto (Thursday, Dec. 15) More new-style Douro reds at Niepoort; then back to Porto for a much more traditional taste of Port with the Symington family; a farewell dinner with friends wraps up the week.

Cork on the grill

I've never been one of the most ardent defenders of the natural cork, and I've rarely been loath to say so.

I get as angry as any other wine enthusiast when I pull the cork from a treasured bottle only to find it irreparably spoiled by the dank, moldy stench of TCA.

And I take a certain perverse pride in having declared the natural cork "a 17th century technology for a 20th century industry" (a comment I made in the 1980s that's no less applicable in 2005), and having taken relatively consistent positions on the problems with cork over a quarter of a century as a wine-and-food journalist.

I wrote "farewell to the cork," predicting its demise within a generation, in the middle '90s, and more recently opined that the metal screwcap will replace natural cork in most commercial wines even more quickly than I had initially thought, perhaps within the next five years.

I believe the natural cork industry is dying, except perhaps as a very specialized niche market, and I don't accept that any modern consumer product should consider a failure rate of 5 percent (or even the 1 to 2 percent tainted corks that some industry experts claim) as an acceptable level of quality control.

In short, even though I've also occasionally spoken with some sentiment about the cork's long tradition, the romance of the corkscrew, and the slight possibility that aging on-cork is a small but still critical variable in the maturation of the most ageworthy wines, I'm no shill for the cork industry.

So it's with mixed emotions that I leave Friday for a trip to Portugal as the guest of Amorim, the largest producer of quality natural corks for the wine industry. I'll spend a week touring the Amorim facilities, visiting the Porguguese cork forests, and, to my great pleasure, dropping in on a few historic Port houses for visits and tasting. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will undertake this trip - and I'm sure will be wined and dined very nicely indeed - at Amorim's expense.

Because this is a break with my usual rule about declining free samples from the industry, I want to disclose it in full, outlining my reasoning and affording readers the opportunity to comment. I decided to accept Amorim's generous offer, conveyed through the good folks at Balzac Communications in Napa, for several reasons (in addition to "I'm going to have a blast") that I thought good and sufficient.

Specifically, the cork issue is in my opinion one of the most important current topics in the world of fine wine, ranking right up there with the globalization and market pressures so deftly sketched in the film Mondovino. Since I've been a voice on the other side for 25 years, it seems only fair to accept the industry's offer to listen to what they have to say. I have been assured that I'll have direct access to Amorim's executives and scientists, and also will be able to talk freely with cork-industry workers and cork-oak growers. Amorim understands that I intend to write candidly about what I see and hear, and that their picking up the tab for the trip may gain access to my ears but not to my voice.

I do intend to write frankly and in-depth about my visit and the things I learn. I'll also make every effort to be fair.