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Popping corks for a good cause

October 11, 2018

After the wine bottles pop, their tops are still valuable commodities.

Fairway Wines & Spirits launched two weeks ago an initiative to recycle bottle corks, which enclose most of the vintages sold at its Stamford establishment and other tri-state locations. The program aims to educate customers about wine consumption, while also supporting a Darien nonprofit and economic and ecological sustainability on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’re educating our consumers on the wine side, and we’re doing good for the environment,” Angelo Martelli, Fairway’s director of wines, said in an interview this week at the Stamford store, at 699 Canal St., in the city’s South End. “We want to be at the forefront in education in the wine industry, and we also want our consumers to have a great experience and understand why it is we’re doing these types of events.”

In the Stamford outlet, donation boxes for the corks are stationed at each register and next to the front entrance. Accompanying posters and handouts outline cork’s environmental benefits. Already several hundred stoppers have been dropped off, according to Martelli.

The approximately 3,500 wines sold in the 7,500-square-foot Stamford store create a voluminous supply. At least 85 percent of them use cork exported from Portugal, Martelli estimates.

“Cork is 100 percent natural; there’s nothing synthetic in it,” Martelli said. “It breathes naturally, and it’s very important for wine because wine is an evolving food. It’s evolving in the bottle and just to let a little bit of air in and out, that’s what natural cork does.”

A number of Fairway clients also are enthusiastic about the initiative.

“I think a lot of people aren’t aware that cork can be recycled, so having something in a store with a large footprint helps to spread awareness,” said Anna Lisa Stockwell, a wine and spirits consultant with Opici Family Distributing.

Renewable and reusable resource

The Stamford store’s donated corks will be sent to the Darien Nature Center.

For several years, the nonprofit has been collecting bottle corks, for which it receives small reimbursements from resellers. The material can be repurposed for uses including boards and coasters, clothing, flooring and insulation, and shoes.

The Nature Center expects to earn about $300 this year for a haul of about 30,000 cork pieces. Those proceeds will help defray expenditures for an organization that takes care of about 40 animals.

“People are starting to get into the habit of taking cork to liquor stores,” said Leila Wetmore, the Darien Nature Center’s executive director. “What we want to do is say ‘Not only are you recycling cork, you are also helping the Darien Nature Center at the same time.’”

The Portuguese Cork Association is also supporting the initiative. Portugal is the world’s top cork producer and accounts for the largest share of global cork oak acreage, 34 percent, according to a PCA report.

Portuguese cork oak forests are a “sink” that remove about 4.8 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air, equaling an offset of about 113 grams per cork piece, according to the Forestville, Calif.-based Cork Quality Council.

America represents the largest market for Portuguese cork, with stateside exports in 2015 totaling about $200 million, the PCA study said. In the past few years, an average of about 20 percent of the country’s cork has been sent to the U.S.

“We understand the importance of cork in Portugal, and everybody benefits from us being the stewards of this great sustainability story,” said Carlos De Jesus, the Portuguese Cork Association’s director of communications. “But we don’t think that knowledge can stay just in Portugal. It needs to be spread out as much as possible, and the U.S. is a crucial market.”

Rather than being cut down, cork oak trees’ bark is sheared like a sheep’s wool. The bark grows back and can be harvested every nine years, with the trees capable of living more than 200 years.

Mediterranean cork forests are rich in their biodiversity, home to animals including the endangered Iberian lynx, Iberian imperial eagle, the Barbary deer and a number of species of rare birds.

But increasing use of other types of wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork forests, resulting in their conversion for other uses or even abandonment, the World Wide Fund for Nature cautions on its website.

Martelli said he is well aware of the global impact of American wine connoisseurs’ consumption. He visited a cork forest during a business trip last April to Portugal.

Fairway’s recycling initiative was originally intended to run until America Recycles Day, on Nov. 15, but Martelli plans to extend it to at least the end of the year and then evaluate its status.

“It doesn’t take up much space, and we’re still selling the wine,” Martelli said. “And it’s good education for the consumer.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; Twitter: @paulschott

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