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More Wine Stopped Up by Plastic

March 8, 2000

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ A summer night. A romantic dinner at home. A bottle of wine.

John Norris thought it would be perfection.

He opened the bottle with a flourish and inspected the corkscrew. Impaled on the end was a ``cork″ made entirely of plastic. The mood was gone.

``It looks like a toy,″ Norris said, recalling his surprise. ``It doesn’t belong in a bottle of wine.″

More and more synthetic corks are being yanked from wine bottles these days. Proponents claim they are superior to natural corks, while critics mourn a loss of romance and tradition.

Squishy squeaks and scrutinizing sniffs have accompanied bottle openings for centuries, and some wine drinkers find popping plastic a downer on a good bottle of wine.

``You almost equate it to twist-off,″ said Eric Pankonin, a wine drinker who doesn’t like his fermented grape juice packaged like regular grape juice.

Cork is still king, no contest. Oaks growing in Portugal and elsewhere are still the source for almost 13 billion stoppers a year, according to the industry-funded Natural Cork Quality Council.

Alternate corks _ made of plastic or composite materials _ account for a sliver of the market, but have been making headway in the world of red, white and rose.

Virtually every major winery has experimented with synthetic corks, said Eileen Fredrikson of the San Francisco-based wine industry consulting firm Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates.

Synthetic models can look like the real thing, with a tough but squeezable plastic skin. Others appear unapologetically synthetic, in vibrant shades of red and blue and yellow.

``Our business is definitely increasing,″ said Brooke Hilton of SupremeCorq, a leading synthetic cork maker in business since 1992. The Seattle-area company does not release sales figures, but Hilton said the biggest growth markets are in Europe.

The theory is that plastic stoppers battle the plague of ``corked″ wine _ vino that goes bad because a damaged cork has allowed the wine to spoil. ``Corked″ bottles can smell like a damp cellar or moldy mushroom.

``Sure, a plastic cork may seem tacky to some people, but you have virtually no chance of getting skunky, corked wine,″ Jeff Jetton of Nashville, Tenn., wrote during a recent online discussion.

``The only advantage a real cork has is that it makes the purchaser of the wine feel like they’ve gotten something fancy,″ he said.

Fredrikson’s research found less resistance to synthetic corks among high-end consumers, a group more likely to have suffered through buying a $100 bottle of musty wine. Grumbling was more likely among novices buying inexpensive bottles, she said.

With that consumer resistance _ and without a significant price difference for plastic _ wineries have little incentive to make the switch, she said.

``Slowly, there has been greater acceptance,″ Fredrikson said. ``But I haven’t seen a breakthrough.″

Synthetic corks seem most popular among wineries that eschew wine’s hidebound image. For instance, Bully Hill Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes region uses synthetic stoppers almost exclusively, national sales manager Andy Toth said. The corks _ printed with slogans like ``Wine With Love″ _ complement brightly painted bottles that underscore Bully Hill’s funky image.

Others wineries, like Ingleside Plantation Winery in Oak Grove, Va., have been merely experimenting with plastic and composition corks. Ingleside’s Christine Koontz said some customers are perplexed by them, but the three-year experiment has mostly been a success.

Of course, Koontz also recalled the time her waiter appeared flummoxed over whether to offer her the plastic cork to be sniffed: ``He just sort of shrugged his shoulders and presented it to me.″

___

On The Net:

The Natural Cork Quality Council: http://www.corkqc.com

SupremeCorq: http://www.supremecorq.com

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