A cork encounter

My latest shipment of Birichino arrived with the usual cast of bottles from California’s hidden vineyards. It’s truly a remarkable project that consistently surprises with experiments and winemaking that finds unique expression. But the thing that really caught my eye was the quarterly missive which included the following coda:


Lastly, a few words are in order regarding our evolving philosophy on closures. We have begun to employ Diamanté’s 10 corks for many wines previously sealed with Stelvin Saran Tin screwcaps. We continue to believe in the virtues of screwcaps. They are convenient. They are consistent. The(y) leave no room for uncertainty as to whether a wine suffers from cork taint. And yet, much as we would like to believe that they have been fully embraced by the wine purchasing public, we have become increasingly aware that this is not the case. And it must be said that aesthetically, screwcap finished wines cannot hold an all-natural, clean-burning beeswax candle to a cork finished wine. We simply do not believe people take our wines – especially given the relatively modest prices – as seriously as they would were hey sealed with a more conventional closure. We are profoundly saddened to observe this phenomenon, though they many hours spent with customers in our Tasting Room, pouring wines – some sealed with corks, some sealed with screwcaps – lead us to this ineluctable conclusion. So while we are willing to be evangelists for screwcaps, we will not be martyrs for them.

We have made the difficult and expensive decision to bottle most of our wines with Diam 10 corks. The closures for Vin Gris and Malvasia will not change, as we do not see them suffering in the marketplace by virtue of their closure…..

Perhaps when Birichino really catches fire and our wines command outrageously higher prices, we will switch back to Stelvins. Until that glorious day…

My initial impression – crazy wine snobs out there just won’t pay the price for the great wines that Birichino makes because they don’t have corks. Which is ridiculous. Right?

Before I ran off in a wild digital rage about how the impression of high class is ruining my wine I had to ask Birichino’s owners Alex Krause and John Locke whether it was really that people weren’t valuing their wines properly or whether there were other factors at play. Alex’s answers were much more nuanced and educated me on the nature and economics of contemporary wine making.


First there’s the quality issue: DIAM corks are made from natural cork treated with beeswax and vegetable oils so it’s a sustainable process which, they claim eliminates cork taint. As Alex noted “if we can address the twin evils of natural cork with a purified, tested, engineered solution that uses natural cork, and, a not insignificant point, looks really nice, why should we persist?”

Value judgements

Then there’s the price and value question. As it turns out this is more of an intangible: I asked whether anyone had refused to buy a wine from them because it didn’t have a traditional cork, here’s what Alex had to say about that:

I cannot say that anyone ever walked into our tasting room and said to us- “I love the wine, but I wont buy it because it’s in stelvin. ”  But I can tell you that, guaranteed, north of $40 retail, for the majority of the populace, one inevitably increases the resistance/reluctance to purchase a bottle, or bring it as a gift if it’s closed in Stelvin.

Plus they are starting to work with a really intriguing Cabernet vineyard which “no way that we were going to put that in a Stelvin closure, and sell it for the premium price it requires somewhere north of $70/bottle.”

Existential questions

I won’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, especially when the whole idea of the perfect isn’t pristine but the idea that really strikes a chord with me is the environmental one. I’d been aware of cork as a sustainable crop but I had’t really considered the environmental impact of Stelvin enclosures. Alex emailed that:

“I think also in the little niche in which we operate as being a winery passionate about old vineyards, and farming practices that don’t harm the earth, native ferments, minimal or even zero So2 bottlings (stay tuned), that there is quite an aesthetic disconnect between a mined aluminium closure (with a larger carbon footprint) and a natural cork with a really nice, high quality tin capsule or wax seal. I know which one photographs better, is evocative of the romance of winegrowing and the mythos of wine culture. I know which one Prince Charles advocates. I think, also , that a certain very important set of gatekeepers in the industry at both the retail and restaurant level whether consciously or not, take a little less seriously a wine closed in Stelvin, and/or fear that selling it to their less-educated clientele will present a bit of a challenge.”

Like most things, there’s nuance and a combination of factors, but the flavor factor hangs over all of this. Traditional cork does have a failure rate, I experience one the other evening with a French wine, that’s part of the deal. I’ve liked Stelvin enclosures so much because they don’t have that failure, they’re easy to open while, say picnicking, and it seemed like they weren’t very wasteful but the environment review above combined with the DIAM neutrality is a compelling argument in favor of that closure, especially for wines are minimally treated as Birichino’s list. If you like natural wines read on:

“Our winemaking, being quite simple and relying on minimal racking and often employing larger vessels puncheons, concrete tanks, also can end up a little bit on the more naturally reductive side of things. That’s where we like it- keep the wines fresh, lock in the more fragile, volatile aromatics so that they can slowly come out of hibernation over years in bottle. But when one combines our approach with Stelvin, for certain varieties in particular and on particularly powerful, rocky soils, it seemed that the dumb period post-bottling was more exaggerated with the Stelvin Sarantin, . We will continue to monitor our experience and have bottled some wines in both closures, but for so many reasons, it seemed the right move to make. “


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