It’s easy to romanticize the past and wish one lived during a “golden age.” But was the past really that good? Fictional character Gil Pender gains insights on this question in Woody Allen’s film, “Midnight in Paris.” Pender takes a trip back in time where he has the revelation that not everything was golden: “These people don’t have antibiotics,” he lamented.
Indeed, technological developments have vastly improved human life, yet we too often take it for granted, never understanding what life was like beforehand.
Consider the impact of innovation on wine. During the 1800s, wine quality in France was “so bad that peasants claimed it took three men to get it down: the one who drank, the one who held him, and the one who made him drink,” notes Dr. Vino blogger Tyler Colman in his book Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink.
Yet today, even consumers with a tight budget can afford a tasty bottle. Wine has improved greatly, notes Colman, thanks in good measure to the development of packaging technology: simply “bottles and corks.”
Cork proved to be a wonderful closure since it prevents oxidation that would spoil the wine, while still allowing a small amount of oxygen to migrate into the bottle, where it aids gradual wine development. And the cork supply is sustainable because Cork Oak trees live about 150 years and can be harvested about once every decade. But cork possesses a major drawback: It can carry and transmit bacteria known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) that eventually spoils wine with a moldy aroma and flavor.
The closure industry has responded with many other options, and each has its merits and challenges. The introduction of screw caps has met much resistance because people don’t like how they look, but screw caps are an excellent closure for fresh and fruity white wines and rosé. Glass closures offer elegance, but they are expensive. Both glass closures and screw caps are not ideal for all wines as they don’t allow air exchange, which is desired for some wines to age well.
There are also synthetic corks, which offer affordability and a cork-like appearance. Yet some critics say they don’t expand and contract at the same rate as the glass bottle, which means wine can leak out, or too much air can get into the bottle making these closures less suitable for age-worthy wine.
Enter DIAM. This southern French company, which also has a facility in Spain that I was invited to visit along with other writers and researchers in 2014, has developed a “technological cork”—a more advanced form of cork that DIAM guarantees completely eliminates TCA. Rather than simply cutting the bark off of trees and punching out the closures from the cork, DIAM grinds up the cork, cleans out all TCA, and presses it back together with an adhesive.
The company also incorporates micro-spheres that precisely control how much air goes in and out of the bottle, which enables DIAM to make several different grades of corks. Some allow more oxygen and some less, so winemakers can select the perfect cork for each type of wine they sell. DIAM guarantees that each cork performs in a consistent fashion, which isn’t possible with raw cork because every cork is different, each letting in different levels of oxygen.
Some wine lovers have embraced this innovation, including Jancis Robinson—one of the world’s most renowned wine experts. Robinson says that DIAM corks do such a great job that wineries should advertise when they use them.
Yet DIAM’s detractors express unwarranted fears about technological cork, and some of DIAM’s competitors have had no problem capitalizing on those worries.
In 2014 the synthetic cork producers reached out to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking whether DIAM and other so-called agglomerated corks should be regulated under the agency’s jurisdiction. Curiously, they were aided by the editor of Wine Industry Insight, who grossly mischaracterized the issue with this explosive and wrong assertion: “Agglomerated cork manufacturers and importers are facing scrutiny from two major federal agencies over health concerns about the plastic used to bind bits of cork glued together. The concern is that chemicals in the binding plastic can leach into wine.”
In reality, there was no such federal scrutiny. The FDA simply replied to the synthetic cork producers that there was no need to regulate because there wasn’t any evidence of migration. More recently, the agency provided official notice that DIAM corks are among the products it lists in the agency’s database of “food contact substances that have been demonstrated to be safe for their intended use.”
Fine winemaker David Ramey dispelled criticisms while detailing the value of DIAM corks in an interview with wine critic Stephen Tanzer in a video on Vinous.com. He has been conducting tests for nearly a decade on his own Chardonnay wines, comparing wines closed with DIAM corks to those closed with “raw” cork. He found that the DIAM corks vastly outperform raw corks when it comes to ensuring consistent quality and development of his fine wines.
Ramey says DIAM closures also do not add any bitter aftertaste in the wines as some critics allege. His finding is not surprising because, as FDA officials have noted, there’s no detectable migration. So there’s essentially no exposure, no corresponding risks, and no possible bad chemical flavors in the wine.
The evolution of wine closures shows that progress often requires change, even if it means letting go of the old ways of doing things. Woody Allen’s character Gil Pender eventually concludes the same thing, first pondering: “Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.” But he then chooses to move forward, making the changes necessary to let go of the past and embrace the present.