Corked (Part 1)

Josh Jensen is a legend of California winemaking.  The hero of the compelling and beautifully written biography The Heartbreak Grape, Mr. Jensen is to pinot noir what Russell Crowe is to movies - the consummate actor's actor, wildly talented, driven, focused, and at the top of his game.  Outspoken and opinionated, Mr. Jensen is also portrayed as a methodical, diligent perfectionist, a man passionately dedicated to his craft, which happens to be the near obsessive quest to create perfect pinot noir.  His Calera vines are the only commercial flora growing in the lonely, desolate Mt. Harlan AVA, struggling alone in dry, limestone soil that closely mirrors the "terroir" of Burgundy's most illustrious vineyards.  Informed by a traditional, "Burgundian" sensibility, Mr. Jensen is a central character in the urban legends of suitcase clones, the shady and surreptitious importation of trophied French cuttings to California soil.  And so it was with great surprise and amusement that I recently unwound the foil on a bottle of his 2006 Cuvee Pinot Noir and discovered the bottle sealed by an aesthetic, nifty, and certainly avant garde glass Vino-Seal.  This is the first time I'd seen one in actual use, more impressively on a bottle of California pinot noir.  Even more curious were the detailed enumerations decorating the back label: "32,868 btls Vino-Seal glass closure, 3000 btls Cork finish."  Since the label listed the winery's phone number, I decided to call. A lovely woman named Dora answered the phone and my preliminary questions, but she deferred me to Mr. Jensen himself when I asked about the 10:1 ratio of Vino-Seal closures to traditional cork.  "Really?"  I mused with astonished bewilderment.  "He'll actually talk to me?"  As she patched me through to his voice mail, my hands began to shake.  I stuttered and spent a good 45 seconds trying to correctly pronounce the tongue twister "Heartbreak Grape."  I felt like a giddy preteen backstage at a Jonas Brother's concert.  My six degrees of separation from viticultural stardom had commenced.

The Great Cork Debate ("GCD") is not new to winemaking.  In fact, global acceptance that natural cork is an imperfect oxygen barrier sealant has sparked a proliferation of closure alternatives, some good and others discarded in the lab.  Already you're intimate with wines closed by screw tops or synthetic ("fake") cork closures, maybe even really expensive bottles.  Perhaps 8 years ago, I was flabbergasted to discover a bottle of PlumpJack Cabernet sealed with a screw top cap, a topper I'd predominantly associated with cheap boxes of Franzia.  But the tides are turning, friends.

Harvested from trees in Portugal and Spain, cork bark is stripped, seasoned, boiled, hand sorted, and cut into strips.  Finished corks are punched out and mechanically sorted into uniform grades.  This natural cork is an amazing substance.  Filled with billions of hexagonal, gas-filled cells per cubic inch, cork is pliable, compressible, buoyant, and hearty enough to withstand the obscene pressures holding a sealed bottle of bubbly at bay.  Ever organic, cork can expand or contract to maintain tight contact with the variable irregularities of a wine bottle's neck.  But alas, it also permits a slow, steady seeping of oxygen into the bottle over time.  The change that emanates from such oxygen exposure is known as "oxidation."  Your whites morph from straw colored beauties into murky, amber-colored muck, reduced shadows of their youthful gustatory glory.  Fruity flavors are diminished, and disintegration worsens with time.  When oxidation is extreme, wines are rendered undrinkable.  Regardless of which side on the cork you land, researchers universally agree that the oxygen-barrier capacity of cork fluctuates greatly from bottle to bottle, and variability increases with age.  While one cork perfectly preserves a 19th century Petrus, another permits offensive oxidation after only a few short years.  Unfortunately, we can't distinguish one from the other until the bottle has been opened and the wine oxidized beyond repair.

And then there is the TCA, the acronym for the mold byproduct trichloroanisole.  A topic itself, today I will suffice to say that TCA bestows a yucky, musty, moldy aroma and taste to infected cork-stoppered wines.  It is plausible that if your favorite wine lacks a certain je ne sais quoi and verve from one bottle to the next, you've been the unwitting victim of low level cork taint.  Unfortunately the mold responsible for cork taint is tenacious and obstinate, and once entrenched in winery equipment, it is difficult and expensive to eradicate.

Coming up in part 2 next week:  some cork history and the answer to your burning question - did Josh Jensen return Kerith's call?