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Sunday, Jun. 29, 2008

Taming of the screw: Wine cork maker comes to Columbia Valley

A Connecticut-based company is arriving in Kennewick, Wash., with a message for local wineries: "Put a cork in it!"

CorkTec plans to tap into the region's growing wine industry by offering winemakers a new supply of locally made natural cork stoppers.

The company recently signed a three-year lease on a 4,000-square-foot facility in the Port of Kennewick's Oak Street Industrial Park.

And it'll be starting where another firm left off.

CorkTec will use the equipment left behind by Corticas Janosa, a Portuguese wine cork company that leased the port facility in 2005 but abruptly halted production about a year later, said Dan Cryer, the port's director of operations.

Over the years, the port turned down offers to sell the machinery it seized after Corticas Janosa defaulted on lease payments, Cryer said.

The idea was to find a manufacturer who could use the equipment, help create jobs and promote economic development, he said.

Starting in the fall, CorkTec plans to begin making about 1.5 million to 2 million corks every month, said Alan Gnann, president of CorkTec's parent company, EdgeWater International.

And as the first regional wine cork maker outside Napa Valley in California, the company's manufacturing and distribution center in Kennewick should help lower delivery costs paid by winemakers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and even California.

Gnann said the 3-year-old company expects to hire up to a dozen employees for production, quality control, sales and customer service.

The company will rely on its superior quality and established business relationships with winemakers, Gnann said.

CorkTec will offer many grades of natural and agglomerated corks, getting its raw materials from Portugal, where trees produce about half of the world's cork.

Gnann said most wineries prefer using corks rather than other types of stoppers because they're more elegant, they allow the right amount of air inside the bottle to help age the wine and they are easy to put in and get out of the bottle.

But critics say cork can taint wine with trichloroanisole, or TCA, a chemical compound that produces a musty, cardboard smell when it reacts with cork mold.

And that's why many winemakers are switching to synthetic corks, screw caps and glass stoppers to seal their wines instead.

There can be potential issues with any kind of stopper, said Rob Griffin, winemaker and co-owner of Richland's Barnard Griffin Winery, which produces about 70,000 cases annually.

"Cork is a forgiving closure," said Griffin, who's used cork to seal wine bottles for about 30 years.

In the last eight years, the Portuguese cork industry has made tremendous improvements in cork processing to take care of the taint problem, he said.

Synthetic closures made of plastic sometimes don't seal well, potentially letting too much air inside the bottle, harming aromas and taste, Griffin said.

And many consumers have a hard time pulling synthetic stoppers out of wine bottles and resealing the bottle.

Prosser's Hogue Cellars experimented with synthetic closures in the mid-90s, but realized they had a problem, said Co Dinn, Hogue's director of winemaking.

In 2004, the company switched to metal caps for 75 percent to 80 percent of its wine, after a four-year study showed screw caps kept wine fresh for longer periods.

Hogue, which bottles about 600,000 cases annually, invested in special bottles and bottling equipment. The investment has paid off as sales have continued to grow, Dinn said.

Earlier this month, British wine magazine Decanter declared the screw cap to be the best closure for wines. And Griffin said if he had the space at his winery, he might consider having a screw cap bottling system also.

Gnann said most small and medium wineries can't afford the startup cost of a new screw cap bottling system.

"The demand for screw caps has topped out," he said. And though he admitted metal stoppers can prevent cork taint, he said TCA can emerge elsewhere in the wine making process.

About 80 percent of the world's wine bottles still are corked.

Hogue uses natural cork for its reserve or upper-tier wine, Dinn said. It's easier to find small quantities of high quality wine cork.

He said cork stoppers have become better in the face of competition from plastic and metal.

Kari Leitch, communications director for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said most wines produced by her company are bottled nearly exclusively with corks. "Cork has the most merit for what we're doing," she said.

But Ste. Michelle, which ranks among the top 10 premium wine companies in America and sells more than 30 million bottles of wine annually, has used on a limited basis Stelvin, a patented screw cap technology, at its Erath Winery in Oregon for pinot noir.

Corks cost about 10 cents to 90 cents each, and metal tops generally cost about 11 cents to 12 cents.

Griffin said choosing a particular closure often is a winemaker's personal preference.

"There are no quick and easy answers," he said.