Wine Talk

Snooth User: CageyT

Cork advocacy from the ecological science community?

Posted by CageyT, Jun 24, 2011.

The cork vs. screwcap as a wine bottle closure argument/discussion has been done more than once on these pages.  My point here is to encourage some discussion around the merits (or lack-there-of) of arguments in favor of cork as an ethical choice, similar to choosing organic wines, etc.

The journalof the Ecological Society Of America published this article recently:

Mediterranean cork oak savannas require human use to sustain biodiversity and ecosystem services


Miguel N Bugalho1,2*, Maria C Caldeira3, João S Pereira3, James Aronson4,5, and Juli G Pausas6

Mediterranean cork oak savannas, which are found only in southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa, are ecosystems of high socioeconomic and conservation value. Characterized by sparse tree cover and a diversity of understory vegetation – ranging from shrub formations to grasslands – that support high levels of biodiversity, these ecosystems require active management and use by humans to ensure their continued existence. The most important product of these savannas is cork, a non-timber forest product that is periodically harvested without requiring tree felling. Market devaluation of, and lower demand for, cork are causing a decline in management, or even abandonment, of southwestern Europe's cork oak savannas. Subsequent shrub encroachment into the savanna's grassland components reduces biodiversity and degrades the services provided by these ecosystems. In contrast, poverty-driven overuse is degrading cork oak savannas in northwestern Africa. “Payment for ecosystem services” schemes, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and enhancement of carbon stocks (REDD+) programs, could produce novel economic incentives to promote sustainable use and conservation of Mediterranean cork oak savanna ecosystems in both Europe and Africa.

Read More:



So, there are some smart Snoothers (and opinionated ones too!) out there...what are your thoughts on this?

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Reply by dmcker, Jun 25, 2011.

An interesting subject, Cagey, and would like to hear more of the details. Thanks for bringing this link to us.

Having grown up in southern California during a period of rapid change (100 years before was mostly sage and manzanita and lots of other herbs and shrubs with few large trees; then European man introduced fruit tree orchards or truck farms everywhere; then all the apricots and almonds and most of the avocados and lemons and oranges or limabean, lettuce and what-have-you fields, with the eucalyptus and cedar windbreaks between them, were cut down to build houses), almost nobody took stock of the effects on the landscape and ecosystems. I've helped with a few studies in Japan of foresting methodologies (good and bad) and riverine and estuarial practices (basically cementing up too many river banks and introducing far too many dams), aimed at supporting various industries but that led to often disastrous results.

Would be interesting to see just how a certain agricultural system of practices with centuries of tradition would exactly be helping the environment. Anything that can put a stop to laissez faire leave-it-up-to-the-market attitudes before we understand what it is we're actually doing can't be all bad...

Reply by CageyT, Jun 25, 2011.

Thanks Dmcker for your reply.  Your comments re Japan are interesting.  Are you familier with the term Satoyama?




Reply by dmcker, Jun 26, 2011.

Had heard of it but knew few details, Cagey. Thanks for the link.

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jun 26, 2011.


To me there must be plenty of very practical use for cork without using it a means for sealing a wine bottle

Corkboards for pinning up notices

Substitute for floor boards


Reply by GregT, Jun 26, 2011.

Exactly.  It has NOTHING to do with wine and it's not more "ethical" to use cork for wine stoppers than something else. Think about how silly that argument is.  Where does glass come from?  Sand. Where does that come from?  Well, Martin Marrietta hauls it out of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, a small and unique geological artifact from the ice age.  Why?  To do castings, etc.  Sand is pretty available but it's mined from somewhere.  The labels are made from paper and I wonder how many wineries use 100% post-consumer recycled paper and "natural" inks for their labels.

Then we have the issue of capsules.  Are they zinc?  Mined somewhere.  Or are they plastic?  Will be with us through eternity.  And then we're shipping these bottles across vast distances and by the way, there's no natural cork in the US that I'm aware of so it's got to be hauled in from that "natural" forest. Which, by the way, probably grows right next to the "natural" vineyards that planted themselves in nice straight rows after they were invited in by the native flora.

I don't have any trouble with protecting our enviornment - we live in it after all.  But lame and specious arguments don't help the cause.

Reply by Andrew46, Jun 26, 2011.

I have not personally investigated this, but I have seen reports that claim that the carbon and other resource use is much less with cork than with other closures.  If that is true, perhaps that is a stronger argument for cork from an environmental POV.  I too find it hard to blame "declining cork use", if it is real, on the loss of mgmt. of the cork forests.  If they are important, they should be managed. 

Reply by CageyT, Jun 27, 2011.

Nothing to do with wine, eh? Interesting.

I'd say the absence of the use of sand in glass for wine bottles is unlikely to contribute to the loss of biodiversity on beaches.   If that was your point, I agree. But I think the scientists I cited for purposes of discussion were making a different point. 

The question about post-consumer recycled paper and natural inks is more relevant- I'd be interested in knowing who is doing that, as I am sure a small ( but vocal?) number of consumers might also be. 

I agree w Andrew64 that the carbon and resource use issues with fossil-fuel heavy production is also an important point to consider.

Stephen's point is well-taken, though I think the premium for cork as wine closure may be slightly higher than other uses.  In any case, I think the point Stephen makes is important because it places at least some onus on consumer/end-user demand.  One would need to know what percent of global cork production goes to wine industry...anyone?

However "lame & specious" arguments, or in this case simply discussions, regarding consumer purchasing choices and their perceptions about how what they consume has an impact on water quality (organic), biodiversity (organic and potentially other management issues like lables, corks, glass prodcution, etc) are judged to be, there is no denying that so-called "eco-conscious" products, and messaging, are a quickly growing segment in the marketplace.  It is worth studying, worth discussing- I see no reason to dismiss as "not related to wine," when it IS related to wine, wine-consumption, wine production, wine- packaging and production, and wine marketing.


Thanks, all for your comments thus far.  I will continue to study this.

Reply by GregT, Jun 27, 2011.

Cagey - cork is related to wine insofar as it's the common closure, however flawed.  However, part of the post read as follows:

Market devaluation of, and lower demand for, cork are causing a decline in management, or even abandonment, of southwestern Europe's cork oak savannas. Subsequent shrub encroachment into the savanna's grassland components reduces biodiversity and degrades the services provided by these ecosystems.

An ethical choice?  That's somewhat like the petroleum industry claiming that attempts to use less petroleum are bad because their deep water rigs create important shelters for marine life. That too would indeed be a lame and specious argument.

Worldwide consumption of wine for the past four or five years has remained pretty constant so it's interesting that this article claims that there's lower demand for cork. Conveniently, of course, for a "scientific" journal, there are no citations, although as an indication of their attention to detail, they link to an article with a publication date of August 1, 2011, a month or so hence. 

OTOH, let's remember that Portugal produces about 1/2 of the world's cork and Spain about 30 percent, so between them, they put out maybe 80 percent of the world's cork.  Both of them are in dire financial straits these days and they're looking to protect their hometown industries. One of the provinces in Spain did the cork people a favor by making it illegal to use any other closure.  No politics there, just solid enviornmental concerns I'm sure. 

Amorim, a Portuguese company, is the largest cork company in the world as far as I know.  They fund a lot of the "research" and PR for the cork industry and I'd be interested in knowing what their input was in this case. Perhaps nothing - I honestly don't know, but it's almost like their flacks wrote it because they produced the same argument years ago.  I've attended several of their presentations, during which they attack from all sides - it's industrial and at the same time it's ecological, it's cheaper and at the same time it's luxurious, etc. At the same time, they're the leader in finding new uses for cork - they've been pushing cork as a flooring material, for example.


Well, cork is somewhere between 15 and 20 pct of the entire Portugese foreign trade income. It's a big deal to Portugal. 

To answer your question regarding the production that goes into wine - most of it, in terms of dollar volume. Last time I checked, I think wine stoppers were like 30 pct of volume but something like 70 pct by value.  It's a big deal to the Iberian lynx.  It's not an ethical concern when it comes to the wine I buy or sell.


Reply by dmcker, Jun 27, 2011.

Greg, come on now:

"An ethical choice?  That's somewhat like the petroleum industry claiming that attempts to use less petroleum are bad because their deep water rigs create important shelters for marine life. That too would indeed be a lame and specious argument."

Comparing cork harvesting systems to offshore oil drilling? I've lived both in areas where there are a lot of offshore rigs (for many years, including a major spill) and cork trees (on and off over a period of years). Not anywhere near the same. Reeks of argument for the sake of argument with an analogy like that...
Reply by CageyT, Jun 27, 2011.

GregT and dmcker (and anyone else)... I can send you the full article as a pdf if you are interested in it.  The link I included was only to the abstract, and therefore is VERY short (and of course, abstrcats don't usually have citations).  


The article has roughly 50 citations and some very interesting gharts and graphs.  Some exerpts:

Approximately 300 000 tons of cork are harvested annually in the western Mediterranean Basin, 70% of which is transformed into bottle stoppers. Other products include flooring, insulation material (eg for the external fuel tanks of NASA's Space Shuttle program), clothes and accessories, or decorative objects. Globally, cork is the sixth most important non-timber forest product, with an estimated annual export value of US$329 million, while processed cork products generate approximately US$2 billion in annual revenues (Berrahmouni et al. 2007). However, the use of synthetic stoppers and metal screw-caps increases economic competition with traditional cork stoppers and has contributed to world market devaluation of cork (Aronson et al. 2009), with prices declining approximately 30% between 2003 and 2009.

GregT mentions the Iberian lynx.  The piece features pictures of te hlynx and a deer species:

(a) The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), a critically endangered feline, and (b) the North African Barbary deer (Cervus elaphus barbarus), which is the only deer species in North Africa, both inhabit cork oak savannas; (c) shrub species commonly found in these savannas include the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo); (d) Mediterranean grasslands, such as this one in southern Portugal, support a high diversity of species.

In a nutshell:

  • Mediterranean cork oak savannas are ecosystems with high conservation value that are maintained through human use

  • The primary economic incentive for the management of these savannas is cork production, but cork prices have fallen in recent years

  • Cork oak savannas are threatened by disuse and abandonment in southwestern Europe and by overuse in northwestern Africa

  • “Payment for ecosystem services” schemes may create economic incentives that promote the ecological and economic viability of cork oak savannas, and of socioecological systems elsewhere


    I think the reason for a consideration for the ethics of cork in biodiversity terms is implied by GregT's comment that "It's a big deal to the Iberian lynx... It's not an ethical concern when it comes to the wine I buy or sell."

Thanks again, all, for engaging this discussion.

Reply by GregT, Jun 28, 2011.

d - not comparing to offshore drilling, just pointing out that the cork people aren't the only ones who can conceivably make the case that their modifications to the environment are somehow better for the environment.  The people in Portugal and Spain have planted a lot of those trees, so it's not like they're native forests, any more than vineyards are part of the natural landscape.  In fact, the trees in Portugal are specifically planted for their cork producing properties, unlike say, some of the native trees in N. Africa.

They planted a lot of trees, have a big part of their national income tied up in the industry, and want to use any argument they can to make sure people use as much cork as they can produce.

Now that lynx isn't necessarily native to those "forests" that were planted, it's simply taken up residence there.  

From the World Resource Institute: "In fact, the National Cork Quality Council states that due to good management and recent replanting, cork forests are currently expanding. However, it is widely expected that the decreased economic value of cork will increase pressures to exploit other resources from this landscape, resulting in habitat degradation and a long-term decrease in the land’s value."

Even better, the biggest cause of death of that lynx is from being hit by automobiles.  And BTW - most of their habitat is neither in Portugal nor in its cork farms and the places remaining of the natural habitat are protected by law. The main reason for its decline is the decline in its main prey - rabbits, and the main reason for their decline is because some French scientist released myxomytosis to kill the rabbits that ate the veggies in his garden.  That got out of control and ended up killing 95 percent of the rabbits in the Iberian peninsula after it crossed the mountains. 

I can't believe that glass, which is quite all right for the bottle itself, is somehow unethical when also used to close the bottle. And in fact, maybe letting those cork farms go back to nature will INCREASE the biodiversity.  Makes sense, right?  If you clear a prairie and grow wheat, you surely get some animals living there. But if you let it go back to tallgrass prairie, you may get the full compliment of the original animals.

Here's a pic of a natural cork farm.


Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jun 28, 2011.


If the argument has any serious merit, then you should argue that cork should be used to seal all bottles of all fluid

  1. Beer
  2. Spirits
  3. Milk
  4. Medicines
  5. Household cleaning agents
  6. Poisons
  7. You name it ...anything that comes in a bottle

The reality is cork had the wine market sewn up, but like many dominant industries it got lazy and ignored the most important stakeholder in quest for sustainability, the consumer.  The industry ignored many signs the consumer was becoming aware of cork taint and the people started to question a product that created a major spoilage impact in its host.

If the cork industry acted like a responsible and intelligent industry it would have heeded the signs coming from its interface with the consumer - the winemakers, who have almost universally condemned the cork industries totally arrogant attitude in responding to their requests/demands for a taint free product.

To now try and mount an argument that somehow they are the ethical and green option for wine stoppers sounds like an industry that suddenly woke up with one hell of a hangover after a long party and tried to claim they were not responsible for the carnage caused at the party location.

If the cork industry wants its market back it is simple - eliminate 2,4,6 trichloroanisole from every cork made and show its willingness to be part of the solution by admitting it treated us consumers with contempt for a couple of hundred years and agree to compensate us for cost, pain and devastation every time we open a favourite bottle of wine, only to find it ruined by a product that has been carelessly and contemptuously made knowing a % was faulty.

Reply by GregT, Jun 28, 2011.

Stephen - as if by magic, I'm looking at a container or salt right now.  I picked it up in the Languedoc.  It is about 3 inches diameter and it has a cork cover. Well, not entirely. It's a layer of cork over a plastic cover.  I asked the guys in the commercial attaché's office about it, because the rest of the container is made from paper.  They told me it was more biologique to have cork on the outside but as a seal, it was inadequate to keep the moisture out unless it was much thicker, which would have made it more expensive.

Also, let's not forget that not all plastic is made from petroleum - I sell a wine that's biodynamic and they claim (and I hope they're correct) that their plastic stopper is made from vegetable oils. I suppose indirectly it all is, but they don't go through the million year aging process!

Anyhow, Cagey - if we're arguing, please don't take it personally!  It's got nothing to do w my respect for you and I'm sure Stephen feels the same. In fact, if I have some solid evidence, I'm willing to change my mind. It's just that there are two things I care about - the environment and wine, in that order, and I resent the industry's attempt at manipulation. And somehow, the arguments the cork industry was making a few years ago when they were in denial are now showing up in various papers and news columns. They planted a lot of trees and want to keep demand up.  That's completely legit.  They don't need to tell me I'm doing something for the planet by accepting randomly flawed wine.

Reply by CageyT, Jun 28, 2011.

Greg and Stephen,


These are the insights I was hoping for, guys.  Do keep in mind that these are not my arguments: I did not piublish this article.  I did, however, find the article quite intriguing and wanted to share it within this community because I was certain to get well-reasoned arguments (and opinions!). Obviously, you both have made up your minds based on your criteria (much of which has to do with the wine industry, of course) -- I am not an advocate of the cork industry per se, ( I am a ecological anthropologist by training who dabbles on the side in farming in the Finger Lakes) but I am very interested in ways to max out my enjoyment of things like wine while minimizing ecological impact.  I was serious in asking for discussion.  I, like Greg, want to make good choices, and I also resent being manipulated. I am grateful for your engagement.  I have learned from you all.

A well designed glass closure makes a lot of sense.  I guess if the environmental costs were less than plastics (they must be) and comparable to cork, and functionally they were superior, then I'd go with that option.

On the other hand, no matter how poorly it sounds like the cork industry has performed in the past (you both have made some strong points based in experience), if there were an opportunity for them to reinvent themselves, to hold themselves accountable and do so tranparently, to not only be a superior choice in terms of "sustainability" and biodiversity but also as a highest quality closure,  I'd be in to it.  One can't completely throw out nostalgia...

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Jun 28, 2011.

Further to my comments [and I agree with GregT's comments], I read some of the paper with great interest and essentially what it says is that if we humans abandon an agricultural project that we planted for commercial reasons in the first place, then there will be changes in the ecosystems supported by the man made agricultural project.

This hardly creates any ethical dilemma for me at all. 

The Portuguese/Spanish Cork industries planted cork trees for commercial gain, the commercial objectives of the plantations have materially diminished due to an industry failing to manage its own economic sustainability by ignoring consumer preferences.  It is no different to vineyards, apple orchards, or other agricultural or horticultural products that fall from consumer grace.

Maybe the Portuguese should find a new argri pursuit that can generate the export dollars that is badly needed by a national economy that has been chronically mismanaged by both government and business for many years.

It seems to me that the same people who run the cork industry run the Portuguese economy!!!

I have the same level of sympathy for the cork industry as I have for my fellow Australians who decided to make 16.5+% alcohol overextracted shiraz from super ripe grapes because it got them Parker ratings and now can't sell their wine because most of it falls apart after 5 years.

If cork loses to screw cap in the long run it will be the fault of the industry not the consumer and the above article does not provide me with any persuasive evidence to support cork from a bioethical standpoint.

Reply by CageyT, Sep 11, 2011.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 15, 2011.

Late to this topic, but I did notice this campaign about cork and it's role in climate change a while back. (Sequesters carbon dioxide?  Really? Pretty much all plants do, up to a point.)

I'm not going to get heavily into the science, for a lot of reasons.  First, many astute comments made about it already--are we comparing to these areas in their natural state, if they went feral now, or what?  What's the benchmark, wild cork trees, grasses, or what?  Frankly, I don't actually know the data on cork trees, but many trees fix the most CO2 when they are younger.  Also, I'm not a professional in the area, although I have an interest and a fair amount of scientific training. Sooo...

My first response to the ads I saw in the Times was, "They lost the arguments about wine quality and convenience.  This is kind of last ditch."  Sure, they haven't totally lost the quality argument in some people's minds, but this campaign and it also provoked my thinking on the quality argument, and here's a point that cuts against cork on both:  Wine storage currently requires both temperature and humidity control.  Both require some energy.  Eliminate the cork and nothing requires humidity anymore.  So the chances for failure of a system--quality--and the general energy efficiency--environment--both go against cork if you store wine.

But here's my main point:  If you want to do something about global warming, asking for cork is waaaay down the list of things you can do.  Every credible environmental scientist, if asked what the one thing is you can do that will reduce your carbon profile, will tell you, eat a lot less meat, or none at all.  As Michael Pollan (who eats meat! I've seen it! I've even served it to him!) says, "A vegetarian with a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat eater with a Prius."  Recently, the head of Duke University's environmental science department was heard to say, when asked the one thing that you could do, personally, "Eat less meat."  You can substitute range fed meat and get some CO2 savings (at a pretty hefty price) which we do, but, as a rule of thumb, eating less or no meat is the fastest way to reduce your CO2 footprint, bar none.  Not buying wine under cork.  I doubt that's in the top 100 for even a 200 bottle a year household like ours. Somewhere way behind getting rid of one family car or more, downsizing your cars and your house, and lowering the thermostat by a degree and getting a programmable one.

Reply by GregT, Sep 15, 2011.

Way to revive a topic folks!  That You Tube effort is beyond the pale.  Wow. It actually got me PO'd.


Reply by dmcker, Sep 16, 2011.

Fox, so you don't believe in incremental, every-little-bit-helps approaches?  ;-)

And Greg, maybe I see more PR flackery then you, but I don't care to waste anger on this level of thing--though I thought the comparison of the oak forests to the Amazon was a bit thick. Moreover, if we were to get rid of this level of PR bullpuckey, think how many jobs would be lost up and down all sorts of vertical sectors.... ;-)

Reply by Richard Foxall, Sep 16, 2011.

D: I believe in doing everything you can, but the amount of energy they're wasting on this is pretty phenomenal.  And I'm not at all convinced of the argument they are making.  I side with GregT that these kinds of campaigns detract from the bigger arguments.  But, no, I've had to respond to arguments that I'm engaging in casuistry  before, and, yes, I saw the winking smiley, so I know yours isn't serious. I like your argument for job creation.  Of course, the best thing for the GDP is always a non-fatal car accident, so it's all dependent on the yardstick.

Nonetheless, just for the record, and meant in a spirit of levity:  I live in a house under 1000 sq. ft. (I know, huge by Tokyo standards, but I live in the US), and my family of four has one car that we drive less than 10k miles a year.  I didn't own a car at all until I was 32. We use airplanes more than we should, I admit, but that's largely a function of my wife's work and members of her family living on the East Coast--I can take BART to see my family.  We are locavores mostly, although my trends in wine, thanks to WineBuddy#1 and my fellow Snoothers are heading in the wrong direction if the goal is to reduce shipment.  Being a locavore of sorts in the Bay Area isn't really a sacrifice and we do eat bananas and other tropical things, and tomatoes out of season.  We eat meat, but it's all range raised (humanely treated, leash-walked, half-caf, half-decaf) and we do so sparingly. Both my wife and I spent at least ten years as vegetarians.  If I thought growing cork trees would make a difference, I'd do them one better and plant one in my (tiny, drought resistant) yard. 

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