Cork Taint and Box Wine – Is it Possible? Part Two

Image from http://www.narcolepsyinc.com/home/

Image from Narcolepsyinc.com.

During the course of the last fifteen years or so, “Cork Taint” has been given as the reason for “corked” wine.  Alternative closures – Stelvin® screwcaps, artificial corks, Zork, etc. – have been promoted as the panacea to wines allegedly ruined by corks. Box wines have grown in popularity, in large part because they supposedly cannot have a cork taint problem.

As noted in the previous section, all of these are – on a certain level – fallacious. While these are good closures for wines, the reasons promoted have largely been because they are “not cork,” not because they can be regarded simply as alternate closures.  Well, as it turns out, this “not cork” method of promotion may come back to bite them.  Let me explain.

During the past six months I’ve been doing a lot of research on the issue of flawed wines, as I have had a couple of incidents that focused my attention on the topic.  My personal experiences with problematic screwcap closures and box wines were the catalyst to beginning this research and have proven to me that they, too, have their own particular issues. Their advocates will proclaim that there cannot be corked wines under screwcap, which, as it turns out, is not true. Even so, they do have a laundry list of other issues, and that is the topic of this series.

I have done an incredible amount of eye-bleeding, brain-numbing reading of probably every article about corked wines that has ever been posted.  In addition, I have read every research paper, abstract, or report that I could find. The results have been that there are people who mindlessly parrot conventional wisdom and there are those who take the time to thoroughly assess what is happening behind the assumptions and claims. I prefer to count myself in the latter group. On a separate posting will be a bibliography for those who want to check for themselves the information and source materials of my research.  I welcome any and all feedback, positive or negative. However, if any feedback is rife with insults rather than rational, logical discussion of the facts, it will be summarily deleted and ignored.

Now let’s get to the topic, starting with Bag-in-Box wines, also called boxed, bag in box, or box wines.  I will use all terms interchangeably.

We’ve seen them in grocery stores and to a lesser extent, in wine shops.  The quality of the wines in the boxes has increased exponentially, particularly in the last decade or so. A few have garnered awards, which was unthinkable just a few years ago.  So while there is still quite a bit of industrial swill in boxes, there are also really quality wines as well.  However, as you have probably guessed, I have some issues with some of the claims given by box wine advocates.

There are some problems with boxes and it’s not unusual to run into flawed wines (and I mean good wines that are flawed) in a box.  There are several considerations that have to be addressed.

The outside container of a box wine is cardboard.  Sometimes it’s plastic lined or coated, but it’s a type of paper, nevertheless.  In addition, the wine itself has direct contact with the plastic bag, which is a permeable, petrochemical-based material.  If the wine has any decent acid in it, that immediately should be cause for concern. Think leaching polymeric material and endocrine disruptors.

A report from the University of California at Davis in December of 2012 indicated that bag in box wine is extremely vulnerable to temperature changes, more so than glass bottles with any type of closure.

“The way a wine looks, tastes and smells is affected by the way certain wine compounds react with oxygen,” Hopfer said. “Those reactions speed up at higher temperatures, so differences in the way packaging systems manage oxygen in the container become critically important to aging and stability of the wine.”

So what does this have to do with some of the alleged superiority of bag in box as a container for wine?  Oh let me count the ways.

One of the positive features that box wines promote is the idea that they are “green”; that is, their manufacture and shipping are greener than with glass bottles, largely because the weight of glass is more than that of paper and plastic. They are supposedly more green because the lighter weight means that there are lower shipping costs and therefore, fewer greenhouse gas issues.

I refute that claim for the following reasons:

  1. The bag in the bag in box wine is made from a petrochemical-based source and that automatically calls the “green” claim into question.  A wine stored in a plastic bag will leach out some of the (known and unknown) byproducts. Some of which may be toxic to human health. See my above comment about endocrine disruptors.
  2. It is not unusual for there to be rather significant fluctuations in temperature during shipment. The above report from UC Davis shows why this can be more of an issue with boxed wines than with wines in bottle.
  3. Unless the box information specifically indicates that it is manufactured from recycled paper products, it cannot be said to be more “green” if it uses paper from trees felled for the purpose of making paper.
  4. The other parts of the bag in box container – the plastic coating/lining and spigot – are also made from petrochemical based sources.

I have yet to see where a petrochemical product is actually more green than a natural product or a product produced in a sustainable manner.  This is no exception.

Make no mistake. Plastic is not an inert material. It is permeable, can degrade, and can leach out sometimes harmful byproducts in the right set of circumstances.  The “BPA Free” symbol that appears on most plastic items that are used for food and food storage isn’t there because plastic is inert.  It is there because that singular byproduct of plastic was shown to have serious health effects on humans. There is ongoing research to ensure that other elements that are in plastic are singled out and removed from the food chain. Please keep this in mind when I discuss screwcaps and synthetic cork closures in the following posts.

My experience with the flawed box of wine is, apparently, not a one-off incident.  Ongoing research shows that bag in box wines are relatively unprotected and very vulnerable to outside influences which add up to potentially wasted wine. I will agree that the great majority of box wine is not a high-end product and is meant to be drunk now. However, if it is damaged when received by the wine shop or market, then it is already a waste. The level of quality doesn’t matter if it is spoiled and doesn’t meet the expectations of the consumer.

In the following segments of this series, you will see how even box wine and wines closed with screwcaps can be affected with so-called cork taint. And how a major manufacturer of medicine sued to get to the bottom of its own “cork taint” issues. Yeah. Really.

Up Next: Eye-Bleeding Super Wine Wonk Science Geek-out Warning!  The Research Queen™ (me) at her finest.  But it ain’t pretty…

 

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