Closure wars, culture wars

As we’re all painfully aware, it’s the style these days for politicians to demonize their opponents, especially when they have nothing much to say themselves.

Really, though, the only thing new is the choice of words.  When I worked for an environmental advocacy organization, I was amazed at how seldom I read or heard the word “environmentalist” from someone in the chemical, automobile, or electric power industry without the word “crazy” in front of it.  And that was on a good day, when no one was sitting in old-growth trees to prevent them from being cut down.

When I made the switch to wine importing, I figured things would be more civil.  It’s wine, after all!  No unhappy people in the wine business.  People who make wine love making it, and very few people drink it because they have to.  Everybody wins, right?

Not really.  As more and more wine hits the market each year, the focus in the phrase wine business shifts perceptibly from “wine” to “business,” with all the tools of persuasion being brought to bear.

The business end was always there in sales and distribution, complete with competition and unpleasantness.  You can see it today in the state-by-state debates over the three-tier system of wine sales and direct-to-consumer shipping, which are pretty much just as nasty as my enviro work used to get sometimes.

Even though we didn't sit in trees during my enviro activist years, my colleagues and I were often called "crazy," or worse.

Competition between individual wines themselves, though, was largely a matter of snob appeal, as with any not-always-necessary, sometimes expensive luxury item that depends inordinately on the individual taste of the consumer.

Much of that hasn’t changed.  Take the Old World vs. New World wine rivalry, for example, even when it’s couched as grizzled, out-of-touch traditionalists vs. visionary upstarts full of new ideas.  Although it sometimes veers dangerously close to name-calling, it’s still about individual taste.

The same with what I’ll call the “do-gooder” approach to wine, particularly sustainability.  Not that I question the sincerity of winery owners in wanting to do right by the planet or anything.  But implicit in all the talk of sustainability at wineries is that the competition is somehow less socially conscious and you, the informed, enlightened consumer will of course want to do the right thing.  Nothing wrong with that – I made a pretty good living for 15 years appealing to people’s better natures.

But the gloves are now coming off by implying that the competition isn’t just unenlightened, but actually harming the customer.   Over the past couple of years, proponents of biodynamic wine agriculture and production have begun to invite us to believe that their wines are better not only in taste but better for you as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post, no one has shown that biodynamics makes better wines.

Although some proponents of biodynamics imply that conventionally produced wines are less healthy, there's no evidence to show it.

Likewise, there’s no study out there showing that conventionally-produced wines are worse for your health than biodynamic wines.  It couldn’t be done.  We’re exposed to so many chemicals from so many sources that it would be impossible to isolate wine as the culprit for any of them.

Then last month I sat through a presentation from a cork advocate who implied that if we drink wine from bottles with screw caps or plastic closures we’ll be setting ourselves up to get cancer.

Those weren’t his exact words, of course.  But make no mistake about it, that’s what he wanted us to take away.  It was the last day of the Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Charlottesville, VA, and there were a bunch of 5-minute presentations.  As I said in my last post, a lot of them were done by conference sponsors, and most of them were ads directed at a more-or-less captive audience.  Not interesting, but not offensive either.

Except for the one by Patrick Spencer, Director of Cork Forest Conservation Alliance.  He began his presentation innocuously enough by dispelling myths about cork and cork production.  But then he started talking about plastic stoppers and screw caps, which also contain plastic, and set this trail for us to follow:

  1. Plastics leach chemicals, some of which are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), when they’re in contact with liquids;
  2. EDCs have shown up in wine that was stored in bottles with screw tops but not in cork; and
  3. EDCs are a “leading culprit in breast and colon cancer in the west.”

As some of you know, I spent most of my working life on toxic chemical issues, including EDCs.  EDCs mimic hormones in humans and animals and can cause adverse health effects in very small doses.  I firmly believe we should all limit our exposure to these chemicals.  But I couldn’t swallow this line of reasoning.  I asked Mr. Spencer to clarify his remarks, and given his responses, concluded that the answer he wanted us to reach can’t be supported.  The problem is that, unlike the biodynamics sniping, there’s just enough real information there to make you think there might be something to it until you examine it all.

It’s important to note that Cork Forest Conservation Alliance’s website doesn’t mention anything about cancer as Mr. Spencer did in his presentation – although he acknowledged the content of his presentation in an e-mail to me later.  But the conference was explicitly for people who write about wine and wine issues, so he had to expect that anything he said would be repeated.

I should also say that I have no side to take in this discussion.  Of the 80 or so wines imported by first vine, only one comes in a screw-top bottle, and two or three others have plastic stoppers.

Let’s take the points in the order they were made:

1)      There is no doubt that plastic containers and closures can leach chemicals into liquids and foods touching them.  Some plastics contain EDCs, and these chemicals can end up leaching into the foods we consume.  Polycarbonate baby bottles, for example, contain the EDC Bisphenol-A, and Bisphenol-A was measured in formula and other liquids given to infants in polycarbonate bottles.  Definitely not a good thing.  But do wine closures leach EDCs?

Mr. Spencer directed me to an Environmental Health Perspectives article that’s pretty damning about plastics and leaching.  But the article doesn’t mention wine closures, which Mr. Spencer acknowledged when I asked about it.  As far as I know, there hasn’t been a study of chemicals leaching into wine from plastic closures.

How likely is it?  Alcohol content, high temperature, acidity, and longer contact times are keys to greater leaching of chemicals from plastic.  Obviously, wine contains alcohol.  Heat isn’t an issue, because it would kill the wine.  Acidity may be an issue for some white wines.  As for contact time, in my experience bottles with plastic closures get stored standing upright and not on their sides like with cork. Cork has to be kept wet to seal the bottle, so it has to be touching the wine.  That’s not an issue for plastic closures, and upright packaging takes up less room, so it’s more commonly used.  So there are factors that could lead both to more and less leaching.  We won’t know how much until studies are done under normal use conditions, as has been done with polycarbonate baby bottles.

2)      I asked Mr. Spencer for a specific reference to wines containing EDCs that leached from plastic stoppers.  He sent me the title of a research paper and his paraphrase of its contents:  chemicals that look similar in analytical profile to substances that might be EDCs had been measured in wine stored in screw-top bottles, but not in bottles with natural cork.  Unfortunately, the study he directed me to says no such thing.  My resourceful husband, the librarian, found it for me, and it’s a literature survey of an analytical method that could potentially be used to measure EDCs in wine – but contains no indication that it actually had been done, even in the references.*

As I mentioned above, it’s possible that there could be EDCs in wine from plastic stoppers if they contain those chemicals.  It’s also possible that there are some naturally-occurring EDCs in wine, as there are in soy products, or that they have residue from previous pesticide use.  I don’t know the answer, and I haven’t found it here.

We've learned that polycarbonate baby bottles leach Bisphenol-A into liquids inside the bottles. Bisphenol-A is an endocrine disrupting chemical that can have effects on the reproductive system. But what about plastic wine closures?

3)      This is a hot-button issue.  We live in a world with a lot of stuff out there.  Although scientists have been aware of the potential for chemicals to act like hormones, particularly estrogen, since the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1960s and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, along with birth defects related to DES that we started to pay attention.  Over the last 15 years we’ve learned that female rats exposed to very small amounts of Bisphenol-A during pregnancy can give birth to offspring with reproductive abnormalities.  And there doesn’t seem to be a minimum dose level that won’t cause problems, or at least one hasn’t been found yet.

But even with all of this, I haven’t been able to find a credible source to back up Mr. Spencer’s contention that EDCs are a “leading cause” of breast and colon cancer.   Mr. Spencer insists they’re out there, but doesn’t “have the time or inclination to do [my] research for [me].”  In general, researchers acknowledge that there is some risk of cancer from everyday environmental exposure.  But there’s not yet enough evidence for them to be considered a “leading culprit” with sufficient assurance.

The Silent Spring Institute, which has done the most comprehensive reviews of studies of environmental causes of breast cancer, won’t say it either.  What they say is that “chemical exposures during critical periods of development may influence breast growth, ability to breastfeed, and cancer risk.”  These chemicals include EDCs, but researchers stress that the critical exposure periods are during fetal breast gland development, puberty, and the later stage of pregnancy when a woman begins to produce breast milk.  Scary enough, to be sure, but let’s be honest:  none of these women will be drinking wine routinely.

I asked Mr. Spencer to comment on what I had found, and this was his response:

“Though the plastic closure doesn’t contain [Bisphenol-A], how long will it be before science discovers the next killer chemical in the “safe” plastics. Remember, lead paint, asbestos, formaldehyde insulation, DDT, the list is too long, unfortunately for our planet.

“… I stand by my statements, until I am supplied with a peer reviewed study that shows conclusively that plastics are not leaching EDCs into wines, I will continue to warn the public of the potential deleterious effects of plastic closures.”

Unfortunately, our chemical regulatory system rewards ignorance on the part of manufacturers and forces us to learn about harmful consequences after products are in use.  This unfairly shifts the burden to the consumer rather than industry.  We may indeed learn that there are problems we never anticipated, as has happened so often in the past.  It’s fair to connect the dots with enough evidence.  But we can’t link plastic wine closures and screw tops with cancer in the here and now.   While Mr. Spencer doesn’t say the words “screw-top wine will give you cancer,” it’s clear that he has no problem with leading you there and your thinking it.

If Mr. Spencer had said that we don’t know about wine closures specifically, but we know that plastics can leach EDCs, and these are things we want to avoid if we can so that’s another reason to stick to cork, that would have been fine with me.  As an enviro myself, that’s the way I try to live.

As Mr. Spencer said in a blog post after the conference, he was happy to have the opportunity to meet with more than 300 bloggers to get the word out about cork.  Too bad the words he left us with were simply scare tactics that he can’t back up.

* This paper isn’t available online, but you can request it from your local public library:   Frank Davis and Pat Sandra, “Stir Bar Sorptive Extraction for Trace Analysis.”  Journal of Chromatography A, 1152 (2007), pp. 54-69.


Cafe Heaven in Provincetown, MA. Flickr photo by Bespacious.

There’s no way to segue easily into a recipe after all that, although we’re all probably hungry by now.   Here’s my version of a dish Cy and I had for breakfast at Café Heaven in Provincetown, MA last week:  Lobster Hash Browns.  They were served with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce on top.  Really excellent, although I don’t think it needs hollandaise, so I’d make it at home topped with fried eggs and a splash of lemon juice.

Most recipes for New England-style lobster hash call for boiled, coarsely mashed potatoes mixed with sautéed onions and peppers and cooked lobster, formed into patties, and sautéed to brown.  Other recipes take more traditional hash brown potatoes and mix in a little lobster.  I think the traditional ones don’t have enough browned stuff on the inside and the others aren’t hash-like enough to hold together well.  So I made up a hybrid version that combines the best of both, small patties with crunch inside and a little mash to make the ingredients all stick together.

You can serve them with eggs for breakfast (or any meal, really), or serve the patties with a salad lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice for an elegant lunch or dinner.  Because it’s lobster, I’d serve Champagne Bernard Mante Brut ($32) any time of day.  Dry but not bone-dry, and not too acidic, it’s a perfect accompaniment to a special meal.

Bon Appetit!


Lobster Hash Browns

Serves 2-4

3 large russet potatoes, scrubbed and peeled, cut into ½-inch dice

1 large onion, chopped

1 small red bell pepper, minced fine

Unsalted butter

Milk or half-and-half

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

½ to ¾ pounds cooked lobster meat (~ 2 lobster tails), cut into ½-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste

¼ teaspoon paprika

Dried bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Dry half the potato cubes with paper towels and toss them with 2 tb olive oil and some salt and pepper.  Add a little more oil if they’re not all coated enough.  Spread the cubes out on a baking sheet and roast for 20-30 minutes, turning once or twice and scraping the pan, until the potato cubes are a nice golden brown.  Remove the sheet from the oven and set it aside to cool.

In the meantime, put the remaining potato cubes in a small saucepan, add some salt, cover with cold water by an inch or so, and set over high heat to bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.  While the potatoes are boiling, melt 2 tb of butter in a large sauté pan and cook the onion and bell pepper with some salt, pepper, the cayenne, and the paprika, until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to brown.

When the potatoes are soft, drain them and put them back in the hot saucepan to dry them off.  Put the dried potatoes in a large bowl and mash them coarsely with a fork or potato masher.  Add at least one tablespoon of butter and a little salt and pepper.  The potatoes should be about the consistency of mashed potatoes you’d eat as a side dish, or maybe a little thicker.  Add milk or half-and-half by teaspoonfuls if you need it to get the right consistency.

Fold in the sautéed vegetables and the lobster meat, then gently fold in the browned potato cubes.  Set the mixture aside to cool enough for you to handle.  When it’s cool, form it into four patties with your hands.  If it seems too loose, add a tablespoon of dried bread crumbs.  You may have to do this once more to get the mixture to form patties that just barely hold together but aren’t too stiff.  Melt at least 2 tablespoons of butter in the sauté pan you used for the vegetables, and brown the patties on both sides.  You can keep them warm in the oven for a half hour or so, but they’re better served right away.

This entry was posted in Champagne Bernard Mante, Musings/Lectures/Rants, recipes, Screw cap wine, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Closure wars, culture wars

  1. Please allow me to respond to the above blog and the accusations about the credibility of my statements at the Wine Bloggers Conference. As to my statements regarding the study on plastic closures, allow me to quote Mr. Stuart Yanger and Dr.George Bittner of the Univ. of Texas from the research that was mentioned in the blog: “The plastic corks tested were Nomacorcs, sourced from a winemaker supply house (Winemakers Depot). We tested both the outer skin (which is principally a TPV material, similar to Sarlink) and the inner foam (which is principally a metallocene polyethylene, similar to Affinity). Each material was extracted for 72 hours at 37°C in ethanol and in water, then the extracts analyzed for estrogenic activity (EA) in accordance with the procedures outlined in our paper in “Environmental Health Perspectives” (Env Health Perspec 119:7, pp 989-996, July 2011). The cork components were extracted in “as supplied” condition and not stressed or chemically altered.

    Our assay procedure utilizes proliferation of human breast cancer cells as an indicator of estrogenic activity. All experiments utilized negative and positive controls, as well as confirming estrogenic response by inhibition with antiestrogen ICI.

    EA test results are expressed as %RME2, with 100% RME2 being the in vitro response amplitude to 17 beta estradiol, the natural human estrogen. Results over 15% are considered significant. The Nomacorc test results were 65%RME2 for the core and 42%RME2 for the skin. These numbers are quite high. We have repeated the tests and are confident that the results are correct”.

    On our website we will be placing the link to this study and all subsequent, peer reviewed, studies regarding the environmental and health hazards the alternative closures pose to our planet.

    • firstvine says:

      Mr. Spencer did not send me this information when I asked him for clarification of his remarks at the conference, although I’m happy to look at it now after the fact. The study is interesting but doesn’t represent actual use of wine closures. As I mentioned above, wine is produced, bottled, and stored at relatively low temperatures. Extraction for 72 hours (3 full days) at 98.6 degrees F is instructive for potential leaching in extreme conditions, but not like real use. As I also said, I’m not an apologist for plastic closures, but I’d like to see studies of leaching under more realistic conditions.

  2. In response to firstvines comments, “actual use of wine closures” and “realistic conditions”, the prospect of pallets of wine from California, traveling across the US to Portland Maine, during the months of June, July and August, is in fact a very “accurate and realistic” temperature exposure for wine. Temperatures inside long haul freight trucks and train cars can and do reach temperatures over 100 degrees. Even with the best case travel senario, it will likely be more than 72 hours before those wines reach their destination. This is only one aspect of what environmental conditions bottles of wine go through before they get to the consumer. Once a wine leaves the winery, there is no possible way to ensure the cases being stacked with the bottles upright or the wines being temperature controlled outside of the distributors warehouse. Based upon the price point of many plastic closure wines, I’m hard pressed to believe they live in the same climate conditions as cases of Petrus.

    I did not send firstvines the information on this study, as I did not have it at that time. I was waiting on the hard copy from the research team, but I did have the verbal confirmation from the researchers and felt confident enough to share it with the WBC11 attendees.

    It dosen’t take much hard core internet research to Google “breast cancer and endocrine disruptors” and find a vast amount of research and overall medical concern regarding the relationship and the health risks.

    No insult intended, but there are thousands of people who have spent their working careers in the “toxic chemical field”, some of them work for Dow, Monsanto,(Roundup) Olin, (DDT). There is enough documented research showing the deleterious effects, the chemicals each of these companies make, have to our bodies and planet. Look at the research on BPA and breast cancer, I’ll bet the professionals in the “toxic chemical field” felt they had a “safe” product as well. I’m also sure that the chemical engeniers at the plastic closure companies believe their product is safe.

    Let’s take it one step further, in the August 15th issue of Time, it was reported that 1 in 10 of all fish caught in the Pacific ocean have plastic particles in their gullets. When is enough, enough?
    When we have a natural, sustainable product that has proven, over 1000 years, to be safe for humans, great for wine and vital to the health of our planet, why choose plastic?

  3. Dan says:

    Can you name one other commodity that doesn’t use a screw cap? Would you buy a jar of mayonnaise sealed with a piece of tree bark? I’ve been making wine for a living for 32 years so I’ve seen the damage natural cork causes. The plastic cork is as good as dead and has performed horribly at sealing the bottle while the screw cap has been virtually 100% effective for 40 years at properly sealing wine bottles. The cork guys and the “artificial” cork guys are fighting for their lives. Help the cork manufacturers by buying cork floors and Berkinstocks.

    • firstvine says:

      Dan, thanks for your comment. I agree that plastic “corks” don’t seal wine well and I hope they are indeed on their way out. Food packaging has its own separate set of concerns (and regulations) but it’s a fair point. And it’s certainly true that there are plenty of uses for cork that should be promoted.

    • Dan,
      Thank you for your comments. If offered mayonnaise with a cork stopper, yes I’d buy it. I will freely say that over the course of the last three years, I have openly criticized the cork industry for the position they now find themselves in. But it must also be recognized that over the last 7 years the cork industry has spent millions of dollars on quality control, improved manufacturing, research into TCA and forestry practices. One of the most important facts that has been gleaned from this effort is the responsibility wineries play in wine taint issues. It wasn’t until the cork industry researched TCA occurrence, that wineries learned that TCA could be present in cardboard, pallets, plastic wrap, concrete, oak barrels. not to mention the fact that if a winery uses highly chlorinated public water to clean tanks and the production areas, they are inviting TCA, before a cork ever gets near the bottle. Another major fact that is being left out of this discussion, wine closed with screw cap or plastic can still be affected by TCA, if it’s present in the winery. These are well proven scientific facts, not hyperbole. This issue is often focused on “wine quality” which ignores the environmental impacts of wine production. I choose to take the stand that if we continue to poison the planet, TCA will be the least of our concerns.

  4. Mr. Jan Wells says:

    Thank you for this careful, thoughtful, informed and reasonable discussion! I have been in wine marketing for 40 years (US and imported) and represent both corked and screwcap wines. Corks will certainly continue as a widely used closure, but the cork folks are verging on the hysterical in their attempts to belittle other closures. It is true that cork taint has been reduced, but by no means eliminated. You brought the tension down in your comments. Bravo!

    • firstvine says:

      I appreciate your comment, Mr. Wells, I hadn’t looked at what cork advocates were saying until recently. The websites appear to be reasonable in tone, which is why I was surprised at the presentation at WBC. I’ve only had one or two bottles in my life with cork taint, I don’t know if that’s the norm or not.

    • Mr. Wells,
      I can only reply for the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance and not the other “cork folks”. At no time do we belittle the other closures, we present, in a non-hysterical way, the environmental impacts that the alternative closures have to the planet. These include, sustainability, biodegradability, recyclability, energy consumption, green house gas emissions and potential health concerns. If a consumer wants to buy a wine closed with an alternative closure, we want them to do so with factual information, not the rampent misinformation that exists in wine marketplace today. Knowledge is power.

  5. Pingback: Terroirist » Daily Wine News: Corks & Cancer

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