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Put a Cork In It?

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Reviewed by Jane Black
Sunday, November 18, 2007

TO CORK OR NOT TO CORK Tradition, Romance, Science, And the Battle for the Wine Bottle

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By George M. Taber | Scribner. 278 pp. $26

On Oct. 2, 2002, a gray hearse pulled up in front of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Four pallbearers, including one in a dark purple tuxedo, stepped out and carried a casket up to the Campbell Apartment, a chic bar on the second floor of the terminal. Mourners included British wine writer Jancis Robinson and Randall Grahm, founder of California's Bonny Doon Vineyard. The dearly departed? A humble wine cork.

The event, which included an 11-course meal of black foods only, was intended to cap a decades-long debate over cork, which has been accused of tainting or "corking" great vintages with a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA. But five years later, the selection of bottle closures -- cork, plastic, screwcaps, glass stoppers -- remains contentious: One Australian wine critic sniffs that wineries that use corks are members of the "flat-earth society," while a British counterpart labels those winemakers who have embraced new closures as the "ayatollahs of screwcap [who] have made it seem morally defective to speak up for cork."

It takes a skilled writer to keep such a subject lively for 278 pages; bottle closures are usually resigned to 50-word magazine blurbs, and for good reason. But George M. Taber does the job in To Cork or Not to Cork. A veteran Time correspondent, Taber has a track record of translating wine geekery into compelling narrative. His Judgment of Paris (2005), which recounts how California wines beat out France's best vintages in a 1976 blind taste test, was a surprise hit and will soon be a Hollywood movie. Taber pulls off the same feat with cork, transforming the tale from a dull account of bottle closures into a chronicle of how great wine is made, aged, stored, marketed and enjoyed.

Beginning with the Romans, the first civilization to use cork to seal containers of wine, Taber spotlights the highpoints of cork history: One of the first written uses of the word "cork" to mean "stopper" was in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" ("I pray thee, take the cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings"). The term "butler" is derived from "bottler," the top servant charged with retrieving glass bottles from the family wine cellar. Equally fascinating are the modern anecdotes, like that cork funeral, and portraits of quirky sommeliers, importers, inventors and scientists, who are renowned within wine circles but still unknown to many wine drinkers.

The only flaw in this surprisingly high-spirited story is that, in the end, Taber cannot answer the question he poses: to cork or not to cork? Scientific advances and new materials continue to flood the market, making the answer an unqualified it depends. For young wines, a screwcap is fine and convenient. For big reds, corks help the wines age gracefully. Perhaps Taber should have chosen a title that plays on another great English saying: The cork is dead! Long live the cork! *

Jane Black writes about food for The Washington Post.

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