Employees are meticulous at Cork Supply U.S.A. in BeniciaSeptember 22 2017
By Katy St. Clair, firstname.lastname@example.org, @BouncerSF on Twitter
Posted: 09/21/17, 8:36 PM PDT | Updated: 5 hrs ago
BENICIA >> Those old enough to remember the old Paul Masson commercials with Orson Welles surely know the phrase, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
Oenophiles — aka wine enthusiasts — are famous for their patience. Indeed, for wine lovers, waiting for a wine to age to perfection is almost as delightful as pairing it with a delicious meal. But few give much thought to the last thing to touch the elixir, the cork in the bottle. It not only “seals the deal,” so to speak, but in many cases allows for just enough oxygen to enter the wine for it to fully mature.
Most of us remove the cork and toss it, but if you knew all the thought that can go into each stopper you might be surprised.
The people behind Cork Supply U.S.A. in Benicia know every nook and cranny of a cork, and the companies they serve expect as much.
Cork Supply takes a “tree to table” approach to their business, with a product that begins in the forests of Portugal and ends in millions of bottles every year.
As one of the largest cork suppliers in North America with a 25 percent market share, their customers range from the ultra exclusive, small-batch vintners to giant suppliers of household table wines. In addition to all manner of wine bottle closures, the Benicia compound in the Industrial Park also houses the Tonnellerie O cooperage, which builds wine barrels — itself a complicated endeavor.
The 36-year-old company chose Benicia in 2008 not only for its great proximity to wine country and inland California, but also because it’s a business-friendly town, said CEO James Herwatt.
Starting with the corks.
Cork comes from the bark of oaks found in the Mediterranean. The tree needn’t be destroyed in order to harvest the bark, which is stripped every 20 to 25 years and then cut into cylinders which eventually get shipped to the Benicia compound. And it is a compound, complete with huge warehouses, a laboratory, and corporate offices.
The corks arrive in a rather “rough” state, which is actually how some vintners prefer theirs, especially those that want to keep as old-school as possible. Others want a cleaner cork, perhaps even bleached, with minimal dimpling.
Yes, people think about this stuff.
Tom Godfrey, operations manager for the facility, thinks about this stuff. He oversees everything from maintaining the orders roster, to infusing designs on corks, to coating and cleaning them, to the final bagging and shipping off.
He passes through the plant, pointing out the various machines which perfect each cork order to the customer’s specs.
All corks end up with can only be described as the Augustus Gloop effect, being sucked up into tall, clear tubes from floor to ceiling that finish the corks with a moisture treatment.
But corks go through far more than that. The quality control department at Cork Supply looks like a high-tech laboratory, complete with scientists in lab coats in a sleek and sterile environment. They take a sampling of each shipment and test for something called T.C.A., or trichloroanisole, the bane of any bottle. The slightest amount of this natural compound can taint wine and leave it tasting “earthy,” and not in a goes-great-with-mushroom-paté kind of way.
Quality Control Manager John Boyd said that his lab can detect T.C.A. in 2 or 3 parts per trillion. But for the incredibly discerning customer, Cork Supply employs people than can be described as “professional sniffers” who use their nose to detect any defects. They aren’t actually called sniffers of course … what they do is referred to as “human sensory,” and it’s part of a system they call DS 100.
In practice, however, it involves a person with gloves on in a lab coat carefully raising a jar with a single cork in it to his or her nose, taking a whiff, and either accepting or rejecting the product. Vintners pay extra for this service, and Boyd estimates that over 5 million corks will be sniffed this year alone.
Another cork quality assurance comes from submerging them in Franzia box wine, a beverage which may be the butt of many jokes but works wonders for people testing cork purity. Franzia is created in large steel vats, not oak casks, so there’s nothing to affect the final product; it’s always uniform and consistent. If a cork comes in contact with this wine and a tech detects something off in the final taste, then they know the cork is not up to par.
Consider the barrel
The Tonnellerie factory sits adjacent to the cork operation and has the glorious smell of cut oak. They use oak from both France and America — again, it’s up to the customer. The wood sits in slats for up to three years to season, becoming infused with whatever weather, flora, and fauna surrounds the yard.
Some exclusive customers even opt to fly to France to select the trees that will be used in their barrels, according to Vice President Josh Trowbridge.
From there it ends up in Benicia where machines cut the wood and bind it into the beginnings of a round barrel. This is where it gets interesting, as the wood is taken to a large, kiln-like room with fire pits and ovens. Each barrel is placed over an open fire so it can “toast,” one of the final steps in creating a cask that will impart its oakiness to a wine. Workers in this area gingerly twist the barrels and stoke the fires in a method that has been used by cooperages for centuries.
By the end of a tour of Cork Supply, it’s impossible to overlook the humble but important role that these products hewn from trees impart to a great bottle of wine.
They will sell no cork or barrel before it’s time, indeed.