CAMPAIGNS: Cork industry puts the screws to tainted-wine theory

Fears of 'cork taint' have prompted some winemakers to opt for screw caps. In turn, the cork industry has begun a PR push to tell its story in the closure debate.

Fears of 'cork taint' have prompted some winemakers to opt for screw caps. In turn, the cork industry has begun a PR push to tell its story in the closure debate.

It used to be that the best indication that a wine's quality wasn't up to snuff was if it had a screw cap. Wines without corks were a joke. But the cork industry isn't laughing anymore, now that some of the world's best wineries have ceased sealing their wines with cork, and opted to go with either screw caps or synthetic stoppers, such as plastic. "The problem is that up to 8% of wines sealed with a cork are affected by 'cork taint,'" reads a note on the website of Villa Maria Estate, one of New Zealand's most high-profile and award-winning wineries. "Until now, winemakers and wine drinkers have had to put up with this. Villa Maria wines are now being sealed with screw-cap closures to eliminate 'cork taint.'" Villa Maria is just one of many wineries to subscribe to the theory that cork taints wine. And the negative perception snowballed as Portugal's cork industry remained relatively quiet. "For some time, the cork industry didn't think communication was so important," says Francesco de Brito Evangelista, director of the International Campaign for Cork for APCOR (Associacao Portuguesa da Cortica, or Portuguese Cork Association). Essentially, there were no communication channels in place to demonstrate to wine producers or consumers that natural cork is rarely responsible for tainted wine, or that the industry was in fact addressing the problem. "[APCOR] came to us with the task of protecting the image of cork, as their market situation was under pressure from the incursion of synthetic closures," explains Jeremy Clarke, associate director of Weber Shandwick Worldwide in London. "The market share breaks down to 90%-92% cork, but that's not to say that synthetics haven't grown into that 8% very rapidly." Strategy WSW decided on a two-pronged approach. The first step was to "establish a responsible voice in the closure debate," simply because there wasn't one. For years, wineries and consumers had been leaping to conclusions about what causes a bottle of wine to go bad. "The consumer is not as educated as we would like in these technical issues," laments Evangelista. "If you don't like the style of wine, if it's been oxidized, or whatever, only a few people can understand and detect what is wrong with the wine. The easiest thing to say is that the wine is 'corked.'" Therefore, APCOR needed to become the primary source of information on the closure debate with wineries the world over. Secondly, WSW had to communicate the Portuguese cork industry's commitment to the quality of not only its own product, but of the wine. "Part of the problem is that the closure debate is a debate," says Clarke. "Through years of inactivity, it became a he-said-she-said, with very little hard evidence or empirical data proving one thing or the other." However, the cork industry has invested over $500 million in the past few years on everything from new equipment to new processing plants, all to improve cork quality. It needed to get that message out. Tactics Alongside the hefty ad component of the campaign executed by McCann-Erickson, WSW established the Cork Information Bureau in 10 of its offices around the world, all located in the world's major winemaking and wine-consuming regions: the US, UK, Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and South Africa. The idea was to provide a local approach to the global problem by becoming a resource for information about cork. "The key was to quickly create good relationships with the media, and establish the right of APCOR to talk about the cork industry," says Clarke. "Our position was that it was a consistent and unified voice, and a commitment to transparency." WSW and APCOR even flew journalists from each of the 10 regions to Portugal to witness the cork-making process, and see for themselves the improvements the industry has made. On a local level, however, the approach had to differ in each market, particularly in the UK and Australia. In Australia and New Zealand, "there is a very high level of acceptance of alternatives, and they've been quick to dismiss cork," says Clarke. The idea, he adds, was to clearly communicate the facts about wine taint, and deliver information on cork's superior quality in this otherwise hostile market. Fortunately, WSW and APCOR were armed with the recent results of a major independent study by the Wine & Spirit Association in the UK, which found cork taint in just .7% of all wines available in the UK, with total wine faults at 3.4% - far lower than the 8% wineries like Villa Maria attribute to cork taint. In another recent study, APCOR found that consumers prefer cork. Moreover, 54% of consumers in the UK expressed disappointment that they didn't know what kind of closure a wine had until it was opened. Therefore, in the UK, which is highly influential in the market due to its status as the world's leading importer of wine, WSW is pressuring retailers to clearly label wines as being closed with real cork, "the idea being that consumers can make the choice they want to make," says Clarke. Results There has been substantial media coverage in the regions housing Cork Information Bureau offices, largely expressing consumers' preference for cork, as well as the improvements the cork industry has made in the last few years. All told, the campaign has accounted for millions of consumer and trade impressions, including US News & World Report, the Financial Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, Wine Spectator, and Wines & Vines. And that's just in the US. More importantly, several wineries have switched back to cork, including four major producers in the US and Australia (which Clarke cannot disclose, as they've yet to agree to have their names used in the campaign). "It will be interesting to have those examples known in the marketplace," says Evangelista. "But even more important than announcing their return to cork is explaining that they're doing it because cork is the best closure. We've done our homework, and we are providing the best closure available in the marketplace. The feedback from the wineries is very positive because they really feel the difference between what is happening now and what was happening in the past." Future The $6.5 million contract only runs for one year, but Clarke expects that WSW will continue its work with APCOR under a new contract in the coming months. "They're very keen to build on the momentum," he says. Part of that will involve the establishment of forums between cork producers and winemakers in the US, UK, and Australia, beginning in January 2003. "These will allow us to establish a model with the key wine representatives and trade in these countries," says Evangelista. "All of the reps will discuss what are the most important areas for research. Everyone is keen to see the start of this."

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