By Chelsea Franchi
Here at Tablas Creek, we do things by hand and with care. In the vineyard and the cellar, it's paramount that everyone feels pride for their work and I'd like to think that attention and consideration translates to the product in the bottle. I certainly appreciate that I work in an industry that is focused on craftsmanship and old-fashioned elbow grease (that's food grade, of course) especially when so many things around us are produced via automation. I should be clear that I don't have a problem with mechanized production for most items, and these days I tend to assume that large scale production facilities are manned by machines. So it's nice to discover I'm wrong (every now and then).
Last week, I had the extremely good fortune to be invited on a trip to Portugal with a group of eight other wine industry professionals, hosted by our cork supplier, M.A. Silva. The purpose of the trip was to tour around Portugal, watch the cork harvest, and see what a cork manufacturing facility does. And in our spare time, educate ourselves a bit on the subject of Portuguese wines (*ahem*). And before you ask, the answer is "yes". I do know how lucky I am. Truly, I do.
Just so you don't think I was sitting on the bank of the Douro drinking Touriga Nacional and eating bacalhau the whole time I was there, here are some bite sized facts you're welcome to pull out at your next cocktail party:
- The cork tree is an oak
- The first harvest of cork oak bark happens after the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age
- A cork tree can only be harvested once every nine years
- A single cork tree will live anywhere from 150-200 years (allowing approximately 14-15 harvests during its lifetime)
- Harvesters of cork bark are the highest paid agricultural workers in Portugal, due to the highly skilled nature of the job
To see the cork harvest in action, we drove to the Alentejo region, which is held in high esteem for the quality of cork produced. These forests are regulated and protected with rigorous standards, and it was clear, after spending just a short time watching the harvest, that there is great respect for the land, the trees, the product, and the culture surrounding all of it. I've never seen anything quite like a cork harvest. I had a general idea of the process, but seeing it in action was one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing things I've ever witnessed.
By the time we pulled into the cork forest, the harvest crew was already well into their day. There were workers everywhere - typically about two per tree. One worker would scramble into the high branches and begin his work from the top while the other worker started in on the base and trunk. Each worker carries a long-handled hatchet and begins carefully hacking a line into the cork bark. If the cut is too deep, they risk killing the tree - hence the need for trained and experienced laborers. From there, the bark is stripped off in long sheets where a tractor comes by to pick it up.
After the cork has dried, it's taken to a facility where it's sorted (by hand), graded (by hand) and sterilized. All of this manual labor was an impressive sight to behold (we'd seen hundreds of workers by this point), but it was the next step that really surprised me. I'd seen a piece of cut cork bark with wine corks punched out of it - in fact, we have one such model in our tasting room that I recommend asking about next time you're here (if you're into that sort of thing). But to see how it gets to that point was a bit of a shock. One worker cuts the cork plank into uniform strips while workers down the line punch the wine corks from the strip of bark. Different workers choose different methods: some prefer to use an automatic punch tool that they manually feed, while others choose a foot pedal for increased control (as seen in the video below). The reason I was so taken aback by this process was the knowledge that we purchase approximately 180,000 corks each year. And every single one of those was punched by hand.
From there, each individual cork goes through a very thorough set of tests conducted by computers: checking density and visual aspects (including but not limited to: holes, pores, cracks, chips, hardwood, etc.) before going onto a conveyor belt where the presorted and computer inspected corks were inspected once more by two sets of human eyes.
It was a delight to see that we're not the only ones so concerned with putting in the effort to responsibly grow, harvest and produce our product. To learn that others, especially those that have direct contact with our wines, respect and practice the same values was an incredibly pleasant surprise. I'm not saying we're about to abolish screwcaps here at Tablas Creek. I am, however, saying the next time I have the opportunity to pull a cork from a bottle of handcrafted wine, I'll certainly take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of the closure before turning my attention to what's in the glass.