In the Cork of Public Opinion

Do consumers want wine producers to put a cork in it? Or would they prefer a screw cap on that bottle? And if the answer’s cork, what kind of cork are we talking about—natural or synthetic?

Several recent surveys have sought the answer, and overall the results show that consumers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what’s keeping their wine from spilling out of the bottle—unless the closure fails to perform. Then they care. A lot.

Here’s a closer look at the findings.

A 2012 survey by Merrill Research for synthetic cork leader Nomacorc found that consumers didn’t think the type of closure on a wine bottle was a big deal. Ninety-seven percent of survey respondents said the type of closure on the bottle was not in their top three reasons to buy. Instead, that trio consisted of variety, price, and geographical region.

“It just doesn’t matter to people—they don’t really care as long as the wine’s protected and safe,” said Pat Merrill, co-founder and partner at Merrill Research.

The survey pinpointed a group of knowledgeable wine drinkers, surveying nearly 600 American consumers who drink wine at least once a week and frequently spend $7 to $20 per bottle.

While respondents may not have gone into a store with cork, synthetic, oBrokenCorkr screw caps on their minds, they were concerned about the performance of the closure. When asked specifically about the role of the bottle closure, 92 percent said their main concern was protecting the wine. Two-thirds of respondents were familiar with cork taint and one-third had had problems with a natural cork that was either difficult to remove or had crumbled.

Meanwhile, a 2013 report from Tragon, a consumer sensory testing company, echoed the findings of Merrill consumer survey: Price is the top criterion of wine shoppers.

But after price point, Tragon’s results diverged. Those respondents did list type of wine closure as the second priority, and country of origin third. Also, a majority of Tragon respondents, given a choice, prefer to buy wine with a natural cork stopper.

The Tragon survey was prepared for Wine Vision, a London-based trade show that has natural cork company Amorim as a major sponsor. The survey included data gathered in several countries in 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2013. Out of a survey base of 3,000 consumers, 80 percent reported drinking wine at least once a week.

Merrill suggested that the differences between these surveys may accrue to the survey instrument, including wording and sequence of questions.

Consistency is Key

Consumers aren’t the only ones who want to be able to count on the closures. Wine Business Monthly, a respected industry magazine, surveyed winemakers and other trade leaders on closure preference. Those data cited dependability as of paramount importance.

“Closure consistency seems to be the Holy Grail of closure attributes,” said Wine Business Monthly, in reporting on the 2014 survey.

Specifically, 60 percent of WBM’s 313 industry respondents wanted consistency in the way closures transmit oxygen to the wine, and rated this as their most important factor. And, they preferred that this transmission be done through theNaturalCorkInconsistency closure, not by leaving oxygen in the bottle during the bottling process.

A majority of respondents identified natural corks as the most popular and frequently used closure. The WBM survey was weighted heavily toward smaller wineries, with 82 percent of the responses coming from wineries making less than 50,000 cases a year.

Meanwhile, the WBM survey found that larger wineries rated screw caps at the top of the consistency pile, while synthetic corks were deemed more consistent than technical or natural corks. Here synthetic rules the day: 73 percent of the top 50 wine SKUs—which account for 22 percent of the U.S. market—use synthetic corks. Natural cork clocks in at only 2 percent, with the remainder split between technical corks or micro-agglomerates (17 percent) and screw caps (8 percent).

Commenting on the differences in preference between small and large wineries, Merrill suggested that smaller wineries’ preferences for natural corks may accrue to smaller production quantities, when more expensive natural cork doesn’t have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Looking Forward

Ten years ago, the die-hard resisters to synthetic corks and screw caps were the people who were more knowledgeable about wine. “They were aghast at the idea of putting a screw cap or a synthetic cork in a really nice wine,” said Merrill.

Similarly, Tragon data showed that consumer acceptance of screw caps was higher in 2013 than 2004, although in the United States screw caps were still considered most appropriate for casual settings. The Merrill study also showed that consumers find natural cork slightly more acceptable in red than in white wines, and somewhat more acceptable in all wines at higher prices ($30+).

But now these more knowledgeable wine drinkers seem to be the most accepting of the newer closures, and see advantages in synthetics and screw caps. For white wineshome_hero_US_couple_L at the $10 price point, 90 percent of Merrill respondents thought synthetic corks were always or usually appropriate; the figure was 85 percent for reds. This threshold could be higher for a brand with a well-established and trusted name or appellation. Eighty-seven percent of Merrill respondents said they’d have no problem if their favorite traditional cork-closed wine switched to synthetic.

Mostly, though, consumers are interested in enjoying a good glass of wine, not spending a lot of time fretting over the package. Unless the closure fails, said Merrill, “the bottom line is most consumers don’t care.”

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