ARNEIROS, PORTUGAL — Except for the cellphone hitched to his belt, 79-year-old Jose Joaquin da Silva Perdigao has been harvesting cork in Portugal's forests in much the same way for more than half a century. Today, three generations of the Perdigao family work among the giant oaks, peeling the spongy bark that makes cork.
The men (it's always men) use axes to split the bark in just the right place, tap it loose, and then with their bare hands pull off long, dark strips. Perdigao says his 12-ax team can shave 1,000 trees in a day.
"It's very hard now to find people who want to do this work," Perdigao said of his age-old business.
Although little has changed in the way the cork is harvested, Portugal's top producers are introducing major changes in the way the material is processed and marketed -- crucial, they say, if the industry is to recover after years of slumping sales and fleeing customers.
Cork is essential to Portugal's economic and cultural identity. Portuguese babies hear lullabies about cork; children study it in school. It is against the law to cut down a cork oak.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Wine corks: An article in Business on Saturday about Portuguese cork said Antonio Amorim, chief executive of Amorim & Irmaos, the world's largest purveyor of cork stoppers, had seen his company's market share fall by about 20% in the last decade. He said the entire cork industry's share of the bottle-stopper market had fallen by 20% in that time.
This small country is the world's top producer of cork, which accounts for nearly $1.2 billion in exports annually (the only product for which Portugal can claim to be a world leader).
But the industry took a crippling hit when bottlers of wine began shifting away from cork stoppers in the 1990s and replacing them with plastic plugs or metal screw-tops. There were several reasons behind the shift. Especially for fast-growing wineries first in California and then Australia and New Zealand, cork imported from the distant Mediterranean country was expensive.
And the tendency of cork to develop a mold that can taint wine, making even the finest vintages undrinkable, was ruining its reputation and turning many dealers away.
Now, Portuguese cork producers are fighting back. They say they have found ways to substantially reduce the risk of taint. And they are promoting cork as the environmentally beneficial alternative; cork, it turns out, is green.
"We have felt our position under threat," said Antonio Amorim, chief executive of Portugal-based Amorim & Irmaos, the world's largest purveyor of cork stoppers.
Amorim, who is also president of APCOR, a national association of cork producers, said he believed that consumers still appreciated cork as a sign of good wine and that they were wising up to what he saw as the disadvantages of plastic and rubber.
But just as he and his colleagues were regaining some of the ground lost to such synthetics, a new enemy, the metal screw-top, began to grow in popularity.
Amorim, 40, heads the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1870 and that today produces 3 billion wine corks a year, 25% of the world's output. Energetic and pragmatic, he acknowledges that cork will never regain its dominance among wine bottle closures, but he is confident that it will make great strides.
Amorim & Irmaos has seen its market share fall by about 20% in the last decade, although the overall market has continued to grow, the CEO said.
"We won't get back all of the market," Amorim said in an interview over fish and mussels at a Lisbon restaurant.
"But we can get back the middle- to high-level wines, the reds and aged whites." (For inexpensive wines consumed quickly, the stopper is of little importance; it's when a wine is to be aged that cork, because of its porous quality, is considered by most connoisseurs to be crucial.)
Portuguese cork producers acknowledge that they were slow to bring science and the latest technology into the problems facing their industry.
In the last five years they have invested nearly half a billion dollars in upgrading and modernizing their processing systems.
Amorim said that since 2000 his company has plopped $60 million into research, aimed specifically at the tainting problem and finding cheaper ways to produce quality stoppers.
Researchers at Amorim & Irmaos have developed a procedure that the company says reduces the presence of the chemical produced by mold that causes cork taint by 75% to 90% over previously detected levels. It involves better cleaning, drier storage and more quality control.
At the company's 22-acre plant in Coruche, 40 miles east of Lisbon, hundreds of tons of stripped bark are stacked awaiting processing and looking something like mountains and canyons of carpet remnants. Forklifts carry 5-foot-high pallets of bark to vats of boiling water, the start of a long process of cleaning, cutting, flattening and punching.
A key step in the new process is steaming, which officials say removes the chemical compound trichloroanisole, or TCA, that is caused by natural fungus and is responsible for spoiling the taste and smell of a small but significant percentage of wines.
The company also uses sophisticated gas chromatography machines that search for TCA.
Previously, inspectors relied primarily on their eyes and hands to weed out bad cork.