One word: plastics

Pub date December 12, 2006

These days it is hard to be sure if the American way is war or plastic. Probably both, and since plastic is a petroleum product, and petroleum is a perennial occasion for war, we are probably not talking about a meaningful difference. Kevin Phillips describes the United States as the petroleum hegemon in his recent book American Theocracy (Viking, 2006), and the proof that he’s right is all around us. To the extent that we make anything at all anymore, we make it out of plastic: dashboards, lawn furniture, coffee mugs, picnic knives, even clothes. Why bother draping yourself in velvet or cotton when you can swaddle yourself in Lycra spandex or Gore-tex or some other synthetic fiber spun from oil and bearing a name that ends in x?
Although I make every effort to avoid wearing petroleum-based products, I concede that plastic has its uses. In particular, I favor the plastic wine cork, which (unlike the natural kind) poses no risk of tainting the wine with fungus, or even of just crumbling to dust, while preserving (as screw tops do not) the forms and rituals of uncorking. And I am pleased to report that plastic-cork technology seems to have improved sharply in just the past year or two.
Recently I popped open a couple of bottles — of Husch chenin blanc and Gundlach Bundschu merlot — and found I could not easily tell whether the corks were natural or plastic, at least not in the midst of holiday hubbub and bad lighting. I set the corks aside for further scrutiny in the morning sunshine. I actually ended up having to cut them open with my trusty Wüsthof trimming knife to make a final determination: a kind of wine-cork autopsy.
Both corks had the springiness of natural cork. Both had natural cork’s coloration, beige with darker specklings. The principal hint that the Husch cork was manufactured had to do with its near-perfection of shape. I was almost certain the Gundlach cork, too, was plastic, until I slashed it open and found the unmistakable flakiness of real bark inside. Another clue, unnoticed until some time later, was that the bottom of the Gundlach cork was stained red from the wine; the Husch cork, by contrast, was immaculate on both ends, though it did come from a bottle of white wine — so, not quite a fair fight, maybe.