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Take it off… Take it all off!

by David on June 13, 2007

I recently had the opportunity to witness the performance of two professional Portuguese strippers!! Without musical accompaniment or mood lighting, father and son team Sergio and Joaquim took it all off, repeatedly and with gusto, after a long flight here from Portugal. Most impressive! 😉

Our Winemaker, Geoff Gorsuch, has been fortunate enough to spend some time in the cork-oak forests of Portugal but, for the rest of us, Cork Supply USA, our cork supplier, brought the action here and demonstrated live the ancient art of denuding the cork-oak tree of its bark.

Sergio and Joaquim brought along some friends who happened to be cork-industry experts including Dr. Macku, PhD in agricultural and environmental chemistry, Sao Santos Silva, an expert in forest engineering and Frederico Mayer the Purchasing Director for Cork Supply and each enlightened us in his/her area.

Should be no big surprise department: their concerns are extremely similar to ours, as growers and winemakers. It’s all about putting the right tree in the right place, taking good care of it and harvesting with care. Aside from numerous references to sorting, there was virtually no discussion of drying, purification or other production methods because while important, as with wine, the quality is determined primarily by the raw material.

Proper Cork Harvest

And, as with viticulture, being good stewards of the land is an issue that’s front and center. We learned that the forests serve 3 main functions:

1. Cork production, by far the most important function.
2. To produce secondary crops, many naturally existing, such as medicinal wildflowers, honey and mushrooms.
3. To preserve grass lands and open space providing a side benefit of wild game such as boar.

The forests are also host to a number of migratory birds and some endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle.

These forests or plantations are nearly all family owned, but are subject to national regulations regarding the growth and management of the trees, harvest cycles (every nine years), pruning, thinning and tree removal. Land conversion is forbidden. Once a grower, forever a grower.

These knowledgeable presenters, with their charming Portuguese accents, gave us the ins and outs of soil and climate, managing the forests and how the trees reach the point of harvest. And then the floorshow began! Sergio and Joaquim flexed their biceps and picked up their axes.

We were all surprised to learn that there are some cork oaks growing right there, in the parking lot at Napa Valley College. Perhaps not an ideal habitat, but how convenient! When asked about growing the oaks (Quercus suber) here, Frederico indicated that it can be done, as we could clearly see, but the quality will not be good enough for wine corks -we’d be doomed to grow bulletin boards or something mundane like that.

Important fact: If the tree is harvested properly, it is unharmed and the bark grows back.

Proper Cork Harvest

Sergio and Joaquim led us to tree number one, an unwilling virgin oak, never before harvested, at about 20 years of age. When they discussed recent innovations it was mentioned that a specially-designed chain saw can be used these days, but in this case the traditional ax was the tool of choice.

Drum roll…

Poor Sergio and Joaquim! That tree did not want to give and the bark came off with considerable difficulty and in pieces. Frederico commented that the youth of the tree could be a factor and also we may not have had enough warm weather here for the bark to loosen its grip to the tree adequately (harvest in Portugal is usually from mid-May through mid-August and will be about 1 month late this year due to a rainy May). Not an auspicious beginning, but our strippers were undaunted. On to the next tree!

Sergio and Joaquin

The next beauty was 30-ish, had seen the ax once before and knew how the game is played. It submitted to the expertise of our strippers and shed its bark in two lovely, symmetrical pieces and in a matter of just a few minutes. And a few trees more…

Proper Cork Harvest

Now, Sergio and Joaquim are shy, soft-spoken, rather compact men, but don’t be fooled. They have to have the arms of King Kong to pull off a job like that over 3 months! No heavy breathing and they didn’t even break a sweat!

What a morning! It’s like everything else in life: whatever the topic, there’s a lot more to it than you ever thought… Many thanks to Cork Supply and to Sergio and Joaquim, et al, for a most informative and entertaining session! Next time I think I’ll bring my boom-box to get the trees in the mood… A sia saide!

PS: For some general information on how the cork gets from the tree to the bottle, soon to be expanded and updated, thanks to the excellent information from Cork Supply, click here.

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