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The Cork Doctor

Raised in Paris, Dr. Isabelle Sodini holds a Phd. in Food Engineering. She was an Assistant Professor at the Institut National Agronomique de Paris-Grignon, where she taught food microbiology and HACCP methodology. Dr. Sodini left Paris in 2004 for a one-year research post at Cal Poly, and then joined Portocork to develop and manage our in-house laboratory.

Q. WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO THE PORTOCORK TEAM?

In 2005, Portocork was looking for someone to supervise their in-house lab who had experience with HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point.) The methodology is not common in the U.S., but in Europe where we experienced significant food safety scares, HACCP is widely embraced. My experience teaching the methodology in the Institut’s Masters-level program, plus my educational and research background in food microbiology (including wine fermentation,) is what attracted Portocork to me.

Q. HOW HAVE YOU INFLUENCED THE LAB SINCE JOINING PORTOCORK?

When I joined Portocork, the lab had two technicians. I joined and within three months added a third technician to better handle the workflow. Now we are 9 total in our laboratory services.

To fulfill that mission, we’ve formalized three levels of screening:

  1. Internal Quality Control –Incoming cork from Portugal is tested using Cork Quality Council (CQC) methodologies. We are very proud of the fact that we not only meet, but exceed CQC criteria by sampling more than double the required quantity of corks.
    2. Customer Sampling:After corks are visually and chemically tested, we then send them to customers for their own internal testing.
    3. Customer Sensory: One of the unique things we do is bring customers in to the Portocork lab to do their evaluations. This is very labor intensive because it is comparable to do the incoming testing twice. However, we feel it is an important service to offer our customers. We select the corks for the customers and soak them in wine (or a solution of the customer’s choice) for 24 hours. Our customer comes in to the Portocork laboratory to test along with us to find the best cork for their needs.
    In total we tested more than 1,000,000 incoming corks in 2016, or more than 1 out of every 300. In addition, we test outgoing cork to ensure it has the 5.5%-7.5% desired moisture content and an extraction rating of 30+/- 10daN.

Q HOW IS THE PORTOCORK LAB’S SENSORY TESTING UNIQUE FROM OTHER LABS?

I place great emphasis on sensory testing because I believe properly trained noses can identify smells that may be diffused and/or missed in chemical testing. In the cork business, emphasis is put on chemical testing and often sensory is neglected. We still reject corks based on smells that our noses detect, so sensory testing remains a big part of our quality control program. When we repeatedly notice an undesired flavor during our 4 cork soaks, we take it further and conduct single cork soaks from the same bales. So the 4 cork soak helps us to identify and deal with any inconsistencies with specific bales and/or lots. It also means we do a far greater number of soak tests than most cork labs.

Q HOW DO YOU SEE THE LAB’S ROLE IN PORTOCORK’S ORGANIZATION?

The lab is absolutely essential to Portocork because the lab controls incoming cork from Portugal, and outgoing cork to our customers. We are the first and last line of defense, and we act as technical liaisons between Portocork and our customers’ winemakers and cork purchasers.

Q YOU HAVE BEEN FOCUSED ON “JUST CORKS” SINCE JOINING PORTOCORK… ANYTHING ABOUT CORK THAT CONTINUES TO INTEREST YOU?

Many things but perhaps the most interesting is cork’s incredible strength and elasticity. It takes more then 80 kg of force to compress cork to 16.5mm (in order to insert into a bottle), and still in time it “bounces back” to its original state. Very impressive.

Q ANY COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CORK?

That each closure must show 9 growth rings to be acceptable. It is true that mature cork trees are harvested every 9 years. But it is not true that every cork closure will show nine growth rings…nor that a lack of growth rings indicates anything is wrong with the cork.

Do you have any questions about cork? Ask The Cork Doctor: isodini@portocork.com

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