Getting It In the Neck

Pop a cork and let’s toast the lowly wine stopper.

Made from the bark of an oak found in southwest Europe and northwest Africa, cork is prized for it’s elasticity, buoyancy, and ability to form a near-perfect, impermeable seal.

Of the world’s 2.2 million hectares of cork forest, most is in Portugal and Spain, with Italy a distant third in growing the versatile material. Cork is used for all kinds of things, ranging from shoes and shuttlecocks to spacecraft heat shields and the cores of cricket balls. Portugal even issued a cork postage stamp in 2007.

But 60 percent of the springy material goes into bottle stoppers. The vast majority of the 20 billion bottles of wine made annually around the world are capped with cork. It wasn’t always that way. Until the mid-1600s, French vintners stuffed oil-soaked rags into the necks of their bottles. Eventually though, wine-makers discovered that cork was ideally suited to stop toxins from getting into their bottles, without deteriorating or interfering with the wine.

Cork was also easy to use. Thanks to its cellular composition, it’s easily compressed and inserted into bottles where it then expands to form a tight seal. But that’s not to say it’s perfect. Natural cracks in the bark make it inconsistent and some wines suffer from “cork taint” when a natural mold in the material reacts with the wine, giving it a musty smell and a bitter taste.

Though some wineries have switched to plastic stoppers or screw-tops, cork is making a comeback. Supporters say it’s more environmentally-friendly because the trees last 200 years, cork takes less energy to produce, and it’s recyclable. Besides, natural cork lets oxygen interact with wine for proper aging.

So once a cork oak is about 30 years old, harvesting begins and takes place every nine to 13 years. Extractors use a sharp axe to make two types of cuts: a horizontal one called a “crown”, and a vertical cut or “ruler”. Using strength and a deft, precise touch, an expert harvester will free a plank of cork without damaging the tree. The highest quality material for wine and champagne bottles is known as “gentle” cork.

In a metaphorical way, spiritual security is our “gentle” cork. And by security, I mean a deep-seated sense that God loves us completely, forgives us, and takes care of us. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all He’s done. Then you’ll experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6,7)

Think of inner peace as the cork that protects the contents of your heart. It stops the taint of toxins and contaminants like shame, guilt and regret from getting inside and ruining the good things there, while still allowing in the oxygen of the Spirit who brings out in us a wonderful complexity and maturity as we age. Finding peace and acceptance in God guards our thoughts and emotions. It prevents an endless cycle of self-condemnation born of feelings that we’ll never be good enough.

Genuine peace of mind expands at the entrance to our hearts, forming a seal of safety and inner satisfaction. When we sin, we’re tempted to think, “God couldn’t possibly love me anymore.” But the truth is, when we sin, “God couldn’t possibly love me any more!” Because He already loves me to the max, despite my sin.

That’s not to say peace is always perfect. Sometimes cracks and inconsistencies appear in our faith and we don’t react properly to God’s grace and forgiveness. So the Biblical notion that God really loves us becomes musty and hard to swallow. That’s when we experiment with the world’s substitutes for peace, only to find there are no credible, lasting alternatives. That’s when we need to remember that the profound and powerful peace of God begins with a tree and extraction made possible through a Ruler with a crown.

“Fix your thoughts on what’s true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.,” says Paul. “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8,9). So remember, next time you’re tempted to let your heart be troubled by negativity and self-loathing, put a cork in it!