The cork is an important part of the wine ritual: popping the bottle, hearing that sound, and glancing at the cork to make sure a stain reflects the wine was stored horizontally. After opening Bacchus’ gift, some people keep the wine stopper as a token of an unforgettable night.

Ancient Romans and Greeks were well aware of cork’s sealing and buoyant properties, and used it to make fishing buoys, shoes, and stoppers for wine and oil.

Cork is made from the bark of a Mediterranean oak tree, one of only three trees in the world whose bark can be stripped in large pieces without harm.

Harvest takes place every nine years throughout the trees’ lifespan of over two hundred years. Strips are carefully removed using methods often passed on by previous generations of harvesters. The bark is dried, boiled, dried again and stored.

The cork’s quality gets better as the tree ages. Therefore, producers and consumers have a vested interest in ensuring the protection and survival of Europe’s Montados, cork forests.

Montados encompass nearly six million acres in the Mediterranean regions of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France, and they’re home to a wide variety of plant and animal species. Thousands of families depend on the cork harvesting business.

Being a biodegradable product, cork can be composted or recycled. Yet most of the thirteen billion corks sold annually end up in landfills.

To prevent this, Willamette Valley Vineyards created the Salem-based nonprofit Cork ReHarvest.

“We use all natural cork in our wine bottles. We’re the first winery in the world to use cork certified by the Rainforest Alliance,” said Caitlyn Kari, sustainability manager at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

“Once we had [sustainably harvested cork], we realized it was going into landfills, and we wanted to give consumers an ability to recycle that all natural cork,” she said.

Willamette Valley Vineyards just received the Rainforest Alliance 2010 Standard Settlers Award, partially because of the Cork ReHarvest program, according to Patrick Spencer, Cork ReHarvest director.

High prices, availability issues, and the problem of “cork taint,” a moldy, corky smell on the wine that has generally been blamed on corks, have turned many wineries to synthetic, non-renewable varieties like plastic plugs and aluminum screw caps.

Some environmental activists have expressed concern over the effects that a switch to synthetic corks would have on the Montados. When the cork business thrives, workers and governments watch over these forests to secure revenues. But if demand dropped, they could be replaced by other, more profitable crops.

“We typically use natural cork,” said Travis Henry, Mahonia Vineyards Vice President. “It’s the best closure in terms of sustainability and its footprint.”

With collection boxes in several locations across the U.S., including Whole Foods Markets, Roth’s, restaurants and tasting rooms, Cork ReHarvest is supporting the green industries of North America, said Spencer.

He said that the reception of the program has been very positive, despite some regions requiring the restaurant owners to drop off their corks.

“There is precious little free time in the day-to-day operations of running a restaurant, so for these people to take the time to involve themselves in this program speaks volumes about the food and beverage community’s sustainability commitment.”

While Salem restaurants are not yet taking part in the program, collection boxes are available at all Roth’s locations.

The corks are not reused as wine stoppers, but they become useful materials for a diversity of businesses, depending on the location where they are collected.

Soundproofing, insulation and bulletin boards are among the many uses for cork. Creative collectors also use this versatile material in crafts, furniture and decorations.

Corks can be used as fire starters by soaking them in denatured alcohol, and they can be an ingredient in yoga mats, sports equipment and musical instruments.

In Oregon, Cork ReHarvest partnered with Western Pulp, which incorporates collected corks into packaging products, used, for example, in the shipping of wine.

“The goal of our organization is to help save the Mediterranean cork forests by getting people involved in the cork recycling process and educating them about the importance of these forests,” said Spencer.