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Now at 42,000 square feet; plans to invest $750,000 in equipment for growth

NAPA -- Portocork America, a U.S. distribution arm of the world's largest supplier of wine corks, has expanded its Napa facility to 42,000 square feet and invested $750,000 in new equipment to handle double-digit sales growth.

"2010 was the best year ever in our company, and 2011 sales so far this year have growth 11 percent," said Dustin Mowe, president of Portocork America. "In the course of the growth, we essentially had to acquire outside storage for cork. We needed to get it under one roof."

As it is, Portocork stocks 50 million stoppers at the main facility at 560 Gateway Drive. The company recently worked out a more than seven-year lease renewal with property owner L2 Ventures, LLC, to expand by 7,000 square feet to fill the building.

Containers of stoppers that have arrived from Amorim plants in Portugal are stored offsite before they go into the final quality control and assurance process. Stoppers are sorted by quality grade, sampling for contaminants often blamed for "cork taint" in wine and adding customer embellishments such as artwork.

To get it all under one roof, Portocork would need about 85,000 square feet of space, Mr. Mowe said.

The company plans to hire five more employees this year -- including two in production -- but the new equipment has more automation, allowing an increase in production with the same staff.

Portocork America sells natural corks, which are solid stampings from cork oak bark, as well as stoppers for sparkling wines and others made from pieces of cork aimed at mass-market wines. Both Portocork and Amorim Cork America, also in Napa, are subsidiaries of the Amorim Group of Portugal.

Portocork's growth comes as a few competitors recently filed for bankruptcy protection, but the success has not come without a major investment in cleanliness and sterilization processes on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Mr. Mowe.

Bad publicity for more than a decade about molds in cork wood that dampen the sensory experience of wine and the rise of synthetic stoppers and aluminum screw caps sent cork sales plummeting. Since 2000, sales of natural and agglomerate corks have shrunk globally have shrunk to 900 million from 1.4 billion to 1.5 billion a year, and the number of cork distributors contracted from two dozen to half that, according to Mr. Mowe.

"Wineries want more quality control, and companies that have invested in that direction have done well," he said.

Portocork America invested a couple of million dollars in such processes and equipment in 2003 and hired a doctorate-level scientist to oversee the process.

The company and other North Coast members of the Cork Quality Alliance also have supported collective cork-quality screening at ETS Laboratories in St. Helena.

Testing and more rigorous quality standards at their facilities have resulted in an 83 percent reduction in detected levels of the common taint culprit -- 2,4,6-Trichloroanisle (TCA) -- since testing began in 2001, according to the council. Levels have been consistently below 1 part per trillion since early 2008, according to the council's most recent report in March.

Glen Dowling, Matt Bracco and Chris Neeb of Cushman & Wakefield represented both sides in Portocork's lease renewal deal.

To contact Portocork America, call 707-258-3930 or visit www.portocork.com.