Supreme Corq Inc. of Kent, Wash., has sent out an angry message in a bottle by filing a lawsuit accusing Nomaco Inc. of violating four of its patents for plastic bottle closures.
Supreme Corq bills itself as the leader in synthetic bottle closures. The company claims its closures, made from thermoplastic elastomers, offer greater consistency and stability than traditional bark corks, which can break apart, taint wine or fail to seal.
``How can Nomaco flaunt a corporate philosophy of `innovation rather than imitation' when they've copied our product, our trademarked brand?'' Supreme Corq President Jerry Zech asked in a news release.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, seeks to stop Nomaco from manufacturing and selling its Nomacorc product. Supreme Corq also is seeking unspecified damages from Nomaco, which is based in Zebulon, N.C.
Supreme Corq's patents cover method of production, type of materials, and use of the product as a closure in containers for wine and other liquids.
Christophe Theunissen, Nomaco business manager, defends his company's entry into the synthetic cork market, saying that the way in which its cork is produced and the materials used are distinctly different than the Supreme Corq product.
``The most important thing here is that Supreme Corq makes a molded cork and our Nomacorc is extruded cork,'' Theunissen said in a recent telephone interview.
Theunissen also pointed out that his product is coextruded as a polyethylene-blend foam core covered with a plastic-based skin. He declined to identify the material used for the cork's outer skin.
``We've built a better mousetrap and we think in the end that [Supreme Corq's] suit is a restriction of trade,'' Theunissen said.
Nomaco, which has filed a formal response challenging Supreme Corq's suit, started marketing Nomacorc earlier this year after a three-year research effort. The company eventually hopes to manufacture Nomacorc at all four of its North Carolina production facilities — two in Zebulon and one each in Youngsville and Tarboro. The company also has three plants in Europe.
Since its inception in 1992, Supreme Corq has grown to serve 230 wineries worldwide. Of that total, about 90 are in the United States, which is home to 1,800 wineries overall. The company employs about 25 in a 36,000-square-foot facility in Kent. Sales figures were unavailable.
``We developed a scientific answer to a major production problem for winemakers worldwide — how to best seal their wine in a bottle,'' Zech said. ``Challenges such as this patent infringement are unwanted but compelling validation that we are on the right track.''
A Supreme Corq spokesman said other companies have attempted to enter the synthetic closure market in recent years, but Nomaco's product would be the first direct competition to Supreme Corq.
No court date has been set in the Supreme Corq-Nomaco battle.
Zech said six or seven other companies are developing prototypes of new synthetic closures and there is ``plenty of room for competition'' in the fledgling market.
``It's just a matter of people being innovative and not borrowing our intellectual property,'' he said.
The synthetic cork market could grow as cork supplies dwindle, but the new corks still face perception problems, according to Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based industry organization.
The world's total cork supply comes from the bark of cork oak trees grown in Portugal, but a typical crop takes at least seven years to harvest. Attempts to grow the trees in California have failed.
At the same time, U.S. wine consumption has grown in each of the past four years. Most of this growth has been in premium wines, which are more likely to use corks, than in cheaper ``jug wines'' with twist-off lids.
``Wine producers are slowly accepting the reality of not having much quality cork around,'' Horiuchi said. ``I don't know how many bottles of wine have been ruined because of bad cork.
``People are realizing there are some advantages to synthetic cork, but they've done so rather reluctantly because of the cork-supply situation,'' she added.