Friday, June 22, 2012
Dad and the Plastic Champagne Cork
In the 1967 movie The Graduate, young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is cornered at a party by one of his father’s contemporaries who conspiratorially offers him a one-word piece of business advice: Plastics. For most people who saw the movie then, it was a great gag line. For me, it was personal.
My father was one of the people who got into plastics in the early 1950s, and he did pretty well at it. He had a little shop in Pasadena where he made a lot of precision parts used at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other high-tech places. He and the people he worked with could put together a mold to make almost anything, and he was always willing to talk with someone who had an idea.
That, I assume, is how he met the guy with the idea for a plastic champagne cork. It was the early 1960s, when I was ten or eleven. An internet search turned up a patent for a synthetic cork granted to Julius Fessler on March 8, 1960, which would fit. Fessler lived in California, so I’m guessing it was he who somehow found my father. Drawings from the Fessler patent certainly look very much like my recollection of the prototype cork my father made.
What I also remember was that Dad was on fire about the plastic cork. It would be cheaper than real cork, seal more precisely, and wouldn’t rot in the bottle. Better in every way. How could it lose?
One of the things you need to know about my father at this point is that he was a great salesman. Shortly after World War II he got hired at a Chevrolet dealership in Los Angeles and sold more cars than anyone else every year he was there. Many times I’ve wished I inherited that sales gene, but it seems to have skipped a generation.
So Dad set out to make the plastic cork the coin of the realm in the champagne industry. I have a vivid recollection of a family vacation where we went to the mountains (Sequoia National Park, I believe) for some R&R, then descended into California’s Central Valley for a week and stopped at just about every winery in California. Or so it seemed.
It was the middle of the summer and perishing hot. Dad would go in to make the sales call while my mother, sister and I waited outside in the station wagon, which quickly became unbearable. There was usually a shade tree nearby, but it was over 100 even in the shade. After the first few stops, my sister and I were bored out of our minds, and my mother had to increase the soft-drink ration in order to avoid a rebellion.
And it was all for nothing. My father, great salesman that he was, got laughed out of most of the wineries and never made a sale. They said the public would never go for a plastic cork, and that it was simply out of the question. He kept after it another year or so but never made a dime from it.
In the 1970s, I remember bringing home a bottle of champagne to have with my girlfriend (now my wife) and being stunned, when I took the foil off, to see a plastic cork. More than a decade after my father had gotten nowhere with it, the idea finally caught on. It taught me a valuable lesson. You can have a great product and a great salesman but still fail. Luck and timing matter.