Wine Bottle Foil Is Wasteful, Boring – And Goes Away
You’ve probably struggled with capsules. Those blades at the end of your corkscrew are notoriously blunt, unable to cut through even the cheapest plastic coating. You have to really practice removing the top of a tin or foil capsule and then worry about cutting your finger or getting shards of foil in the wine. And I bet you gave up in frustration and got it all back in the bottle – a no-no for a formal but very convenient sommelier service at home.
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Capsules were traditionally made of lead, but these were banned in the United States and the European Union in 1993, according to “The Oxford Companion for Wine.” The idea was to protect the cork from mold or munching critters during the years a bottle was stored in a cobwebbed cellar. Cellars today are cleaner and rodent-free, and of course we drink most of our wine soon after purchase.
So who needs the capsule? They have no protective purpose – they are just decoration and branding. We throw them in the landfill, or they remain on the bottles as potential contaminants in the recycling center. This is a cost for the winegrower (and therefore the consumer) and for the planet.
“Wine is rooted in agriculture and the industry is threatened by climate change,” wrote Sean P. Sullivan in Passionate about wine magazine earlier this year. “It makes no sense to preach the importance of sustainability on one side while putting unnecessary waste on every bottle on the other.” The online version of the article is titled “These shrink sleeves on wine bottles have to go”.
The fanciest capsules can add up to $4 to the cost of a case of wine for the producer, Sullivan wrote. We consumers pay for them and we just throw them away.
I asked three winemakers why they gave up the capsules. Their responses ranged from cost to image, always with the environment in mind.
“I started the business early on, always thinking about how I could minimize costs without sacrificing quality,” said Martha Stoumen, a California natural wine movement leader based in Sonoma County. Smaller wineries have to rent special equipment to spin the caps on the bottles, as well as hire an extra worker to run that machine, she said.
And she had environmental concerns. “The lack of a capsule definitely reduces waste,” she said, noting that she also uses lightweight glass bottles and paper labels to help reduce the environmental footprint of her wines. “The caps are purely ornamental, and I really like the look of a bottle without one,” she said.
Thomas Vogele, owner and winemaker of Luke’s Wines in the Wahluke Slope region of Washington’s Columbia Valley, also loves the clean look of his capless bottles. “We weren’t the first to do this, but we definitely have a look that I think wineries are slowly moving towards,” he said. Waste and cost were also factors. “The capsule was the only piece of packaging we could really do without, and financially it made sense.”
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And he quickly realized another benefit: “Bottles without caps are all the more convenient for consumers and restaurant staff to open,” Vogele said.
When Maryland’s Old Westminster winery debuted nine years ago, bottles featured traditional labels with gold foil lettering and caps on the caps. But it seemed “a bit too complicated for three kids who are first-generation seeded farmers,” said winemaker Lisa Hinton, who runs the family winery with her brother, Drew Baker, and sister, Ashli Johnson. (I am now considering a change.org petition to rename wine capsules to bootstraps.)
“We stopped using them because we felt the aesthetic didn’t match the style of our wines,” Hinton said. They opted for a more “personal” and “natural” look with a calligraphic alternate label and no capsule. “Recently we started dipping some bottles in wax for a more distinctive look.”
If you find a bottle with a wax cap, like Old Westminster’s delicious 2021 rosé, don’t worry about trying to cut it – you’ll be left with a mess and frustration. Simply twist the spiral worm of your corkscrew through the wax and into the cork, then pull. The plug will make a neat hole in the wax as it comes out.
When you see a bottle without a cap on the cap, don’t think something is missing. You have found a winemaker who is not bound by outdated traditions, who cares about the planet and would rather put time, money and effort into wine than unnecessary packaging.