Are we seeing the end of the wine capsule? The capsule, also called the foil, is one of those anachronisms of wine, a relic of centuries-old tradition that hangs on because wine lovers like to think of themselves as part of a centuries-old tradition. But today we are seeing more and more wines bottled without them.
You’ve probably wrestled with capsules. Those blades on the end of your cork puller are notoriously dull, unable to cut through even the cheapest plastic covering. You really need to exert yourself to remove the top of a tin or aluminum foil capsule, and then worry about cutting your finger or getting shards of foil into the wine. And I’ll bet you’ve given up in frustration and just wrestled the entire thing off the bottle — a no-no for formal sommelier service but very practical at home.
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 to Wine.” The idea was to protect the cork from mold or nibbling critters during the years a bottle was stored in a cobwebby cellar. Today’s cellars are cleaner and rodent-free, and, of course, we drink most of our wine soon after purchase.
So who needs the capsule? They serve no protective purpose — they are mere decoration and branding. We toss them in the landfill, or they remain on the bottles as potential contaminants in the recycling center. They’re a cost to the winemaker (and therefore the consumer) and to the planet.
“Wine is rooted in agriculture, and the industry is imperiled by climate change,” Sean P. Sullivan wrote in Wine Enthusiast magazine earlier this year. “It makes no sense to preach the importance of sustainability on one hand while putting an unnecessary piece of waste atop every bottle with the other.” The online version of the article is headlined, “Those shrink-wrapped sleeves atop wine bottles have got to go.”
The fanciest capsules can add as much as $4 to the producer’s cost of a case of wine, Sullivan wrote. We consumers pay for those, and we just toss them away.
I asked three winemakers why they abandoned capsules. Their answers ranged from cost to image, always with the environment in mind.
“I was bootstrapping the business in the beginning, always thinking about how I could minimize cost without sacrificing quality,” said Martha Stoumen, a Sonoma County-based leader of California’s natural wine movement. Smaller wineries need to rent special equipment to spin capsules onto bottles, as well as hire an extra worker to handle that machine, she said.
And she had environmental concerns. “Having no capsule definitely cuts down on waste,” she said, noting she also uses lightweight glass bottles and paper labels to help reduce her wines’ environmental footprint. “Capsules are purely ornamental, and I actually like the way a bottle looks without one,” she said.
Thomas Vogele, owner and winemaker of Luke wines in the Wahluke Slope area of Washington’s Columbia Valley, also likes the clean look of his bottles without capsules. “We weren’t the first to do this, but we definitely have a look that I think wineries are slowly trending toward,” he said. Waste and cost were also factors. “The capsule was the one element in packaging we really could do without, and financially it made sense.”
And he quickly realized another advantage: “Bottles without capsules are that much more convenient for consumers and restaurant staff to open,” Vogele said.
When Maryland’s Old Westminster Winery debuted nine years ago, the bottles featured traditional labels with gold-leaf lettering and capsules over the corks. But that seemed “a bit too buttoned up for three kids who are first-generation bootstrapped farmers,” said winemaker Lisa Hinton, who runs the family winery with her brother, Drew Baker, and sister, Ashli Johnson. (I’m now considering a change.org petition to rename wine capsules as 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 spare, calligraphy label and no capsule. “Recently we started dipping some bottles in wax for a more distinctive look.”
If you do find a bottle with a wax capsule, such as Old Westminster’s delicious 2021 rosé, don’t worry about trying to cut it away — you’ll just end up with a mess and frustration. Simply twist the spiral worm of your cork puller through the wax and into the cork, then pull. The cork will make a neat hole in the wax on its way out.
When you do see a bottle without any capsule over the cork, don’t think something is missing. You’ve found a winemaker who’s not bound by outdated traditions, who cares for the planet and prefers to put time, money and effort into the wine instead of superfluous packaging.