Sunday, October 14, 2007

Capping Out

~It seems there’s a story behind every little detail connected to wine. For instance, there appears to be a story behind the reason for capsules, those sometimes plastic, sometimes light metal often-colorful things that cover the cork and the top portion of the neck of the wine bottle.
~The story I’ve heard is that back in the nineteenth century, when the butler was responsible for opening the wine bottle, some butlers did a bait and switch; they poured the good wine for themselves upon delivery, filled the bottle with plonk and then re-corked it.
~The capsule, or foil as it is sometimes called, was designed to prevent the butlers from doing their nasty deed.
~I make no claim on the validity of this story. In fact, knowing that the cork was being stamped with the producer’s logo, etc., to prevent similar kinds of activity, makes me think the capsule story is made up.
~Capsules seem more likely to have been invented to “finish” the look of the increasingly slick wine package.
~Many old capsules were produced from lead, but you know where that will get you today…
~A tin or metal alloy was—and still is—used, but that sometimes leads to a fine, thin cut on a thumb or finger.
~Plastic seems the capsule of choice these days, when the producer chooses to apply a capsule, that is.
~It seems some producers have been doing away with slipping the capsule over the cork, preferring instead to top the cork with maybe a dot of hardened wax and let the cork show through the glass. It works for me. A bottle with no capsule gives me one less thing to pull at in order to get to the wine, which after all is why I buy the bottle in the first place.
~No capsule also likely cuts producer cost.
~The environment probably also benefits from the vanishing capsule. I don’t think any material used for wine bottle capsules is biodegradable or if there is one it likely takes longer to degrade then the life of a small universe!
~I know for certain one wine bottle topping that doesn’t biodegrade: the screwcap—at least my recycler says so.
~A few weeks ago I was told that I had to take the metal thing that remains as the second half of the screwcap off the bottle neck before handing the bottle over for recycling.
~Fine, I said, I’ll take them off, and then I stupidly tried to do it.
~I am a proponent of the screwcap. I have found no reason not to like its use, until now.
~The fact that the metal screwcap is nearly impossible to completely remove from the bottleneck and that it is not biodegradable makes me rethink my enthusiasm for the product.
As I write this entry, I am thinking about my feelings for wine closures and capsules. Here’s the tally:
I like cork, but hate TCA infected corks, which seem to show up on the most expensive bottles of wine or at the most anticipatory dinners.
I hate those plastic things that are supposed to look and act like cork—they don’t, in either case.
I can live without the capsule; it serves no purpose that I can discern, except that it looks nice.
The screwcap is a great alternative closure: it has yet to bring me TCA; it is not intended to look or act like a cork, and so it doesn’t; it is truly easy to open. Alas, it is a problem for the environment—bad, bad.
~If you want my advice wine industry, do away with corks, plastic thingies, screwcaps, and of course capsules. In fact, do away with bottles.
~If you want my advice government regulators, allow wine producers to sell their wines from small casks or stainless tanks so that customers can bring our own containers and fill up from the tap.
~Such a change would lower the cost of wine, promote social interaction as we gather around the keg, and it would help the environment.
~Look closely—is my tongue in my cheek or is it not?

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October 2007. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Tom,
    If you haven't done so already chase down a copy of George Taber's fascinating "To Cork or Not to Cork" (Scribner, 2007). It details the many pros and cons to various closures in a compelling and well-balanced fashion IMHO. Taber even suggests that "butler" was historically derived from "bottler," which relates to your concerns above. Cheers.

  2. It's still a possibility in some Italian towns to do exactly as you describe: byob to be filled from a barrel at the winery. I've had some delicious table wine that was stored in re-used 1 liter water bottles.

  3. Erwin,

    I know; I love the concept. They do it parts of France too, and likely elsewhere in Europe.

    It's impossible in the U.S. because of government controls on alcohol.