Time for Wine to Go Topless

The capsule is traditional, but is it actually necessary?
© iStock | The capsule is traditional, but is it actually necessary?
Are wine capsules a crucial element of the theatre of opening a bottle or a crime against humanity?
By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Wednesday, 01-Sep-2021

Do you prefer your wine topless, or shrouded in a traditional tin tabard?

That’s an extreme analogy, but the emotions surrounding this seemingly insignificant accessory are immoderate themselves. On the one hand, you have topless advocates who say it’s pointless and terrible for the environment to add a dodgy tin hat on a bottle, and on the other, you have traditionalists who believe that the capsule provides them with an easy way to distinguish themselves on the shelf, and that furthermore, bottles without them look "weird".

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A scan of any major wine retailer will tell you that the traditionalists have the upper hand. There are far more bottles with tops, instead of sans. But the silent majority is quiet, perhaps afraid amid this time of economic and environmental degradations imperiling our planet's health to boast too loudly about the necessity of these superfluous tops. (Trust me, I asked around!)

What was once an underground movement appears to be headed for the mainstream.

"Initially in the mid-aughts when I came across a capsule-less bottle, I felt as if something was missing," says Eduardo Porto Carreiro, beverage director at Atlanta's Rocket Farm Restaurants. "My first impression was that the package was incomplete. But over the last decade, this aesthetic choice has become more ubiquitous, and I now appreciate the subtle nod to sustainability."

Carreiro adds that those who eschew the foil also tend to "make the honest and unadorned wines that I happen to gravitate to".

The metallic top first emerged in the 18th Century, to protect wine bottles from vermin and light. Until the 1990s – unbelievably – lead was used in the caps. After an uproar over possibly contamination of the wine (that foil, unless removed entirely, makes contact with the liquid as it glugs out of the bottle), and its proven danger in landfills, tin, polylaminate, aluminum and PVC became the norm.

Ethical issues

Tin is a primary ingredient in most "premium" capsules, but that ingredient has a raft of issues itself.

"Most wine drinkers assume capsules are made from aluminum, but most are made from tin,” says Melaney Schmidt, winemaker at Oregon's Landmass Wines. "Tin is mined in places without the same humanitarian laws that we have in place in the United States."

Indeed, dozens of exposes have revealed how tin mining has devastated the environment in Nigeria and Indonesia, and killed and maimed the adults and children who work in these mines.

The difficulty in establishing a chain of provenance was part of the reason Landmass avoided the capsules when they launched in 2018.

"The wine industry is inherently global, even if we try to source everything as locally as possible," Schmidt notes. "Everything we do, we try to make as clean and environmentally responsible as possible, and that means knowing where every item comes from. We just couldn't do that with capsules, so we opted to go without."

There's also the small matter of the environment.

Every municipality has a different stance on capsules. In Napa, for example, metal foil capsules, but not plastic capsules can be recycled …. BUT they have to be segregated and not thrown in the bin with the bottle. Every town has a different approach: do you know yours? Chances are, most of us are tossing the entire bottle into the bin, to have the workers at the plant deal with the labels and capsules as they will (or won’t).

At Ken Wright Cellars in Carlton, Oregon, co-founder Ken Wright says that their mission "as a company is to lessen our demand on the environment".

Their closures are comprised of 100 percent renewable sugar cane, and have a negative carbon footprint, he says.

"Capsules serve no real function other than to be decorative," Wright adds. "The ore from which tin is made, cassiterite, is not renewable. It is a finite resource that once fully tapped will be forever gone. If people religiously recycled capsules then mining could be lessened, but they do not."

When James Sparks launched the 1000 case Kings Carey Wines, Santa Barbara, in 2016, he wanted to streamline the recycling process for the consumer.

"While I know people like them, the foil caps just generate too much waste," Sparks says. "Our carbon footprint for wine is already way more than it should be, and this is one avoidable aspect. Small steps can make big impacts, slowly but surely."

Melaney Schmidt of Oregon's Landmass Wines gave up the capsule for ethical reasons.
© Landmass | Melaney Schmidt of Oregon's Landmass Wines gave up the capsule for ethical reasons.

That's why Jennifer Reichart, winemaker at the 2000-case Raft Wines in Sonoma never even considered capsules.

"We are focused on sustainability and environmental practices, and the capsules are shipping international and just thrown away," Reichart says. "More often than not, people in my [Millennial] generation also don't know why capsules are even there. Not using them has been great for my brand to see the little Duck foot logo on the end too. On a shelf on the side, our wine bottle is instantly recognizable. So it’s actually helped with marketing."

For William Allen, winemaker at Sonoma's Two Shepherds, foil caps seem downright offensive.

"When we launched in 2010 with 175 cases, we made the conscious decision to never use foil," he says. "Why would we waste time, energy and environmental resources on something completely superfluous? It's vanity dressing! Don't get me started."

It's also, Allen argues, a potential hazard for serious collectors.

"I have a big cellar myself, and the first thing I do before I lay a bottle down is rip off that foil," he says. "Without the foil, you can see if there's an issue with the cork, you can see if there's seepage."

Aesthetic choice

"We naturally default to less waste, so even though we launched using capsules because that's traditional, we realized that we didn't have to use them just because it's the norm," says Walla Walla's Brook & Bull winemaker Ashley Trout. "We got rid of them in 2019, knowing their provenance was murky, their carbon footprint was large and it was one more unnecessary detail to worry about."

For Trout, it was also a subtle way to signal to wine drinkers about what they'd find inside the bottle.

"In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes that 'perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away'," she says. "That's how I make wine. We like the terroir and the vintage variation to shine through. We don't interrupt the process with a lot of oak. We try to make our packaging reflect that."

Other winemakers are in the process of or seriously considering, converting to a foil-free presentation.

At Brick & Mortar in Napa, for example, winemaker and co-founder Matt Iaconis says they only use foil closures for their single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnays, totaling about 400 cases of their annual 3000-case run.

"The prestige or upper-tier Chardonnays and Pinots still have closures, and we've considered getting rid of them entirely," Iaconis says. "It would make it more cohesive with our appellation and sparkling wines, and save on needless trash. The carbon footprint is also a concern. We try to get as many local purveyors as possible, but capsules do come from overseas on freight ships, which have a big carbon footprint."

So what's the hold up? "We've gotten pushback from members of the wine trade, and we sell wine to several markets in Canada, where wines are required to have a capsule," he says.

Will topless bottles truly go mainstream enough for, for say, premium Bordeaux and Napa vintners to take it up?

"In my 15-plus years in the retail world, not once has anyone made a comment – either positive or negative – about the choice of capsule," says David Metz, district manager at Atlanta's Fine Wine Retail. "But up until now, it is a phenomenon found in certain styles and price points. If a traditionally labeled wine from a classic appellation were to use it, it would probably seem a bit off. It's the wine equivalent of an ironic mustache and a flannel shirt pedaling around on a single-speed bike."

But for sommeliers and beverage directors working the floor – and occasionally knifing themselves while opening dozens of capsules a night? 

"Bring on the foil-free," says Kat Thomas, GM at Ada's Wine Bar in Las Vegas. "Less bloodshed!"

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