Most wines are adorned with a capsule atop the bottle. Whether made of plastic, aluminum, tin or something else, they are so ubiquitous sommeliers have an elaborate ritual to cut through them. Screwcap bottles emulate them.
But as omnipresent as they are, the time has come for wine capsules to go away.
Historically, capsules were used to protect against vermin chewing on cork, to keep the top of a bottle clean and to make it more difficult to counterfeit wine. With cellars mercifully cleaner and less rodent infested, counterfeiters more sophisticated and wineries having better ways to ensure authenticity, capsules today serve two purposes: decoration and branding.
“They add absolutely nothing outside of visual value and cost a fortune,” laments Morgan Lee, owner of Two Vintners in Maltby, Washington. “But consumers have been trained to see them as a marker of quality.”
Indeed, capsules are not cheap. Tin ones, for example, can add over $4 per case; that’s a six-figure investment for a 25,000 case per year winery.
In addition to adding unnecessary cost, most capsules ultimately end up in a landfill. While capsules made of certain materials can be recycled, in practice this rarely happens. Their use increases the environmental impact of every bottle.
In recent years, some wineries have done away with capsules.
“I gave them up last year due to environmental concerns and one more thing to fuss with when opening the bottle,” says Robin Pollard, owner of Pollard Vineyard in Vashon, Washington.
Others are putting a dab of wax on top of the cork or have replaced capsules with neck labels, which provide both a branding opportunity and a decorative element.
While the tide might be turning, capsules remain more common than not, with some wineries concerned about how customers might respond to a change. Fielding Hills Winery in Chelan, Washington, “begrudgingly” uses capsules but is considering getting rid of them.
“A couple years ago we went rogue and did not put [capsules] on our rosé and our second label [wine],” says Karen Wade, owner of Fielding Hills Winery. “There was not a raised eyebrow by any consumer.”
In the end, the argument against capsules is unassailable. Wine is rooted in agriculture, and the industry is imperiled by climate change. 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.
Getting rid of capsules would save wineries money and do a solid for the environment. In the end, it might be the former that talks.
“I advise my clients to nix them,” says Tracey LaPierre, owner of Seattle Wine Lab. “I use the environmental impact argument, but the money saving impact is what sways their decision.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Published: February 20, 2022