Foiled Again

(Originally published October 2000)

A lot of ink gets spilled on the topic of the corks that are used to seal wine bottles. But usually ignored is the humble accessory commonly referred to as the "capsule" or "foil." So, Hanes thought he would discuss that sheath which adorns the fermented grape juice delivery system we all know and love.

Now, capsules come in all shapes, styles, colors and materials. As noted in many sources of wine information, capsules serve no practical purpose since the cork is supposed to do all the sealing necessary to preserve the wine. Traditionally they were made from lead metal but in 1993 the United States and European Union banned the use of lead due to health concerns both during drinking and during waste disposal (they obviously didn't realize that it wasn't lead poisoning from chewing on capsules that was creating so many Mongoloids in society but rampant alcoholism due to the existential ennui created by life in late-stage capitalist societies). Older bottles of wine probably have lead-based capsules on them. Today, they are made of a whole bunch of different substances and in many different forms.

Capsules come in a variety of forming, spraying, printing and embossing and in a veritable plethora of colors. All this is entirely decorative (although sometimes some useful information is printed on the capsule top) and meant to mesh beautifully with the bottle shape and label style and thus create the perfect aesthetic experience which would induce you, the consumer, to buy that $100 Cabernet or $6 White Zinfandel. Sometimes, having a distinctive capsule helps to thwart easy counterfeiting of one's wines. Many winemakers are foregoing the capsule altogether and moving to alternative closure systems. One, the Wax Cap, is a natural wax disk that is applied on top of a recessed cork. It's biodegradable and allows one to inspect the cork for leakage damage, etc. The B-Cap is a laminated disk made of natural food waxes and cast coat paper which is applied in a manner similar to the Wax Cap but allows for more artwork display and a prettier final product. In many cases, bottles that use either the Wax Cap or the B-Cap have extended bottle lips (called a flange). Examples you may recognize include many Rosemount and Mondavi wines.

Now that we have covered the basics, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. There is only a single reason that it really matters if the capsule is lead, tin or plastic or if a Wax Cap is used. To look slick in removing it, dammit! Think about it. There you are, Mr. Wine Know-It-All, expounding about the shades of nuance between the immortal wines of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny. In a restaurant, you get lucky because it's the fool waiter who is supposed to open the damn bottle and risk looking like an idiot in the process. As long as they cut the foil below the bump near the lip, no metal nor plastic pieces should accidentally fall into the wine glasses during pouring. But at home or at a private function, you will have to handle getting the capsule or wax cap off while trying to appear suave and debonair. First, you twist the capsule a little bit to see if it turns, a sign that there has been no wine leakage or excessive mold which would have stuck the capsule to the bottle. With a capsule, unless you have a foil cutter with those little circular blades, you usually use the small knife that comes with the corkscrew to cut the foil off. These damnable things are always too blunt to do the job right! Invariably you end up cutting your finger either on the knife or on the jagged foil edges your incompetent cutting job produced. As you are standing there and bleeding into the wine, your date is gonna be less concerned about lead poisoning than about the last time you had your blood screened for STDs or "Mad Cow" disease. If you do manage to remove the top of the capsule without maiming yourself, you can only consider yourself lucky. With those wax caps, they always get stuck on the corkscrew and once you remove the cork from the corkscrew the wax cap remains there looking all dorky and you have to figure out if it's legit to just ignore it and leave it there or struggle to remove yet another foreign object from the corkscrew. Hanes hates those wax caps...

FYI, riven with rampant insecurity about his own knife-wielding skills, Hanes owns a circular foil cutter. Yet he cannot but feel this is a capitulation to an obvious-to-all inability to wield the cutting knife properly. After all the awkward embarrassment involved with removing the capsule, removing the cork and then pouring the wine without spilling it all over himself or the table, it is no wonder Hanes feels like he needs a drink. And you thought it was easy being a world famous wine reviewer...