Virtually all professional winemakers finish the tops of their wine bottles with some kind of capsule — and while we are as unprofessional as they come, we’ve mostly done the same. Whether it’s composed of wax, lead, tin, or plastic, the capsule is thought to help protect the cork from microbial intrusion, but also to betray any evidence of tampering. A swig-safety cap, if you will.
But what if that seal — whose function is to keep the wine safe — is itself unsafe? That’s what I wondered when I discovered that the capsules we’d been using (and most of the industry uses) are made from PVC, a material targeted by scores of watchdog agencies for its dire environmental impact.
So I did some research, and the surprisingly terrifying results spurred me into a little R&D about how to finish our treasured bottles differently. This gripping journey of revelation and redemption awaits you below the fold…
Why use capsules in the first place?
Back when the only choice in high-end wine packaging was amphorae, wax was the seal of choice, often embossed with a signet. But while some wineries still use wax, the molded “capsule” is now vastly preferred. High-end wines were first sealed with lead (often with a dash of tin), but by the early 90s, that material had been phased out of production, for obvious reasons. Now, winemakers have a choice between pure (or nearly pure) tin on the high end, various “polylam” concoctions in the middle (typically some combo of PVC plastic and aluminum), and straight plastic on the low end.
But are they any more than just a pretty chapeau capping a bottle of wine? People who sell them certainly say so:
“Capsules do provide wineries something that wax (seals) alone could not, and that is the ability to protect the uppermost portion of bottles from harmful containinants,” [says] Jon Henderson, account manager at Maverick Enterprises, Inc., Ukiah, Calif.
Most winemakers I’ve talked to, however, say capsules don’t represent much of a barrier between skunge and your precious wine. If mold is really bent on wriggling down between the cork and the inside of the bottle neck on a savage mission of plunder, the capsule is a cheap rent-a-cop, happy to look the other way.
So for most of the industry, it’s primarly an opportunity to extend the package design and branding to the top of the bottle, increasing shelf appeal and perceived value. And if a capsule also serves to indicate whether a wine’s been tampered with, so much the better.
That was certainly my thinking when I began designing a label and package for Les Garagistes. There’s something “finished” and composed about a bottle sealed in some way. Compare that to one left showing cork through bottle-neck: the former signifies professional, the latter home-made. Sure, that’s because tradition and marketing have long cemented these associations. But precisely because that’s true, you can work with them or off of them when you design a package, but you can’t simply ignore them: that’s what your audience has been trained to understand by that particular packaging choice.
(Now, this isn’t to say that attributes signifying “home-made” are bad — and after all, our wine is made just beneath one such home. It just means you need to be thoughtful about what they evoke before you evoke them.)
So the easy solution was heat-shrink plastic capsules, available in an array of colors for 10 cents or less a unit. Just slip them on the bottle, hit ’em with a heat gun or submerge the top in boiling water, and the plastic shrinks to a svelte form-fit around the neck — just like the pros, only cheaper!
Shorter living through chemistry
The problem, unfortunately, is that these savings come at a cost — and the piper is paid at every stage of the material’s life cycle. According to the Healthy Building Network, for example, “PVC is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, posing major hazards in its manufacture, product life and disposal.”
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is comprised of chlorine, carbon, and hydrogen, and when it is created, the oxychlorination reactions at the heart of the process inevitably produce dioxins (or more specifically, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and dibenzofurans), highly toxic substances which have been linked to immune system suppression, birth defects, cancers, and endometriosis. According to the Endometriosis Association, dioxins
can act as endocrine disruptors, which means that they have the ability to mimic or block hormones in the body …
[ snip ]
It is believed that almost all living beings on earth have dioxin-like compounds in their body tissue. No amount of dioxin exposure can be considered safe, as very small amounts have been associated with impaired development, reproduction, neurological, and immune function. The EPAâ€™s most recent report concluded that the cancer risk to the general population from dioxin is now as high as one in one hundred people. Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind.
Okay, so maybe dioxin has a bit of a PR problem. But after manufacture, its dioxic effluent safely floating in the bowl behind it, PVC is ready to go out into the world and make a better tomorrow, yes?Not quite. Because PVC is naturally brittle,
PVC is useless without the addition of a plethora of toxic chemical stabilizers — such as lead, cadmium and organotins — and phthalate plasticizers. These leach, flake or outgas from PVC over time raising risks that include asthma, lead poisoning and cancer.
While most US manufacturers have voluntarily stopped making babies’ chew toys out of PVC for this reason, the plastic has found its way into a long list of other products, from pipes, siding and flooring to shower curtains, new car interiors and vintage Barbie dolls.
Of course, to get at our wine, the sharper among us prefer a corkscrew to chewing through the top of a bottle, so you could argue this issue isn’t of greater concern to the wine industry than anyone else. But aside from discarded capsules leaching crap into the waste stream, PVC is also dangerous when it’s heated — and that’s precisely how plastic wine capsules get shrunk to form-fit around the top of a bottle.
True, most citations I found about the dangers of PVC and heat focus on when it’s burned (as in a house fire) or incinerated (as in municipal waste disposal): at those temperatures, vinyl chloride produces hydrogen chloride gas, and, when inhaled, hydrochloric acid (in addition to more dioxins).
But what about when it’s simply heated, as opposed to burned? That seems to be less clear cut. The Healthy Building Network entry on PVC as a fire hazard mentions that the plastic “releases deadly gases long before it ignites,” but how long it doesn’t say. An excellent and admirably balanced article on BuildingGreen.com notes in passing that
Decomposing PVC is a problem in particular with wiring, which frequently overheats for a long time before it ignites. As the temperature rises further, phthalate plasticizers (such as DOP) give off phthalate anhydride, according to Wallace [project leader with public service projects at the Consumers Union], which is a heart toxin.
Regardless of what point it becomes truly toxic, then, PVC is probably best left shivering in the corner — and therefore, not heated to shrink fit the tops of wine bottles.As you might imagine, there’s an array of counterpoint to the safety issue of PVC, though much of it is funded by the PVC industry (through the “Vinyl Institute“), and it appears dwarfed by the scientific consensus on the issue. For example, an article on FoxNews.com (go figure…) argues that
PVC plastic has been used safely for more than 70 years in a variety of medical and commercial applications and humans. No reports of adverse human health effects have been reported from intravenous (IV) bags and medical tubing made with PVC, according to a 2002 report by the Food and Drug Administration.
[ snip ]
Environmental extremists mindlessly disapprove of chemicals, particularly the industrial chemicals involved in the manufacture PVC. Though they canâ€™t get government regulators to take action against PVC, anti-chemical extremists havenâ€™t given up.
Awkwardly, however, that article was written by Steven Milloy, “a frequent advocate for free enterprise/free market principles” (according to his own website) whom Sourcewatch exposed as a “lobbyist for major corporations and trade organisations which have poisioning or polluting problems.”
Well, as Upton Sinclair quipped in 1935, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And to be sure, there’s enough scientific consensus that PVC is less than beatific that the industry is probably just muddying the issue to buy time to re-tool on its schedule (as we’ve seen with global warming opponents). Indeed, as the GreenBuilding.com article I mentioned above notes,
To the credit of the chlorine and PVC industries and government regulatory bodies, however, vast improvements have been made in manufacturing processes over the past twenty years, and many of the worst environmental offenders (DDT, dieldrin, and CFCs, for example) are already gone or on their way out. The residual vinyl chloride gas in PVC products has been reduced to (perhaps) insignificant levels, compared with two decades ago.
So they’re addressing the problem, even as they deny it exists. The GreenBuilding.com authors conclude:
The environmental and health risks associated with PVC are greatest at the two ends of its lifetime: during manufacturing and disposal (if by incineration). Most PVC products are safe to use and some offer significant durability, cost, and maintenance advantages compared with competing products.
[ snip ]
For builders and architects, our recommendation is not to avoid vinyl altogether, but to seek out better, safer, and more environmentally responsible alternatives.
The case before us as winemakers is no different. The toxicity of PVC in a wafer-thin wine capsule may indeed be minuscule, and indeed, it’s vanishingly unlikely that it will affect the wine it seals. But there’s also no doubt that PVC poses significant dangers at the beginning and end of its life cycle, so if there’s even a question that the application and disposal of wine capsules is hazardous, why not pursue an alternative?
Introducing the Les Garagistes Papsuleâ„¢.Hm. Okay… Introducing the Bottle Braâ„¢. Uh, Pomerol Pastieâ„¢? Bottle Blingâ„¢? Work with me here…
That’s what led me to the seal design we tried out during the last bottling. It’s inkjet on paper, cut into strips and then glued onto the bottle after the label goes on. It nods toward the traditional tax seals placed over hard liquor bottles (and on Chianti, though they serve a different function), so it has a curious authenticity and authority to it.
In addition, reclaiming the top of the bottle with our own art means we control what gets said there. After a few design rounds, we decided that our URL made the most sense up the side, since that economically points toward the site where a festering vat of information lays bubbling. But perhaps most helpful, it also allows us to mark the vintage date on the top, so that bottles are easier to ID when they’re in repose on a rack.
(Note also the rare image of Les Garagistes in action in the photo above.)
Of course, this solution is not without its downsides. Putting aside whether using paper and inkjet inks isn’t also environmentally destructive (but come on: compared to PVC?), these little strips are a bitch to apply. I’d wager that adding them at least doubled, if not tripled the amount of time it took to finish a bottle.
I have a few ideas for some jerry-rigged technology that might make application quicker and less messy (and if you have any ideas, please let us know), but however we end up sticking them on, paper seals feel a lot better to me than PVC.