The Benefits of Achieving “Rock Star” Status

It is during the cold, wet winter months that I endeavor to get most of our bottling done here at Montoliva. Unlike most 1,500-2,000 case-a-year wineries, I own all my own bottling equipment, and thus have the luxury of moving wine from barrel in to bottle slowly and methodically.  The goal is usually to get 4 or 5 different wines bottled each month, with each bottling day resulting in 75-140 cases completed.

It is during this season that decisions are made about what kind of bottles to use, what kind of corks will work best, how the labels will be printed and what they will say. Packaging materials also dictate a fair amount of a winery’s overall carbon footprint. Do we use glass or box? Light weight bottles or heavy? Screwcap or cork? Natural cork or plastic cork? Soy-based or petroleum-based ink on the label?  And then there’s the capsule.

There is no part of the packaging of a bottle of wine that I wrestle with more than the capsule. It’s not just “what color” it should be. It is more fundamental than that. Do I even use a capsule? Do I physically put a capsule on the top of the bottle and stick the bottle in my capsule “spinner” to adhere it to the bottle? I’m frankly not a fan of capsules.  Sure, they look pretty, they can really accentuate a label, in that “Wall of Wine” at the local Safeway, the capsule could mean the difference between your bottle being pulled off the shelf, and someone else’s. However, beyond their decorative value, they serve no utilitarian purpose, and this is the source of my ambivalence.

Wine capsules are made of one of two materials, either tin or plastic. Almost all of the tin mined in the world comes from a few mines in the Sub-Sahara African region encompassing the “Democratic” Republic of Congo. Tin mining in this region today is what conflict diamonds were to the same region a generation ago. And we don’t even want to talk about the lack of basic worker safety and environmental controls of these mines. No thanks. And as for plastic capsules…well, I already use more petroleum based products than I prefer. I’d rather use less if possible.

So, seems like an easy decision, right? The capsule serves no useful purpose, and using them increases the winery’s carbon footprint at a time when I’d like to reduce it. Alas, over the decades, wine consumers have come to expect to see a capsule on the bottle. In 2009 I tried leaving the capsule off of our 2007 vintage Sangiovese. The lack of capsule was noticed, and commented on, often. Many of our guests had the uncomfortable feeling that I had forgotten an important part of the overall wine production process. And if I’d forgotten this part, what else was I forgetting to do?

A wry little joke in the wine world is that you know when a winemaker reaches “Rock Star” status (ie: getting their face on the cover of Wine Spectator Magazine) because they stop filtering their white wines and stop putting capsules on their bottles. Once you reach cult-winemaker status, wine consumers will buy your wine no matter if your white wine is a little cloudy, or whether or not the bottle is properly dressed.

I’ve never been on the cover of Wine Spectator (last year’s April Fool’s Day email notwithstanding), however, this winter season I’ve decided that even if I’m not really a Rock Star, I’m still going to act like one (without the hotel room destruction part), and stop putting capsules on our bottles. I encourage you to come by, sample our current releases….see if you can tell the difference.  Cheers, Mark Henry

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