If you pay just minimal attention to the foil when opening a wine bottle, you could conclude that the covering is just decorative. If you looked closer and noticed the small hole at the top, you might assume that the capsule had a function, maybe exposing the cork to a minute amount of air for some reason. In either case, you were probably surprised recently when you opened your monthly wine package and noticed that the bottles were without the capsule that normally covers the cork. I was surprised, too.
When I first tasted last month’s Karah Estate wines, I failed to notice that the winery’s most costly Reserve Pinot Noir did not have a foil. After we opened the cases that were delivered to the warehouse, I assumed that the winery had made an error and quickly called Karah winemaker Jason Baker, who told me that he made a deliberate choice to omit the foil. Coincidently, all of the Hobo wines that followed this month were without capsules, and I was ready with questions when I interviewed owner Kenny Likitprakong.
As is often the case, behaviors remain even when the reasons that they existed cease. Canopies over beds protected people who slept under them when thatched roofs caved in during storms. We no longer have thatched roofs, but some people still have canopies over their beds.
At one time, capsules were placed on corks because they prevented rodents and cork weevils from enjoying the wine before the master of the house. Historically, these foils were made from lead that we eventually understood was poisonous and left traces especially at the top of the bottle, which then entered wine glasses during a pour. Lead was phased out by law in 1996, both in the US and the EU, and now capsules are made from tin, aluminum, or polyethylene.
But in our time of a growing consciousness of scarcity rather than abundance, some young winemakers, especially in California, are choosing to eliminate capsules altogether, since they now serve no purpose whatsoever, the rodent population having been thoroughly chastised for interfering with human activity. Capsules are made from materials that are mined from the earth, cost money, and end up in landfill. They also obscure the cork and fill in the bottle, which is important. If the fill is not close to the cork, the wine may be oxidized.
Occasionally, reason triumphs over habit as it seems to be doing now among some young winemakers. We should drink to that.