You’ve seen bottles with wax capsules. They look elegant, sleek, traditional, expensive. They conjure images of peasant vignerons of yore carefully hand-dipping bottles in molten wax, creating a seal that protects the cork from the ravages of time and rodents in the cellar. But today, they are just an affectation. After all, capsules of any ilk are on their way out.
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For years, I’ve understood the best way to open a wax-sealed wine bottle is to dig your corkscrew through the top and pull the cork through the seal. It works, sometimes, leaving a neat circle of wax on the top of the cork and a clean opening for the wine. But just as often, the wax fragments, dropping pieces into the wine and all over the table. It leaves a mess to clean up, and makes a mess of my mood. In this way, wax capsules are like obscenely heavy bottles — expressions of a winemaker’s ego that makes a bad impression before I even try the wine.
I had one of those problem bottles recently. The worm of my corkscrew went through the wax just fine. But when I tried to anchor the lever on the edge of the bottle, it slipped, gouging parallel lines in the wax. I gave it a quarter turn and tried again. Same result. I finally managed to pull the cork out halfway, but it was clear there was cleanup to do before I could enjoy the wine.
Feeling frustrated, I did what wine lovers do: I took a photo and posted a rant on social media. “Can we please outlaw wax seals on wine bottles?” I wailed.
Well, that sparked a tempest in a spit bucket. I heard choruses of support and cat-calls of derision. There were several tut-tuts of “first-world problems” and admonitions to “get a life.” “User error” was a common comment. Many people apparently do cut around the edge of the wax just like any other capsule.
Winemaker Adam Lee thought he recognized a bottle of his Beau Marchais pinot noir, which he made in partnership with the late French winemaker Philippe Cambie. Lee, who uses screw caps on his own wines under the Clarice label (and previously at Siduri), took me to task, sort of. Difficult to open, may get pieces in the wine — all true of cork, too, he wrote. “Why not propose banning cork? That … would be taking a stand!”
For the record, my problem bottle was not Lee’s wine. He says he uses a soft wax on Beau Marchais, and he opens it the way I do — straight through the seal with the corkscrew. But as the comments on my rant revealed, not everyone agrees with that.
“There are some that are like cement — you just need to hack away at them,” said Jarad Slipp, proprietor of Tremolo wine bar and Knead wine store and pizza joint in Middleburg, Va. Slipp, who has a master’s sommelier lapel pin, has no strong feelings about wax capsules.
If you get one of those hard wax capsules, Decanter magazine says chip away!
What to do with leftover wine? Relax.
“Wrap the bottle in a plastic bag and tap the wax top lightly but firmly with the handle of your corkscrew,” the magazine suggests. “The wax will eventually start to crack. The bag will prevent wax shards flying all over your dinner table.”
While I had him on the phone, I asked Slipp about the “proper” way to cut a more traditional capsule made of aluminum or plastic. “Cut around the bottom edge of the lip at the top of the bottle,” he explained. “It’s more sanitary that way.”
Foil cutters, those heart-shaped contraptions with small metal discs that cut the capsule, work at the top of the lip, and if you cut there, no one will scold you. And many capsules are loose enough that you can simply pull the whole thing off, etiquette be damned.
Lee’s favored screw caps are easiest, of course: lefty loosey, righty tighty. No knives required, usually.
If you make wine or beer at home, you can seal it with wax for that traditional, elegant look. A one-pound jar of bottle sealing wax from BW Blended Waxes Inc. of Oshkosh, Wis. — enough to seal 25 to 30 bottles — is available for less than $20 on Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Apsny News.) It comes in little pellets that resemble dog kibble. And that conjures up an image of a whole other type of cleanup.