August 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

Topping the Bottle: It's a Free-for-All

Anything goes for closures and capsules in the ever-evolving wine packaging arena

by Jane Firstenfeld

When searching at trade shows, online and in markets for trends in capsules and closures, we came up…empty. With so many choices, winemakers are free to top off their bottles of wine with whatever style seems the best fit for their customers.

For our annual Closures Issue, some of our winery and supplier sources shared observations about the ever-evolving closure industry. They might inspire you to change your style, or confirm your established appearance.

It all starts with the closure
Within the past decade, the natural cork industry has made remarkable strides to protect wine and its consumers from TCA contamination. Last year, Napa, Calif.-based Portocork released what it calls “the world’s first whole natural cork with a 100% TCA-free guarantee,” according to company president Dustin Mowe.

The process screens each individual cork for TCA and eliminates the bad corks from the supply chain in a matter of seconds, Mowe said. It’s a chemical process that forgoes using human testers and thus eliminates sensory fatigue.

The ICON corks are available for Portocork’s top three tiers in 54 mm and 49 mm corks on a limited (and allocated) basis for an additional $150 per 1,000 corks (15 cents each).

Mowe said one of the most significant changes he has observed is a shift among lower priced wines that are reverting from synthetic back to natural cork. It’s an effort to create better quality perception in the $6-$12 per bottle range, he said.

Since corks are imported from Europe, increased strength of the U.S. dollar compared to the euro allows importers to be more competitive in price with alternative closures, Mowe said.

In addition, technical (agglomerated) corks, in which small cork particles are treated to remove TCA and other negative aromatic compounds, can provide competitively priced, high-performing closures that rival lower priced alternatives.

Cork Supply USA, also in Napa, introduced its new VINC technical cork earlier this year, said CEO James Herwatt. Produced at the company’s new facility in Portugal, VINC is made with the VAPEX cleaning process that reduces TCA on cork granules through mass- and heat transfer. It’s a lower cost TCA-removal system that guarantees 0.5 ng/L or less releasable TCA.

Cork Supply quality controls are integrated throughout cork harvest and production. VINC is available in several different granule sizes, with more products in development. The company also developed its own automated cork-screening system known as DS100+.

From plastic to plants
Based in Zebulon, N.C., Nomacorc is undeniably the dominant supplier of synthetic wine stoppers in North America. Malcolm Thompson serves as chief innovation officer and president of the Americas at parent company Vinventions. Nomacorc’s Green Line stoppers are being upgraded to a new category of closures called PlantCorcs, made from sustainably harvested sugar canes, Thompson reported.

The upgrade comes in response to U.S. market trends, including product premiumization across all price points, increasing interest in sustainable products from businesses and consumers, and a “driving need by wineries for improved wine quality consistency and extended wine aging,” Thompson said.

He claimed the Green Line offers improved oxygen-management behavior and aging performance. They are certified with a zero carbon footprint and are fully recyclable. The Classic Green is available in 37 mm and 43 mm lengths; Smart Green in 37 mm and 42 mm; the new Reserva in 44 mm, 49 mm and 52 mm. Zest, a sparkling wine stopper introduced in Europe last year and set to debut in North America, is 46 mm long.

Growth is driven by both new and existing customers adopting Green Line and switching from natural/agglomerated stoppers, Thompson said, citing an appearance that takes its cues from nature. With 80% of Nomacorc customers now using Green Line products, the company hopes to transition all its customers to Green Line by the end of 2018, Thompson said.

In North America, the vast majority of customers want branded closures, as opposed to Europe, where generic branding is more common. Green Line offers multiple print colors and end-branding options.

Vinventions also has branched out into micro-agglomerate closures by launching SÜBR, which is guaranteed TCA taint-free, in Europe. The company is prepared for a major rollout in the United States by the end of 2017. It also plans innovations in screwcaps and top-quality natural cork.

Over the top
Most wineries do cover their natural corks and synthetic stoppers with capsules—or wax seals—of some type. Like the closures themselves, these have become more elaborate in recent years, making bottles more easily identifiable on market shelves or wine racks.

Rivercap in Benicia, Calif., now produces an Absolute Green Line (AGL) of capsules. Rivercap’s Jeremy Bell and Paul DuPont said it’s an ecological alternative concocted of sugarcane and water-based inks rather than polyurethane and solvents. They pointed out that sugar cane is a renewable resource that absorbs greenhouse gases during its cultivation.

By utilizing sugar cane and moving from solvent-based to water-based ink, Rivercap AGL reduces capsule CO2 by some 80%. Currently Rivercap produces 145 million AGL capsules annually, saving the emission of 520 tons of CO2.

Since lead capsules were banned to eliminate landfill pollution, tin has been considered the premium capsule material. Rivercap Workshop is a new service to provide customers with technical design assistance and expertise for custom capsules.

Options include Quatro Arte, a new tin-decorating process allowing as many as four registered colors and designs in the traditional silkscreen format for greater intricacy.

Even without the emergence of actual design trends, Bell and DuPont commented that packaging refreshing is especially prevalent among large and corporate wineries. As price points have gradually increased, there’s been more shifting back to tin: The $20 price point usually triggers a move from polylaminate to tin capsules. Screwcaps continue to remain the popular choice for whites and younger drinking red wines, they said.

From Maverick Enterprises in Ukiah, Calif., marketing coordinator Shelby White agreed that winery customers are looking for more intricate designs with smaller scripts and unusual features in an effort to set their bottles apart from the competition.

Hot-stamp capsule décor can include brilliant foil sheens. Maverick has been working closely with customers to develop a holographic hot stamp that changes colors as buyers walk by. Another client-driven feature presents custom-emboss and hot-stamp features. Just 10 years ago, it was hard to identify capsules with even the most minimal branding, so these trends represent real change of capsule culture.

Shorter-than-standard capsules also are emerging for stand-out style—or because wineries want to display more of the product within the bottles, according to White.

Push and turn
Novatwist is an unusual screwcap finish that we first picked up last year at the Wines & Vines Packaging Conference. It’s imported by Premier Wine Cask. The examples we saw were black, but they also are available in colors with branding, according to sommelier Marc Kauffman, Novatwist sales representative.

Kauffman stated, “Novatwist is the only tamper-evident 30x60 mm screwcap closure that offers an alternative to metal screwcaps. Independent laboratory testing shows that Novatwist seals and protects wines, spirits, olive oil and other oxygen-sensitive liquids with results comparable to metal screwcaps.”

Patented internal screw threads lock the closure onto the cap lining (the same Saranex or tin liners used by metal screwcaps). But perhaps the primary advantage is that the closure can be applied by hand with a simple push-and-turn motion.

“This is ideal for tank samples and small bottling runs—especially for wineries that do not own an automatic screwcap applicator. On an automated bottling line, Novatwist can be applied using the existing screw capper with only a change of the capping head: no need to purchase a new machine,” Kauffman said.

Cost is comparable to metal screwcaps and less than natural corks, Kauffman said. “At least half of the producers I speak to are looking at screwcaps for their white and rosé wines. The consumer of today is more interested in portability and convenience when it comes to wine than wrestling an uncooperative closure out of a bottle.”Many North American wineries have adopted Novatwist, Kauffman said, and home winemakers love it, too.

Wineries flaunt their style
While browsing at Dean & DeLuca, the toney gourmet market in St. Helena, Calif., we “uncovered” what might be closure treatment trends of the future, and in short order got the backstories from some wineries.

Aaron Pott, owner/winemaker at 500-case Pott Wine in Napa, sells 90% of his wines direct to consumer—even without a tasting room—and gets an average of $113 per bottle. He reserves the remaining 10% for restaurants and retail in order to attract more direct clients.

Pott uses a short tin capsule from Ramondin on all his bottles, because the look reminds him of wines from the early part of the 20th century. As perhaps befits the price point, these capsules are labor-intensive.

“They are very difficult to put on the bottles because they must be done by hand. I don’t really follow or understand trends in capsules, so I don’t know if it will become a trend or not. The short capsule is the same cost as a long capsule,” Pott said.

A press release from Amanda West Reade at 20,000-case Smith Family Wines in Monterey County came in at just the right moment, with an image that befit our theme, a rosé wine with no capsule whatsoever. 

Reade explained that the wine is a long-time staple for Smith Family and a customer favorite. Rosé is “just having such a moment, and you’ll notice that most rosé packages tend to stand out from their respective lines,” West Reade said.

This presented Smith Family with a great opportunity to present an unconventional, eye-catching package that is minimal and beautiful. “We also wanted to nod to the sophisticated Provençal style in which it’s made. Its very fresh, so the design mimics what you will find in the bottle.”

A natural cork it reflects an elegant and fuss-free demeanor, she commented, adding: “Isn’t that what rosé is all about?”

Rosé also gets special treatment from Gros Ventre Cellars, a 500-case virtual winery in the Napa Valley with bottles selling for an average of $54 per bottle. Owner/winemaker Chris Pittenger also makes wine at 4,000-case Skinner Vineyards in El Dorado County.

“You can see how the rosé flint bottle really jumps out at you when you don’t put a capsule on it,” Pittenger noted. The wine is 50-50 Gamay and Pinot Noir, and the 140 cases produced sold out in three weeks.

Only one of 10 Gros Ventre (French for “big belly”) SKUs gets another special treatment. The “First Born” Pinot Noir cuvée is slicked up with a coat of soft local beeswax purchased from a bee-supply store. “As a former sommelier, I like it because you can go right through it like butter with a wine key and pull the cork out easily, unlike the hard-waxed version that shatters all over the place into a million pieces.”

As reflected by his packaging, Pittenger is a capsule skeptic. “You can ask any server, sommelier or bartender what they think about capsules, and I suspect most would tell you that they are worthless. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve cut myself on a foil while opening a bottle tableside. Imagine the horror in the patrons’ eyes when they see their server bleeding all over their bottle. There is still plenty of romance and tradition involved with opening a nice bottle…even if it doesn’t involve a foil capsule,” he said.

The variety of capsules and closures now available to winemakers shows amazing progress and innovation. Stripped down or elaborate, whatever works for your wines and helps them in the marketplace, for whatever reasons, is totally acceptable.

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