Member Inquiry: Lead in Wine

Dear Paul, I heard something not too long ago about lead getting into wine. Then I recently noticed that the ‘foil” which covers the cork on a lot of wine bottles is different than what it used to be. Am I cor­rect in assuming that there is some relationship between the two?

K.N. Huntington beach

Yes, indeed, you are correct! According to The Wine Institute in San Francisco, in 1991 at least nine states, New York, Connecti­cut, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Iowa, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin have en­acted laws which prohibit “heavy metals”, such as mercury, cadmi­um and lead, from being used in packaging materials.

This, of course, includes the “traditional” lead capsules (lead foil bottle closures) on wine bottles. These familiar closures are deftly removed by waiters with the little knife gadget on their “waiter’s corkscrew”, as a necessary pream­ble to extracting the cork. Capsules have been in use in the wine trade forever, it seems. And they have been made of lead for at least as long. But the new capsules are, of legal necessity, made from other materials. Wineries must use alter­native closures decidedly free from poisonous heavy metals. Accepta­ble substitutes include closures consisting primarily of tin, alumi­num, aluminum composite, plastic and polylaminates. Many of these alternatives have already been in use in the industry for years. The increase that you have noticed in the use of alternative closures is strictly an attempt to comply with the new legislation. Generally, leg­islation in the states involved af­fords a three-year transition period during which producers and manu­facturers are to undergo a progres­sive reduction of heavy metals in packaging. So, you can expect to see increasingly more and more of these different foils.

There’s another innovation that you may soon be noticing: synthet­ic corks! Traditional corks made from the bark of the cork oak suf­fer from two escalating problems: lower quality and higher prices! Generally, about 6% of corks available for use as wine stoppers are defective, although as much as 10% of the stocks available at any given time can be bad. Any wine that comes in contact with such a cork is liable to be adversely af­fected. The taste might go “off” or the wine might even get completely spoiled. (Same difference in my book!) Synthetic corks are inert and do not impart any flavor to the wine at all. Since they cost the same as “natural” cork the industry is looking at this alternative as a vi­able way to go.

— P.K., Jr.

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