Vent your spleen: wax seals on wine bottles

waxsealswinebottlesThe other day we talked about “embarrassing moments in bottle opening.” Be sure to check out the stories for some good laughs.

But one commenter who wasn’t laughing was Paul Gregutt, wine columnist for the Seattle Times. He had this to say:

there’s little doubt that the most difficult cork pulling experiences in my life come when someone has slathered their weapon-grade wine bottle with a pound or two of faux wax. You need a chainsaw to drill through some of these things. It is not helpful to embark on what is supposed to be a thoughtful review of someone’s wine with blood all over the corkscrew, the bottle, the glass and the writer. Perhaps you will join me in an effort to dissuade wineries from using this stuff?

I’ve enjoyed quite a few wines–from Lapierre, Foillard, Vatan, and Lopez de Heredia to name a few–sealed with a wax layer on top of the cork. While they are annoying since they require an additional sweep of the counter, I’ve never shed blood as Paul apparently has. And I think they do add a nice aesthetic touch.

But what say you? Should wineries no longer use them as Paul suggests?

Wax seals on wine bottles should be

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37 Responses to “Vent your spleen: wax seals on wine bottles”

  1. I’m a big believer of functional design and aesthetic. It can look as beautiful as you want but please make sure that it is at least expressing or completing some underlying function. In the case of using wax atop the regular closure I say the same thing. If the wax has something to express, perhaps it’s related to the winery’s story–keep it, it’s worth having and gives your bottle character. If wax is just being added for the sake of purporting some kind of image, leave it behind.

  2. I hate the things. I almost took off my finger trying to get at some Pax Syrah love juice last month. Pax’s Syrahs are killer, so they are forgiven, but really, the wax sucks.

  3. Thanks to Evan Dawson’s suggestion on Twitter, I just made this a poll! Be sure to vote!

  4. Anything that makes a bottle of wine that hard to open without make a significant contribution to the wine is a bad idea.

  5. I’m not ordinarily sympathetic to anyone who’d say “someONE has slathered THEIR”; fashionable though it may be it’s still post-literate. Still, Mr. Gregutt has a point: the fake-wax capsule is an irritant designed to show off and dress up at consumer expense. I respond by stripping off every capsule–the whole thing–from every bottle I open these days. What to do next? I toss the metal ones into the re-cycling bin. Most, in fact, are of aluminum or tin, metals tha5 comes from ore gouged out of Ma Earth and subjected to protracted and nightmarish processing and shipping before they at last can be slapped on wine bottles and finally thrown away. (As they mostly originate in Third World countries, these metals are surely humanitarian crimes as well.) So–at last my point–how about an outpouring of demand to persuade Whole Foods Market to expand its current wine-oriented recycling program from “corks only/Napa only” to “capsules, too–and all over”?

  6. In general, we don’t use wax, as it makes the bottle harder to open. As a new brand in a down economy, we don’t need any negatives.

    We do, however, wax our larger format bottles. The bottling lines we use cannot handle putting capsules on larger formats, so waxing is the best practical alternative.

    Also, there are different wax formulations. Some are almost like hard plastic. The key is to get a wax that is soft enough to remove easily yet still protective.

  7. Interesting discussion. Yesterday at our Finger Lakes Wine Talk podcast tasting I was in charge of opening the 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir from Heart & Hands in the Finger Lakes. I have to say it was the first time I had to open a wax sealed wine myself. I love that Tom and Susan Higgins have created a steller design package for this wine and the wax seal combined with the 6 bottle wooden box are raising the bar in the Finger Lakes. On the other hand, it was hard to open. In the end it comes down to what kind of brand message a winery is trying to convey. In the case of the two wineries in the Finger Lakes, Heart & Hands and Atwater, that are using wax seals, keep it up!

  8. Down with Pax Wax.
    I think it’s an act passive aggression. Ok, maybe I won’t go that far but I’m mystified why a winery would go to extra expense to make their customers look foolish opening their wine for comapany. When was the last time you stood at the counter with a power tool opening that $70 bottle of wine and heard the words, “I love these waxed bottles” pass through your lips?

    I recommend a Dremel tool.


  9. Next time you try to open a waxed bottle, instead of trying to chip off the wax to expose the cork, just take a good screwpull or pulltap’s opener and drill right into and through the wax and into the cork. Then a strong and steady pull. The cork will pull right through the wax.

    Well, OK, on anything WE have waxed, this works! Your mileage may vary with other producers 😉

  10. yeah, Jeff, some wax works easily like this and I really should have mentioned that in my world it’s really just those thick, solid as rock, waxers that get my goat.

  11. I’ve seen bottles (Maker’s Mark Bourbon being one) where the wax comes with a strip of foil under it, such that you pull the strip & a bit of wax easily comes off. Combine that with a screw-cap underneath, with the foil at the point of the cap’s seal, & bingo- a pull, a twist & you’re gold. I’ve never tried to open a bottle with wax & a cork, I imagine it’s a whole different ballgame.

  12. Great discussion!

    We like the wax effect for dressing up our Reserve packaging a little more. We kind of think of it like a tux vs. a suit.

    In the tasting room, we run the tip of the bottles under hot tap water for about 30 seconds to make the wax more pliable. Also, we inform the customers to do the same in order to avoid making a crumbly mess. It seems to work just like a tin capsule with this technique. If you don’t have warm water available, you can always cut around the rim and uncork it with the wax on the top of the cork.

    Keep up the great discussion!

    Tom Higgins
    Heart & Hands Wine Company

  13. You know, if I have to use more than an ordinary foilcutter and a corkscrew to open a bottle, I think the winemaker is thinking about things other than the customer. One of my favorite winemakers uses wax on a couple of the wines they make, and I’ve pretty much stopped buying those particular bottles because it’s so hard to even chisel off enough wax around the rim to enable me to use the corkscrew. And I already know I like that wine! I certainly would not put in the effort to try something new that was sealed in that way. And I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with if you have arthritis in your hands.

  14. @Charlene – so you’re with cellarat on the Dremel tool?

    And el jefe, I didn’t know you were anti-arthritic people! 😉

    @Tom, nice tip on the hot water (as long as it doesn’t run down the bottle and cause the wine to warm).

    Does anyone ever have flecks of wax end up in the wine?

  15. Dr. Vino –

    We usually hold the bottles upside down while we’re running them under the water to avoid any temperature fluctuations in the wine. It also prevents you from soaking the label.


  16. Years ago I had the privilege of sorting through a cellar of 19th century vintages, tasting and selecting wines for auction. Where the wax dipping had remained perfectly intact, there was minimal ullage and invariably sound wine. Where the wax seal had broken there would be significant ullage and often spoiled product. So, I would not immediately discount the utility of a wax seal, especially on important bottles.

    I generally find the dipped bottles easy to open once I learned to put the screw through the plastic or wax and just pull the cork through the seal. But,I cannot say that the soft wax or plastic products that are commonly dipped today would afford the same century long protection while providing this ease of opening. It would be worth investigation.

  17. Maybe wineries using a wax seal can include a “how to open” neck card. Great recommendations Tom. If I received that wine as a gift I still wouldn’t know how to open it. Dave Whiting came to my rescue yesterday.

  18. The other thing that needs to be discussed is the type of wax. Lapierre’s wax seal has always been relatively soft and comes off with a few chips of the blade on the corkscrew. All of the wax on Jura wines on the other hand… (looking at you Mr. Puffeney)

  19. At Jarvis, as part of the bottling process we are scoring the waxed bottles with a sharp, circular knife. This leaves the wax partially cut just above the cork. The design maintains a seal while also allowing break away easily when you insert a corkscrew.

    After a couple of designs we were able to get good results, maintaining the look while making the bottle as easy to open as any other.

    Ted Henry

  20. Old world winemaking, hand crafted. We are building ferrari’s, not yugo’s!!! It isn’t as hard as it seems:
    #1 Take your time
    #2 Try just pulling the cork out through the wax! It works!!
    3. Other wise Filet around the top of the bottle (between the top of the glass and the wax)You will be successful!!!
    It is a true luxury and if you are lucky enough to get to enjoy the wine you can call and thank me! Other wise enjoy the screw-cap!

  21. funny, that it seems winemakers like the wax, consumers don’t.
    And come to think of it, I’ve had wines with screw-caps that were much better than some wines with wax. Wax don’t make a wine better but yes I know many consumers are impressed by heavy bottles and wood boxes etc.
    I’m sure these words will come back to haunt me when we are lucky enough to have a product line that requires some fancy packaging.

  22. Must be a slow news day in the blogosphere. Really, now. Use an opener with a blade, incline the center of the sharp blade against the mouth of the bottle and slice off a narrow band of the wax all the way down to the glass around the top in one circular sweep, like peeling an apple. Then you can easily pry the top of the wax off the cork with your blade. The only really bad stuff is what I’ve seen on some ports. It’s tough and brittle, doesn’t come off without shattering. If you would let a little wax stop you you probably don’t really need that glass of wine enough. Have a nice glass of water and give the wine to someone who’d walk a mile for a camel, like me. They’ll know what to do. You probably don’t like drinking out of wine skins, either, I’ll bet. Too messy. No wonder Americans are so despised. You must have problems with opening fruit, too. Try peeling your bananas from the bottom. One less thing to whine about every morning. But maybe whining is the whole point.

  23. Since I apparently started this, let me re-iterate that it’s not real wax I object to. It has a place in history, it can be cut through, softened, etc. It does shatter easily, it does get wax crumbs in the wine, and it would not be an easy task to open in a restaurant, but still, it’s traditional. But the faux wax – much of it hard plastic – cannot always be cut or pulled through. Some of this stuff is really impenetrable. One winemaker of my acquaintance, who went to the trouble of hand-dipping his bottles, was using a product that smelled exactly like fresh vomit. He finally had to abandon that one. As for the grammarian who objected to my use of “their”, please don’t blame me for a flaw that is intrinsic to the English language!

  24. I concur with Paul. The bottles I’ve enountered have a wax-like seal that is attached to the bottle at all points of contact with Superglue or its close relative. Because of that, it will not peel. Warm water is useless. Knives will not slice through it. You have to keep chipping away around the top of the bottle with the point of a knife or other sharp object to clear enough so that a corkscrew can be used. By the time I’m done, I’m more in the mood for Jello shots than wine!

  25. The Pax bottle wax experiences I’ve had are closer to what Charlene and Paul have shared. That stuff does not come off easily. Can’t imagine pulling a cork through, unless I’m missing something

  26. Just pull the cork out through the wax!!!! Yes it’s a high price to make some of the best wines in this old world method. It is definitely worth it, though! The wine will last longer and the experience will be tremendous!
    Michael Peters – Winemaker – 707.322.7055

  27. Tried that. Doesn’t work. But it’s becoming clear from all these exchanges that not all of these closings are the same.

  28. I’ll throw the simplistic solution out there, use a Zork. From a distance it has the same shape as the wax over the cork, doesn’t need a corkscrew and it is recyclable.

  29. I’m totally in favor of banning waxed bottles. Cut my finger open trying to get the wax off. Spent Oscar night in the ER getting stitches vs. enjoying the show (I only watch for the dresses!).

    Anyone out there have a safe way to open these things?

  30. I have opened a few bottles with wax seals over the last month or so. The newer bottles weren’t too bad and the foil slicer on our wine opener did the trick no problem. The older bottles presented a tougher challenge as the wax seemed quite a bit more brittle.

    I don’t really mind the wax. Presentation wise it looks impressive. If I am paying more for it, I would forgoe it in a heart beat. Frankly, I would be fine with screw tops even on my Howell Mtn Cabs.

  31. My first encounters with wax found me irritated. I think that wax actually functions to improve the seal of the bottle though, foil does nothing. So I don’t mind it on bottles that realistically can be cellared. I prefer the
    hard brittle wax used by Raveneau and F. Cotat. All that’s necessary is the slight dip to cover the cork and lip of the bottle.

    Valid tradition and/or function are required IMO. For cork closed bottles meant for near term consumption? No wax, no foil. That may look too bare for some but it’s green and seemed to cause no problem for Didier Dageneau

    I recommend as a simple, green, effective alternative closure of modest wines, a crown cap, which can be dipped in wax. With that you get that wax look and opening the crown cap removes it all from top of the bottle in one move.

  32. I find there is less of an issue with wax seals – they just take a bit of time to deal with. When I was working as a sommelier in fine dining we used a butter knife to deal with wax sealed bottles rather than a wine knife. Works every time.

    Also (and especially with white Burgundy) I have found bottles under wax are less prone to oxidation/early oxidation. Go wax seals.

  33. As has been suggested above, using a pulltaps or like designed corkscrew… insert directly into the top center of the wax capsule, when completely inserted, slowly (after all this is wine to be enjoyed rather than slugged one would hope)pull the cork from the bottle. If the wax is pliable it will break away easily and cleanly, if the wax is brittle then stop pulling the cork just short of completely out of the bottle, clean the waxy detritus away and finish pulling the cork. This method is tried and true from 15 years of serving wine in restaurants. This method has worked on all types of wax capsules, regardless of age and composition. It is surprising that so many seasoned wine professionals are still cutting wax (and fingers) before pulling corks. Wineries such as Jarvis pre-scoring the capsule are to be applauded. However, it need not be as complicated as some would make it.

  34. …what Steve said!

  35. Instead of writing off all waxes as evil, and if it is that much of an issue for you, ask what kind of wax is being used. Working in my tasting room I have opened many of our waxed reserves without issue(Assuming it is at serving temp, and not cellar temp). In fact, the only time I had a large issue was when it was recommended that I warm up the wax with my hands (at which point my key could not find purchase on the now soft wax to give me the leverage to use the key properly. At that point is was the strong arm technique). I have had no issue with a paraffin waxed bottle. Other types of “wax”, on the other hand, can be fairly difficult. Which gets back to my point; not all waxes are the same. Some are more difficult than others, and to write off that much wine based on a technicality is just silly. The cost to do so is also so small that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) affect the price of the wine. Usually the winery is very proud of that line, and wants to dress it up accordingly.

  36. The main reason that some top producers put wax over the cork is to reduce the risk of early oxidation problems and to keep the wine younger and fresher for longer. This is of great importance in Burgundy where many whites in vintages since 1996 have been prematurely oxidized. Screwcap/stelvyn seals are good too and more convenient when it comes to opening the bottle. But don’t knock wax if it provides that extra protection that cork alone does not. It’s cork that we must get rid of ASAP!!

  37. In review of the comments I have read, I am responding by saying that if you use the right type of wax blend, a foil cutter and corkscrew work just fine. The majority of folks that seal the corks with wax are using candle wax, or some type of wax that hardens to a very hard state. I have used wax to seal my wine bottles and have not received any derogitory comments from those who have been selected to recieve it. Old traditions die hard. As they should.

    Making and enjoying homemade wine since 1996.


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