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Is That Corn on Top of My Wine Bottle? Wineries Try New Plant-Based Packaging, Part 2

Trinchero rolls out a compostable capsule
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: May 14, 2013 11:00am ET

By Dana Nigro

In my last post, I discussed the dilemma that eco-oriented wineries face when it comes to stoppering their bottles: Corks, which are natural and renewable, or screw caps and synthetics, which can be more reliable? The same potential conflict between sustainability and efficiency crops up with the foil and plastic capsules that top bottles.

Some wineries eschew the capsule altogether, maybe opting for a little foil or wax top over a natural cork, but then miss out on a branding opportunity. Now, however, a wine-industry supplier has brought a new option to the market.

California's Trinchero Family Estates announced for Earth Day that it is adopting a new type of compostable capsule for all of its Trinity Oaks wines. It's a bioplastic—just like the new Select Bio cork alternative introduced by Nomacorc—but this one is a film made from sugars derived from corn. "When they learn it's plant-based, people want to lick it," said Trinchero spokeswoman Nora Feeley, laughing.

Trinchero was looking for an option with a lower carbon footprint. The Trinity Oaks labels are already made from 100 percent recycled paper, and the brand funds the One Bottle, One Tree program—which plants a tree for every bottle sold, in partnership with the nonprofit Trees for the Future.

The capsules were developed in a joint effort with Ukiah, Calif.-based Maverick Enterprises, which creates custom capsules for wineries, and Plastic Suppliers, Inc., which makes this special film called EarthFirst in a greenhouse gas–neutral facility that uses solar and wind power, and other energy offsets.

The process starts with annual renewable crops such as corn—though sugar beets, sugarcane and non-food crops like switchgrass work as well—grown for industrial use. From the plants comes the sugar dextrose, which is fermented into lactic acid. This is turned into a polylactic acid, or PLA, polymer called Ingeo; this plastic is formed into pellets from which other products are made, including the EarthFirst film. Trinchero appears to be the first wine company to use the PLA technology, though ConAgra Foods has used it for seals on some products since 2009.

"The look and feel are comparable [to similar capsules, such as PVC] and not easily discernible from each other," said Steve Otterbeck, president of Maverick, who saw potential in responding to wineries' interest in sustainability. "One area of difference is that lower heat is required to shrink the capsule onto the wine bottle, which ultimately requires less energy to apply." And it's compatible with soy-based inks, which are more eco-friendly than traditional petroleum-based inks.

Ingeo's maker, NatureWorks, says the carbon footprint is 60 percent lower than oil-based PET or polystyrene plastics, with room to improve. (NatureWorks has published a peer-reviewed life-cycle analysis, from corn production up to the sale of Ingeo for other products.) Ingeo is compostable—according to an international standard verified by the American Society for Testing and Materials—in an industrial facility so the compost can then be used to grow more plants. But whether it's really compostable once it gets to consumers depends on whether their municipality offers such an option for local waste.

Would knowing the capsule is more environmentally friendly influence your perception of a brand? Does your town offer a composting option?

Part 1: Goodbye Cork, Hello Sugar Cane?

Barry Brown
Napa —  May 15, 2013 11:09am ET
Great article Dana. Do you know the cost for the new capsule as compared to the traditional capsules as that could have an impact on how quickly and widespread the use of this capsule would be.

Thanks.

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