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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Why was lead originally used in wine capsules?
You’re correct to point out that capsules—the cap covering the cork on most bottles of wine—used to contain lead. Concerns over lead poisoning meant they were phased out by the 1980s, as were lead crystal decanters. These days you’ll find bottles with foil, tin-coated and plastic capsules, or even with none at all. As I’ve written before, lead poisoning is a scary thought, but there’s no direct evidence that lead capsules were dangerous, and most agree that completely removing a lead capsule and wiping the top of the bottle before serving can help avoid possible lead contamination.
Why lead was used for capsules touches on the bigger question of why anyone used lead for anything, period. Lead has a long history, as it was one of the first metals to be smelted and used—there’s evidence it was mined going back to 6500 BC. And for good reason—it’s dense, malleable and resistant to corrosion. Lead’s been in everything from paint to cosmetics, plates, pots and coins. I’ve found mention of lead first used on bottles back in the 18th century, when it was found useful to cover the cork to protect it from vermin and insects.
Wine and lead have an even more complicated relationship. The Romans boiled grape juice in lead pots to produce a sugar syrup called lead acetate (ominously nicknamed “sugar of lead”) that they would use to sweeten wine and preserve fruit. Some historians have suggested that contamination from lead ingested this way may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. And I don’t mean to be a gossip-monger, but it was also rumored for a while that composer Ludwig van Beethoven may have died of lead poisoning caused by wines mixed with lead acetate, but that theory seems to have since been disproven.
Even though the Romans were aware that lead could be unhealthy, the utility of lead (and lack of understanding of just how bad lead poisoning could be) meant it wasn’t until recently that lead-based items were banned and laws put into effect to protect people from its toxicity. After all, leaded gasoline was only phased out about 20 years ago.
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