MikeL's Guide to WA Wineries
Preserving Wine labels

I've been asked how I go about salvaging/ preserving labels from wine bottles. Here's my method. (Please send email to mikel if you have alternative methods you'd like to share.) Perhaps some day I'll get around to taking some photos and including them here.

Before: When you drink the wine, pour carefully with a wine ring or holding a clean cloth around the neck so dribbles don't stain the label. You'll also look very professional doing this, thus impressing your wine drinking partner no end!

Basically there's two kinds of labels, glued on, and self adhesive (stickers). The glued on type tend to be paper that tears easily, the sticker type is usually much stronger. Glued on labels come off best in hot water, stickers (believe it or not) in cold.

I let the empty bottles collect in box in a corner of the pantry until I've got 5-7 of them. It's much more effective to do several at a time, as many as fit in the sink at once without crowding. Rinse them out after drinking so they don't mold, but try not to wet the label as it might bubble up. Seperate the bottles with sticker labels from the glue labels -- you can sometimes tell, though not always.

Plug the kitchen sink and run it full enough to cover the bottles (laying down) with as hot a water as the tap will deliver. Then leave it alone for a half hour or so. Maybe top off the sink every ten mins if the level gets down below the labels (our sink plug leaks). When you come back, some of them will simply fall right off when you lift the bottle out. Poke a wooden chopstick into the neck of the bottle to stand it up out of the hot water, then you can pick it up with your fingers.

Then, use one of those hobbyist razors (the kind with one sharp edge, and a reinforced edge on the other) to get under the label. Pry the edge up carefully on a bottom corner of the label, then gently pull the razor towards you, all the way along the edge (upwards on the bottle). Pull the razor all the way out past the edge of the label. Then go back and do it again -- each time you'll get another 1/4" up. The trickiest part is right about the depth of the razor. The loose edge of the label will try to catch your fingers and tear; be sure to help it curl back away from you -- doing the razor work under the water can help this, though can be difficult.

You can heat a big kettle of water on the stove and pour it slowly on the labels that didn't come off on their own. Use the razor to pull back an edge, then pour the boiling water right into that edge. If you pour too hard, this may tear the label, so be careful. Beware that the bottle may break if you change temperature too quickly. Only pour boiling water over a bottle that is already brought up in temperature with tap hot water.

For the sticker type labels, use basically the same technique, but use cold water. Probably none will come off on their own, you'll have to use the razor a lot. The good part though, is that they're likely to come off intact as the paper is usually quite strong.

Lastly, comes drying them. Only time can do this. I pull out a cutting board in the kitchen, and set a piece of wax paper (not plastic -- it needs to breathe) across it. If you only have one cutting board and/or a very small kitchen, you may not want to do it this way as it will be in use and in the way for a while. You'll have to find a piece of very flat wood that can be allowed to show water stains (not a nice cabinet top), and and won't warp if wetted. You might even want to get a cutting board from a kitchen shop just for this purpose.

As you get each label off the bottle, set it carefully on the wax paper (doesn't matter if it's face up). Leave at least 1/2" between each. Try to get them square on the wax paper (this is very important if you'll be putting them in a flatbed scanner), so line them up along the edge, about a 1/4" up. Do this carefully by setting down the edge of the label closest to the edge of the wax paper so you can get it straight. Once the label is set down, you don't want to disurb it again as it is very likely to tear. If you get one with lots of little balls of goop, set it face down, then gently pick the balls of goop off with the razor and your fingernails.

Be sure to dry the razor completely, or it will rust.

When you've gotten all the labels laid out on the sheet, tamp off any loose droplets of water, and if possible, soak up some of the moisture in the paper using a paper towel. Fold the towel in half or quarters, and press very gently straight down on each label, then lift straight up carefully. Now lay another sheet of wax paper across the top of the whole bunch of them.

Lastly, set a large flat book (or two) on top of this to hold them flat. If possible, the books should be plastic coated; if not, you may want to put an extra layer of plastic sheet on top of the wax paper to protect the books from the moisture. Be sure the books don't have an embossed pattern on the side against the labels. If the books are wide and flat, but not heavy, set a couple more on top to give it some weight. Leave this pile right where it is for a minimum of 24 hours, preferably 48 hours.

The wax paper will be a permanent non-sticky backing on the goopy labels; on the clean labels, the wax paper will fall off. When you lift off the books, you can use the razor to cut the wax paper around each goopy label. Although they may now feel dry, they will still want to curl up, you may see this happening within minutes. Set them on a counter with a stack of books on them for another week.

Many labels will always want to curl up again, so be sure to keep them somewhere that they'll be kept flat. I store them in normal office manila hanging folders in a file that is full enough to ensure the folders are always at least kept together if not compressed. The goopy labels have the wax paper backing so they don't stick to the folder.

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