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There are more than a few ways to approach wine label removal. I've heard about people soaking, peeling, cutting, and steaming the labels off their wine bottles. I've even heard about people using a hair dryer to soften the glue. (There's a description of some of the many methods at Brad & Dri's Internet Guide to Wine FAQ.) There is also a heavy-duty label-sized adhesive tape usually advertised in the Wine Enthusiast catalog. From its description, it looks like you merely apply the tape over the label on the bottle and pull it off (hopefully, getting all of the top part of the label). This could be good if you're looking for a laminated effect, for something such as coasters. Personally, I prefer the label's original finish, and I've had a great deal of success at removing wine labels from bottles by soaking them in hot water, and using a single-edged razor blade as necessary to remove the label. Here is my method:

  1. Soaking:

    Soak the empty (should be obvious, huh?) bottles in a sink full of hot water (not too hot, or you'll bleach some of the color out of the label ). Add a "few" of drops of liquid detergent to the water. If you do this in the kitchen sink, don't use more than 2-3 drops or so, or the label will become mealy and fall apart. After about 20 min or so, many of the European labels will either already be floating on top, or be quite ready to be lifted off the bottle. There are some exceptions here; it seems that new adhesives are being used on most of the recent Bordeaux vintages, yet many Rhone labels slide right off in the water. Those labels that are not easily removed (without ripping the label) require a little more work. Here's what I do:

  2. Removal: (see pictures)

    After about 20 minutes of soaking, I remove the bottle from the sink, dump out the water, and lay the bottle on its backside, label up, neck pointed away from me, and cradled in a towel to keep it somewhat immobile. Using a single-edged razor blade in a metal

    holder (ie. paint scraper), I work in full even strokes, drawing the blade under the label from the top down and towards me. Obviously, the trick here is to have the correct blade angle to the bottle, or you merely slice the label, or worse yet, your hand. I've been doing it this way for several years. I've never cut myself, and am nearly always able to remove a label in less than a minute or so, and the label usually stays in excellent condition. (Those labels with foil in their color scheme will probably end up with a series of slight vertical creases from the blade action, but not unduly so.)

    If necessary, I remove any residual glue or adhesive in the sink water, before laying the label on paper toweling to momentarily air dry. I then blot the labels dry. While still damp, I place them into an acid-free photo blotter book, and place a small stack of books on top to keep the whole thing flat.

    Caution - self-adhesive labels: When drying or blotting the labels, watch out for the newest self-adhesive types (Rabbit Ridge and Rosenblum come immediately to mind). Some things I've noticed:
    1) the required soaking time is less - they really only need about 10 minutes in hot-very warm water.
    2) I've also found that very cold water seems to work just as well with some of these labels. (In fact, I've even found them floating in the water after 20 minutes or so. Plus, they seem less sticky to handle if removed with cold water.)
    3) once the label is off the bottle, the self-stick adhesive is still active and as sticky as fly paper. In fact, the darn label will stick to anything! Do not blot them, yet!

    You can dry them one of two ways:
    1) carefully slide the still-face-down label onto a counter surface. Tear off a piece of Saran Wrap or other plastic wrap (see pictures on this process), and stretch it smoothly over the backside of the label.
    or preferably, lay down a piece of plastic wrap first
    . Then just "paste" the label right on top of the plastic wrap.

    Flatten the label so that the plastic wrap will now become your back-of-label surface, and trim off the excess plastic wrap. Now you can put the label into your blotter book without fear of it staying in there for good. Another successful method has been to stick the label down to some plain white paper*, rather than the plastic wrap.

    After a couple of days of drying in the blotter book, I take them out and place them temporarily into an acid-free photo box or book for future use.

  3. Mounting and/or Displaying: (see pictures)

    Later on, when I have all of the labels I want to display (ie. verticals, or Napa Valley, or Bordeaux), I use a glue-stick to glue them down to a colored matt board. I then mount the board in a picture frame, hang it on the wall, and voila...there you have it! Your own labels, up on the wall for all to see. Then, when your guests ask if those labels are from wines you drank, you can say, " betcha'," or, "oui, oui," or "please pass the Grey Poupon."

    *There's been a recent trend toward the use of archival methods to store or display pictures, photos, and other keepsakes. This involves using "acid-free" mounting materials (matting, paper, adhesives, etc.), in order to keep the picture or photo from deteriorating (fading, turning brown). Ordinary mounting materials contain acids that will ultimately cause deterioration to the mounted item. This kind of deterioration is most easily seen in the non-acid-free matts used in the framing of pictures -- the inside edge of the matt starts to turn brown. Deterioration of the picture itself will also happen, as the acids from this type of product tend to leach into your mounted product. The time it takes for this to happen can vary, but keep this in mind when mounting labels.

    So, I suggest you use archival or acid-free products if there is the slightest chance you'll ever want to remove the labels to re-mount them elsewhere, or if you just want them to retain their vivid colors.

  4. Scanning and/or Posting:

    Obviously, soaking or scraping a label off the bottle is out of the question where etched or painted bottles are concerned. In these cases, I just take a close-up photo of the label portion of the bottle. This can then be cropped and mounted, or scanned and printed. Speaking of scanning, after seeing several examples of scanned labels posted on websites, it occured to me that there is a lineage to labels or a historical story that could be told about a winery through its wine labels. The evolution of a winery's label is often fascinating to see, and what better medium to view this than scanned images over the web. So, I tried scanning a few myself (wine label scans) to see what could be done. Now, I'm more convinced than ever that getting these labels or their images off the bottles is a worthwhile pursuit.

In closing, to those who haven't tried this soaking process, I'm sure the whole thing seems daunting. But, I can assure you that it's actually quicker than the time it took me to write these instructions! I've got the whole soaking/removal process down to about 25 min for 4 bottles -- start to finish. That's a small price to pay for the final product. Sure, you could pick up or order some labels from the winery, and I've done that too. (In fact, I've even taken empty bottles away from tastings that I've attended, if they had a desirable label.) But, there's something special about these labels. You drank that wine! You soaked off that label! There's that "pride of ownership." Plus, they might have some cool dribble stains that you put on the label! One final note: Don't be tempted to bite off more than you can chew -- I'd suggest doing this process in small lots of 3-4 bottles, especially at first.


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Last Update 11.22.03