Removing Wine Labels

One of the beautiful things about a bottle of wine is the label, especially since, aside from the memory, it’s all you have left to cherish once the contents are gone. Placing your labels in a cellar book or scrapbook, or mounting them in a picture frame seem like fitting ways to remember favorites.

There are a few ways to approach wine label removal. Some people try soaking, peeling, cutting, or steaming them off wine bottles. There is also a product that resembles heavy-duty “scotch” tape. The tape is applied to the label on the bottle and then pulled off to remove the label’s top surface.

This works if you’re going for a laminated effect, such as using it as a coaster. But personally, I prefer the label’s original finish. I’ve had a lot of success at removing them by soaking the bottles in hot water, then using a single-edged razor blade to remove the label.

Soaking and Removal:

  • Soak the empty bottles (should be obvious, huh?) in a sink full of hot water (not too hot, or you’ll bleach some of the color out of the label). Add 2 to 3 drops of liquid detergent to the water and swoosh it around. Don’t use too much, or the label will become mealy and fall apart. After about 15 to 20 minutes, many older wine labels will slide right off, or can be easily removed. Unfortunately, most of today’s labels use stronger adhesives and aren’t easily removed without tearing. These require a little more work. Here’s a method I’ve used:
    • More Difficult Removal:
      • After soaking about 20 minutes, remove the bottle from the sink and lay it on its back, label up, neck pointed away from you. Cradle the bottle in a towel to keep it somewhat immobile.
      • Using a single-edged razor blade in a metal holder (e.g. a paint scraper), work in full even strokes, drawing the blade under the label from the top down, or side to side. 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, with the label staying in excellent condition. (Labels using foil in their design will probably end up with a series of slight vertical creases from the blade action, but not unduly so.)

Drying and Blotting:

  • Remove any of the label’s residual glue or adhesive in the sink water, before laying it on paper toweling to air-dry. Then blot the label to remove some of the water.
  • Place the still-damp label in an acid-free photo blotter book, and place some books on top to weight it down.
    • Use caution when drying and blotting the self-adhesive wine labels. The adhesive remains on those! Also:
      • The required soaking time is less—they only need about 10 minutes in hot/very warm water.
      • Very cold water seems to work just as well with some of these labels. Plus, they’re less sticky when soaked in cold water.
      • Once the label is off the bottle, the self-stick adhesive is still as sticky as fly paper. It will stick to everything so do not blot it yet!
      • You can dry the self-adhesive label one of two ways:
        • Carefully slide the label face-down onto a counter surface. Tear off a piece of plastic wrap and stretch it smoothly over the back of the label.
        • Or, even preferably, lay down a piece of plastic wrap first. Then just “paste” the label right on top of it, smoothing out any wrinkles.
  • Trim off the excess plastic wrap, and put the label in your blotter book without fear of it unintentionally staying there for good.

In closing, if you haven’t tried this soaking process, I’m sure the whole thing seems daunting. But, I can assure you 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 minutes for 4 bottles, start to finish. That’s a small price to pay for the final product.

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 even have some very cool wine dribble stains from your experience. 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 to 4 bottles, especially at first.

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