Devil's Advocate - Fine Wine and the Downside of Sustainable Bottles

Wine producers are increasingly embracing environmentally friendly packaging, which has to be welcomed - but, Robert Joseph says, that trend comes at a cost...

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Somewhere, buried in YouTube, there’s an 11 year-old clip called Your Worst Wine Nightmare. In it, two small children – a boy of six and a girl who’s under five - are seen taking a bottle of wine from a rack. They carry it upstairs and drop it out of the window. I won’t spoil the experience by telling you what happens next (full disclosure: I produced this less-than-brilliantly-filmed clip and wouldn’t mind a few more views), but it might strike a chord with anyone who’s ever gone looking for a bottle that matters, and found it missing.
 

Sangria Cocktail with Petrus

Usually, of course, it hasn’t been dangerously used as a toy by kids; it has been opened and consumed by someone – possibly a family member or a guest - who had no idea of its value. My favourite story is of a 19 year-old British girl called Lara Jones who, while partying with friends in Spain at five in the morning, had used her father’s prized bottle of 1999 Petrus to make a Sangria-like cocktail for her friends. Pete Jones, her father, had apparently failed to return the wine to the cellar after showing it to a friend.

The next morning, doubting what he had been told, he visited the local bottle bank and saw it: “A dusty old Petrus lying empty on top of all the beer bottles. My daughter didn't believe me when I told her how much it was actually worth. Then she cried a lot and asked if I could ever forgive her.”
 

Ought to Know?

When I posted about this on social media, several people seemed to imagine that Lara really ought to have recognized the specialness of that particular bottle. Which is a bit like saying that her father should be aware of the value of a Dave, Bon Iver or Post Malone concert ticket.

I make no apology for repeating a point I have made in the past. Wine is unique in being sold in the same packaging, irrespective of its price. And now, with the move towards the more comprehensive use of consistently-shaped, environmentally sustainable lightweight bottles, the situation is going to get worse.

While any wine professional (though not a teenage consumer) should be familiar with a Petrus, Latour or DRC label, I could draw up a long list of wines selling at $250 or more that might stump even the more supposedly well-informed. Here are five to start you off.

  • Pêra-Manca Tinto (Portugal)
  • Coche-Dury Aligoté (France)
  • Miani 'Calvari' Refosco Colli Orientali del Friuli (Italy)
  • Powell & Son Steinert Flaxman's Shiraz (Australia)
  • Vina Cobos Volturno (Argentina)

(You’ll notice that I deliberately didn’t include anything from California; finding pricy examples there with which outsiders may be unfamiliar is far too easy).
 

Defining Fine Wine

I recently spent a few days at the Areni Global annual conference in Stellenbosch where some hugely intelligent people from across the planet discussed what fine wine is and what it should be.

Like a lone agnostic at a gathering of clerics, I struggled with the notion that there is, or could ever be, a definition of fine wine on which a wide number of people would reliably agree when faced with a glass of the stuff. If art experts can’t concur on ‘fine art’, and foodies differ on ‘fine cuisine’, why should wine be any easier?

But even if we were able to say that wines A,B, and C are ‘finer’ than D, E and F, and consequently worth a higher price, what sets them apart visually for anyone who isn’t going to scan the label?

Of course, you could say the same about paintings. But most people don’t treat art as casually as we do wine. And they don’t destroy it in the way we effectively destroy wine every time we consume it.

Perhaps, in the ideal world favoured by several attendees at Areni Global, there might be some kind of international Fine Wine Association (possibly based on Germany’s VDP) with an identifiable logo that could be used on every bottle.

I’m not convinced that any such organisation will ever be successfully created or, even if it were, that it would be able to communicate its existence to hundreds of millions of wine drinkers, any one of whom may be about to unknowingly pour themselves hundred dollar’s worth of red or white to knock back with their pizza.

But I do think it’s a proposal worth discussing, maybe while idly wondering what can possibly have inspired a relatively sane man to use his children to promote an innovative wine brand.

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