Lighten Up – How to Bury the Heavy Wine Bottle

As world leaders – or most of them – gather in Glasgow for COP26, the wine industry is being encouraged to sign a petition against weighty wine bottles. While welcoming the initiative, Robert Joseph wonders if this the best way to save the planet.

Sign up to shame producers into switching to lighter bottles
Sign up to shame producers into switching to lighter bottles

It’s 8am on Day 2 of COP26, and I’ve just signed a petition aimed at the wine industry and launched by a wine writer called Aleesha Hansel 

It has three clear aims.

To have bottle weight included in wine tech sheets. This “should encourage producers to eliminate unnecessarily heavy bottles.”

For commentators to quote bottle weight in their reviews so that it would “become a standard part of the conversation, and enable consumers to make an informed choice.”

To encourage everyone to “campaign for truly effective glass recycling programmes”

Of course, I signed it but, like my electric car, my contract with a renewable energy supplier, minimal meat consumption and train-rather-than-plane tickets to Amsterdam, how much do I really imagine that it is going to achieve?

Hopefully, it will indeed prompt a few producers and distributors to change their behaviour. Other US wineries will certainly have noticed the praise the Washington Post writer Dave McIntyre, and Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle gave to Jackson Family Wines’ reduction of the weight of some of their bottles. Others will have noted Jason Haas’s blog about the 685 tons of glass weight his Tablas Creek winery has saved over the last decade following a similar move.

But will sharing statistics about bottles weighing 350g or 450g - or whatever - that will probably be meaningless to most people (what is the ‘right’ weight for a wine bottle?) mitigate the impact of the UK government’s recent tax proposal that will cut the retail price of of cheap Prosecco by 15% and slash 10% from the cost of a sweet, low-alcohol rosé. How many buyers of those wines, or indeed the smartly-packaged private-label bottles in Aldi and Lidl pay any attention to ‘wine commentators’ let alone tech sheets?

So, while encouraging others to sign Ms Hansel’s petition - every little helps – I’d like to make a few additional proposals of my own.

Write to producers and distributors of heavy bottles directly, via letter, email and social media, and encourage others to do the same. As Haas says, “Before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle.” Most wineries presume their customers like their existing packaging and are encouraged in that presumption by satisfactory sales figures. Indeed, until he polled his customers, Haas expected “a mix of people in favour of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles”. In fact, the overwhelming majority supported his move.

 

"The Tablas Creek blog in which Jason Haas asked his customers' opinion about bottles"

 

But, as he frankly acknowledges, Tablas Creek is not representative of the majority of wines in the market. “Only a small percentage of our bottles ever appear on a retail shelf, where the bottle has the potential to play into a purchasing decision. Half our production we sell direct. More than half of the rest we sell in restaurants, where all that customers see is a name and maybe description on a wine list. And of that remaining ~20% a significant chunk is sold online, where bottle heft isn’t a factor.”

To imagine that producers of wines that rely on their appearance – the majority – can easily achieve what Haas has done – or what DRC or Petrus, or indeed many small natural wine producers could achieve – is fanciful.

As Haas also says, while “larger bottles now have more detractors than they ever did before” there is still “definitely a perception in the market that a heavier bottle signifies a more serious wine. And I'm sure that this is true, to some extent… most of the great wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, not to mention California icons like Ridge and Calera, have stayed with classic bottle shapes and weight.”

Many – most?- true wine enthusiasts would happily buy their Ridge or Rousseau in lightweight glass if that was the only option, but do those wineries know this to be the case. As Haas did a decade ago, they need to hear from the people on whose money they depend.

 

No good packaging?

But do none of the anti-heavy-bottle people secretly appreciate the care a florist has lovingly applied to – unnecessarily – wrapping the flowers they were sent on their birthday. Or the look of a box of chocolates, or the bag in which those lovely new sheets arrived.

Even if some of those were made of paper or cardboard or cotton, make no mistake, even the most environmentally-friendly packaging has an environmental cost – in its manufacture and, unless it is fully compostable, recycling. Even the lightest glass bottles take energy to produce, ship and reuse.

Which brings me to my far more radical proposal – and one that goes far beyond the – in globally relative terms – trivial sector of wine.

There should be packaging taxes.

Every bag, box, bottle or container should be given an environmental rating, based on every stage of its existence, including shipping. The bigger the impact, the higher the tax.

This would encourage far more radical thinking. Bottles with a square footprint rather than a round one are far more efficient to store and ship. Why not use them? Cheap wine could be sold in returnable glass bottles as they commonly were in Europe 50 years ago, or in cardboard or aluminium. Considering the entire journey would also be much more meaningful than the simplicity of bottle weight. A wine shipped in bulk to the UK from an environmentally-conscious producer in the S. Hemisphere and packaged in a carbon neutral bottling plant might actually have a smaller footprint than one in a slightly lighter bottle transported in a diesel truck from southern France.

But all these rules would also apply to olive oil and Nespresso capsules and the box Apple used for your new iPhone and everything else that comes through our doors from Amazon every day.

My bet is that, even with a painfully hefty tax, heavy bottles will not disappear. Anyone who’s happy to pay $200 for a bottle might not mind shelling out an extra $50 if that’s what it takes. But, in any case, these obviously ultra-weighty packages are like Ferraris and Bentleys: rare beasts that are far less damaging to the environment than the hundreds of millions of small, fossil-fuel-burning cars that fill our roads.

Likewise, if we really want to save the planet, we’d do better to focus on getting cheap wines out of glass bottles completely

Ms Hansel’s petition is a good start, but please let’s not stop there. Let's talk to politicians and people outside the wine bubble about how to change packaging across the board.

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