What’s Red, White & Green? Wine Packaging Greens Up

What’s red and white and green all over? Wine, naturally. And naturally Oregon wineries are in the green forefront — a fact that was reinforced at a recent Wine Wars book talk.

The Difference Between Water and Wine

Forty-eight  alumni came out on a beautiful August evening to attend an event at the Boedecker Cellars winery near downtown Portland.  That’s a testament to the old saying “Water keeps people apart, wine brings them together.” Urban wineries are a growing trend and Steward Boedecker and Athena Pappas have located theirs in a cool 1950s building across the street from the Pyramid Ales brewery. (Stewart is a Puget Sound alumnus, so Boedecker is on my growing list of  alumni wineries.)

Because I was asked to talk about Wine Wars with particular attention to Chapter 14’s topic, wine and the environment, I titled my presentation “What’s Red and White and Green All Over.” Portland is a good place to give a talk like this because it is so close to the wine country and its citizens are so environmentally minded. Green wine is big in these parts.

Green wine is made in the vineyard, of course (the organic or biodynamic viticulture choice), and part of it is made in the cellar (especially regarding water use and re-use, which is a significant issue almost everywhere). I’ve seen estimates that it can take as much as 120 liters of water to produce a single glass of wine if you follow the product chain from start to finish. Wow! That’s a big environmental factor.

And finally there’s green wine packaging.

Weighing the packaging options: Jen, Allison, Mike and Brad.

The Weigh In

With the help of two volunteers, Jen and Brad, I demonstrated some green and no-so-green wine packaging options.  The differences in size, weight and perceived quality were astonishing. Here is the tale of the scale.

  • Standard 750ml bottle filled 1320 grams
  • Standard bottle empty 578 grams
  • Prestige bottle empty 844 grams (46% heavier than standard bottle)
  • Eco bottle empty 476 grams (82% of the weight of standard bottle)
  • Ultra-eco bottle empty 444 grams (the blue bottle in the photo — 77% of standard bottle weight)
  • PET bottle empty 56 grams (the yellow bottle in the photo — less than 10% of the standard bottle weight)
  • Tetra-Pak 1 liter container empty 40 grams (less than 8% of standard bottle weight)

The Tetra-Pak is more efficiently produced and recycled and saves over 90 percent of shipping weight compared with the standard bottle, an amazing saving of resources all along the product chain.

I predict that much of the wine we drink every day will eventually be delivered in eco-containers. Just as many consumers seem to have gotten over their prejudice against screw caps, I think we’ll come to accept eco-packaging as an appropriate delivery system for the ordinary everyday wines that make up more than half of all wine sales.

Animated winemakers: Athena Pappas and Stewart Boedecker

Fine Wine versus Vin du Jour

But what about fine wine? Well before my visit to Boedecker my answer was that the eco packaging choices were pretty limited – lightweight glass was about all I could recommend since the most extreme eco choices (Tetra-Pak, for example), are not appropriate for medium- or long-term storage. They are for vins du jour – the wines you buy at 3pm and open at 5pm (which make up the bulk of total wine sales, of course).

But Stewart surprised me by explaining that he had found some innovative ways to cut Boedecker’s environmental footprint without sacrificing the quality of the delivered product.

How about re-using wine bottles the way we used to collect and reuse soda bottles? The idea of recycled wine bottles is very appealing, but the practical problems of collecting used bottles, cleaning, sorting and distributing them are hard to overcome. But Stewart told me about a California firm (I think he was talking about Wine Bottle Renew) that has tackled this project with success, using high tech scanners to sort the bottles (a key and previously prohibitively labor intensive process).

The money and resources saved by not having to melt down and recast the glass are considerable, Stewart said, and the delivered glass is both cheaper than new, it is also actually cleaner (an obvious concern).  He’s sold on recycled bottles and it is easy to see why – a trend to follow for sure.

Riding the Keg Wine Wave

Boedecker is also riding the keg wine wave, which is another eco-packaging movement. Wineries deliver 20-25-liter kegs to restaurants and other “on-premises” establishments to fill “wine by the glass” orders with no waste. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate as much of the packaging as possible for wine that will move so quickly from barrel to glass.

But keg wine is currently mostly a local phenomenon because of the logistics of recycling and reusing the kegs, which is the key to the whole enterprise. So I was surprised to learn that Stewart was selling Boedecker wine kegs in New York City.  They ship the wine in bulk to New York where a local partner handles the keg operation.

What a great idea! It opens up a distant market, is good for the environment and is good for the wine, too.  Kym Anderson recently explained to me that shipping in bulk versus shipping in bottles can actually result in better wine because the liquid mass of the wine (up to 25,000 liters in the case of ocean container shipments) is more temperature stable than cases of wine in bottles. Cheaper, greener, better quality — a winemaking trifecta!

Bulk shipping and local “bottling” into kegs is kind of a return to U.S. wine market practices in the 1930s, where California winemakers would ship bulk wine across the country in railroad tank cars. Local bottlers would market the wine, usually under their own brands rather than the name of the wine producer. This practice ended in World War II when the Army commandeered the tank cars and wineries were forced to bottle (and brand) themselves and ship cases of wine in box cars.

Will keg wine take off and take us back to the future of wine? Stay tuned.

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Thanks to Stewart and Athena for hosting the alumni event at their winery. Thanks as well to Brad Boyl, Rainier Aliment, Renee Kurdzos and Allison Cannady-Smith for all they did to make this event a success.

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9 responses

  1. Welcome to Finland. We recycle all the bottles, both wine and sodabottles, including glass and pet bottles. We even get money when we take our botlles back to the store. The fun part is that our government plans taxation for the income, if you bring someone else’s bottles to the shop. Your own bottles are taxfree. Now people will leave their empty bottle findings to the forest and along pavements to avoid filling the taxform.

    • I didn’t know about the tax aspect — how interesting!
      There are many bottle recycling programs here in the U.S., but they typically involve collecting glass bottles, melting them down and making new glass from the recycled raw materials. Reusing the bottles saves a lot of energy, but as I noted in the blog post, has to overcome many practical problems.
      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks for addressing this topic. Alternative and “green” wine packaging is the focus with new FLASQ Wines (JT Wines based in St. Helena, Calif.). The wine is bottled in 375ml, 100% recyclable aluminum bottles. Two-thirds of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today. And, compared to glass bottles, the FLASQ aluminum bottle carbon footprint is reduced by 35% due to lighter case weight during shipping. The bottles are also not crisscrossing the globe during production, as seen with many manufactured products. They stay within the United States. All compelling facts to argue using aluminum packaging. Plus, the bottles have a baked in coating, so the taste of the wine is preserved. Thanks for “listening,” and have a great day!

  3. At Sassie International Vintners & Distillers we have have been bottling our wines in alternative bottles for a several of years.
    Point of note we were the First Wine Company in North America to utilize a 500ml Burgundy style Aluminum bottle, but the price of aluminum killed that project and we switched to PET.
    Not just an ordinary PET Bottle but one lined with an FDA Approved Oxygen Scavenger Liner. Totally unique and keeps the dreaded oxygen away from the wine and acts an additional barrier against the porosity of PET.
    THE SKINNY: Modern Contemporary design ; our empty 100% Recyclable, unbreakable bottle weighs 50gr : 9L Case Weight 10kg ; Competitively Priced Premium California wine………. So why are Distributors and the chains unwilling to carry Sassie WInes?????
    Or is GREEN options all hot air?
    Denis Sasman

  4. Wine bottles here in Ontario are returned to the Beer Stores (which have a long history of accepting beer bottles for sterilization and reuse by the breweries).

    However, all the glass is sold and melted down.

    It is high time that domestic wine producers in Ontario (led by Vincor’s winery properties, which are part of Constellation) start accepting their own bottles back for sterilization and re-use… much more energy efficient.

  5. The carbon footprint conversation has many facets. Aluminum containers do not become aluminum containers until AFTER the bauxite has been extracted, mostly from South America, and mostly from open mines, THEN smelted using tremendous electric or gas energy. Same with glass containers, except the raw
    material (mostly silica sand) which for domestic glass plants comes from the North American continent. Tetra pack offers lots of space and shipping advantages, but the multi-walled boxes do not recycle easily and are not currently recycled. Same with PET or PEN plastic bottles…recyclable in theory but not in practice because of the multi-layer technology. Rewashing bottles takes a large energy, environmental (even closed-loop systems require fuel for shipment to and from a winery with a stopover in a sorting facility), water and chemical toll.

    I’m not arguing for one form over another, just pointing out that the conversation is not as simple as some would have you believe.

    Cheers!

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