Bottle Shocks: Unexpected Wine Bottle Trends

The movement to address climate change challenges is one of those glass half-full or half-empty situations. Bold initiatives are often followed by foot-dragging or back-sliding. Two steps forward then one step back.

Take the electric vehicle (EV) industry, for example. Bold initiatives such as targets to stop sales of gasoline-fueled cars are weakened and deadlines postponed (the situation in the UK). Meanwhile, the wind seems to have gone out of the sails of EV sales in the U.S., leaving auto producers wondering if their bold plans to transform their fleets are premature. Maybe most people who want an EV already have one? Maybe plug-in hybrid vehicles make more sense right now given resource limits, battery technology, and charging infrastructure?

Green Wine Agenda

The wine industry is working to reduce its carbon footprint, too, with attention to the weight of glass bottles particularly noteworthy and easy to understand. Sparkling wine bottles need to be fairly heavy to withstand internal pressure (indeed, the origins of Champagne are linked to innovations in glass bottle technology). But still, wines don’t really need heavy bottles in most situations. So thoughtfully reducing bottle weight has been on the green wine agenda for some time.

Progress is being made both to adopt lighter-weight bottles and to develop systems to recycle and reuse bottles. I have been following an innovative project that aims to re-invent the wine bottle to make it both lighter and more effectively recycled. Verre Vert Bottle, which I understand is at the advanced testing stage, ticks all the boxes with the potential to save energy, lower costs, and reduce carbon emissions.  I am looking forward to seeing how this project develops.

The Heavyweight Champ

But not all the news is good. Sue and I habitually consider wine bottle weight in our work, although we haven’t started keeping detailed records yet. We note when we find an unusually light bottle, for example, and when one seems heavier than we expect given the type of wine.

Recently we’ve run into several heavy bottles weighing about 700-900 grams when Sue puts them on her electronic scale. Not as heavy as our current heavyweight champion, a bottle of wine that our friends Pierre and Cynthia brought back from China that weighs in at 1218 grams (that’s 2.69 pounds!), but pretty heavy nonetheless.

Bottle Shape Differentiation

But that’s not the end of the story. My friend Jonathan Rodwell has brought another wine bottle trend to my attention, Rodwell is a vineyard and winemaking consultant who divides his time between Italy and the UK. He scans supermarket and wine shop shelves wherever he goes to try to keep up with the changing retail scene. Recently he has noted an increase in the use of custom bottles and bottle decorations on the wine wall. I guess a distinctive label is no longer enough to differentiate a wine on crowded retail shelves. The bottle itself needs to be different enough to catch the eye.

Rodwell looked around the noticed that the bottled water shelves had already taken the bottle shape step to the next level. If you look at the water wall you’ll see that major brands have distinctive color and shape bottles. In many cases, you can pretty well guess what water someone is drinking from across the room without seeing the label.

Is this where wine is headed? Product differentiation through specialized bottle shape is not new. Some of the most popular imported wines in U.S. wine history have distinctive bottles. Those rafia-covered Chianti bottles of the past were easy to spot, for example, but I am thinking of brands like Blue Nun (the bottle is bright blue), Black Tower, and Lancers Rose (ceramic bottles), and, of course, Mateus Rose with a bottle shaped like a WWI water flask.

The Bottle’s the Thing …

Mass-market wines like Mateus Rose are not the whole story. Sue and I are no longer surprised when we meet regional wine officials who are convinced that all that’s holding their local industry back is the decision to change the bottle color or shape.

There is no particular reason why the trend toward custom bottles should conflict with the lighter-bottle movement. A blue bottle doesn’t need to weigh more than a brown one. But some of the custom bottles we have seen, with embossed logos or textured surfaces, are heavier than average. And I doubt that they are cheaper than standard glass.

I am not advocating regulation to force everyone in wine to adopt strict glass bottle standards. My point is that wine industry choices are complicated. Even the seemingly simple decision to use lighter glass faces many obstacles. It is important to keep pushing forward — don’t you agree? — if only because the forces pushing back are strong.

In the meantime, I think wine bottles are on a path toward sustainability, even if it doesn’t always take the most direct route.


Thanks to Jonathan Rodwell for the photo of the water display highlighting the unique bottle designs of each producer.

6 responses

  1. In a bottle, whatever the weight, do not forget the cork. Without cork, no cork trees, and no sustainability for the forest…

  2. Once upon a time we used to be much more aware of our use of resources. A Coke bottle was returned to the store and refilled at a local distributor. Under the guise of economies of scale, Coke consolidated operations and sold us on plastic bottles to maintain the transportation costs.

    Today is a different world as we keep evolving. We have seen behind the curtain and discovered the piles of plastic that haven’t been recycled. Fountain sodas are a start but they have a shelf life of the distance of my house to the local McDonalds.

    The micro brew business sells reusable growlers and I can buy beer that is made just five blocks from my house. The shelf life is a few days until I open the growler. With my uKeg I might go a week. A corny keg might go a month, but who has room for a kegerator? Within a 4 mile radius there are four different micro breweries to choose from. Admittedly, beer is much cheaper at the grocery store in real glass.

    The problem is I like beer, but I like wine better. I have been asking the question for many years about glass as a delivery container. While glass is my favorite for its inert properties, ease of reuse/recycling and ability to break down in nature much faster than plastic (I don’t surf in a sea of glass in case you are wondering), it is also very loud when going in the bin and as you noted expensive to transport.

    Why can’t I bring in barrels of wine and sell them in my tasting rooms in bulk? Won’t a growler work for wine too? Maybe something like a SquareKeg if you don’t drink enough wine? The technology is there, but can I get the public to accept it?

    If I can raise the money and navigate the legal minefield, we’ll see…

  3. I have been a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby for more than 10 years. CCL advocates adoption of a carbon pollution fee with all funds rebated to households. Several years ago, more than 150 wineries endorsed this approach. As part of that process, we looked at how the carbon fee would affect the price of wine and found that it would add one or two dollars to the price of a case of wine, almost all because of the bottles, and this increase was before adoption of lower carbon technologies by the bottle manufacturers.

  4. Hello Mike:
    Here in California where we have had a bottle deposit law for several years, starting in 2024 wine and liquor bottles will finally also have to comply. Labels need to be changed to reflect the bottle deposit as well – so it will be interesting to see if the California labels will gradually show up in other markets. Recycling of wine bottles has been ongoing but without any bottle deposit – I place our empties out every week and they are usually picked up before the trash trucks get them…

  5. I’ve been a fan of the 3Rs for decades, reduce, reuse, recycle.
    I’ve been using bottles in the 390-426 gram range for over 30 years. In the 90s I was in a group of winemakers trying to get bottles reused. Unfortunately the plethora of variations in bottles doomed that to failure.
    I’ve been advocating for a rational bottle that whole time. Either standardize to 3-5 size/shapes, or get weight down to 300 grams.
    This past week we became the first winery in the USA to commit to using the new 300 gram bottle from Verallia. I think the weight could be reduced by another ten or so grams. I use screw caps, no need for a long neck and a cap with a long skirt to hide a bunch of empty space. Yes folks, long neck bottles are a destructive force on our planet!
    I encourage others to get on board.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard
    Zero Pesticide vineyard, ingredient labeled, satisfaction guaranteed
    (Which is why I don’t use wood stoppers, to high a failure rate)

  6. Handling, transportation, cleaning, removing and relabeling are likely always going to be more expensive than new. Anyone on this site have actual data.

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