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.