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A Weighty Issue
By Linda Murphy
Apr 29, 2008
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I got up on the wrong side of the bed one recent morning and stubbed my big toe when I tripped over a 4-pound bottle of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.  That's approximately 2 pounds of glass holding 2 pounds of liquid.  The bottle is so ridiculously heavy that it could be used as a doorstop, or a weapon for use on an intruder, or a dumbbell for reducing underarm flab.
 
British wine writer/author Jancis Robinson (full disclosure: I contribute to her website) has initiated a 'name and shame' campaign to expose the world's excessively heavy, 750-ml wine bottles.  I've long considered thick-sided, deep-punted glass bottles to be the silly affectations of marketers and winery owners; I cringed when I saw one, I strained when I lifted one. 

But now that slight annoyance has turned to disgust.  Bottles weighing 4 pounds or more--we're talking standard bottles, not magnums--are increasing in numbers, and it's not just a California thing.  Wines from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Spain, South Africa and France's Rhône Valley are gaining weight and physical dimension, and Oregon Pinot Noirs show the same propensity for putting on pounds.  Examples? Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Turley Wine Cellars' California Zinfandels and Montes Folly Syrah from Chile come quickly to mind.  The toe stubber?  Dry Creek Vineyard's Endeavour Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley. 

Of course, marketers say these super-sized bottles reflect the elegance of the wine, give it a serious (i.e. more expensive) look, appeal to those with a taste for fine things, blah blah blah.  But these things are a pain to lift.  Sommeliers' hands shake when they do the thumb-the-punt pour.  Winery tasting room employees used to have to be able to lift 40 pounds, the weight of a case of 12 bottles in the old days, to get the job; now they're clean-and-jerking 50 pounds, and likely seeing chiropractors.

These bottles-on-steroids don't fit on standard, temperature-controlled wine storage unit shelves, nor some retail racks.  They're super-expensive to ship from winery or retailer to your house, and you also pay, via the retail price of the wine, for some of the cost of shipping wine from winery to distributor to retailer.  The heavier the bottles, the more consumers will pay.  And with the skyrocketing cost of oil, every ounce counts.

Brawny bottles aren't just the domain of expensive wines; some marketers use fancy packaging to try to trick shoppers into thinking that their $20 wine will taste like $50 if it looks the part. 

But the most egregious thing about 'bodybuilder bottles,' as Robinson calls them, is the impact they have on the planet.  At a time when businesses are trying to reduce their carbon footprints, wineries that sell Schwarzenegger-style bottles are increasing their carbon emissions; it takes more fuel to deliver heavy-glass wines to market than lightweight bottles.  Thicker glass means more to recycle, and that burns energy; for those who don't recycle, more glass will be dumped into landfills.

Is the marketing value worth this waste?  Absolutely not.  Some consumers may fall for the glamour of a zaftig Cabernet Sauvignon that takes two hands to pour, but I believe most wine lovers would find them a poor use of resources if they realized the impact all that glass can have on the environment, as well as the cost of wine. 

So please, producers, put your big bottles on a diet--particularly those of you who have 4-pound bottles yet send press releases touting your sustainable grape-growing practices and installation of solar panels.  You're being hypocritical. 

And while I'm ranting, I'll add this:  Why do some wineries and retailers still ship wine in Styrofoam? There are few places in the country where it can be recycled, so it goes into landfills, where it will sit for eons.  All-cardboard shippers are recyclable and offer just as much protection against breakage as styro.  Approximately 75% of the wines I receive are packed in 100% cardboard and pulp materials (thank you), but I'm hoping for 100% participation.  Some vintners argue that Styrofoam provides more protection than cardboard/pulp from hot and cold temperatures, and they may be right, but if wines are shipped with two-day delivery--as most are--cardboard is still the smart choice. 

With complaints come pats on the back, and I give a hearty one to Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino County, which last year became the first U.S.  winery to be carbon neutral.  Paul Dolan and Tim and Tom Thornhill, owners of Parducci and the Mendocino Wine Co., have reduced the winery's carbon emissions and waste, and offset the remainder (such as the carbon dioxide released into the air during fermentation) by buying carbon credits that pay for the planting of trees, which absorb CO2.

Wind and solar power, biodiesel-fueled equipment, organic and biodynamic farming practices and the use of tree-free paper and soy-based inks on wine labels, are among the ways Parducci lightens its footprint on the land.  The winery says its carbon credits are the equivalent of planting 242 acres of trees, or taking 172 cars off the highway for a year.

More and more West Coast producers are taking similar steps.  Now if only they'd put their heavy bottles on treadmills.

Next month's column will look at current-release Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, but here are a few affordable (for Napa Valley, that is) gems from the 2005 vintage, which is now reaching store shelves.  No gaudy glass allowed:

Faust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($50):  From Agustin Huneeus of Quintessa comes this oaky yet refreshing wine.  Toast, coffee and creamy vanillin notes suggest liberal use of new barrels, yet there's plenty of pretty black fruit and slightly tart, crisp acidity to moderate the oak.  Hints of dried herbs, sandalwood and cedar add complexity.  88

Merryvale Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($50):  This St.  Helena-based winery's flagship wine, a red Bordeaux blend called 'Profile' ($125), was not produced in 2005, so top-notch grapes that usually go into Profile instead went into Merryvale's 'regular' Cabernet.  It's 100% Cab and is impressively balanced, with rich (but not over-ripe) black cherry fruit, polished tannins and refreshing acidity.  It's young and age-worthy, yet drinking beautifully now.  91

Ramey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($50):  From Chardonnay master David Ramey comes this seductive red that's rich in cassis and black cherry fruit.  It has Cabernet's classic forest floor and cedar complexity that is missing from many super-ripe Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, yet it remains juicy and rewarding, with a touch of black spice and cocoa, sturdy tannins and a racy finish.  90

Summers Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 'Adriana's Cuvee' 2005 ($25):  There is great energy to this accessible Cabernet, which is properly ripe in its black cherry fruit, with touches of mocha, red licorice and toast.  Bright fruit, smooth tannins and crackling acidity make it a short-term winner and a terrific price.  88