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Wine Bottles Lighten Up
By Tina Caputo
Sep 28, 2010
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Just when I thought the “heavy bottle” trend had run its course, I received a sample of the “Barrel 32” Zinfandel from Bella Vineyards in Healdsburg.   “Holy crap!” was all could say as I hoisted the bottle from its shipping box -- this was, without a doubt, the heaviest bottle of wine I’d ever encountered. 

Just to make sure, I weighed it on my office’s postage meter.  The verdict: almost 4.5 pounds!  Compare that to a standard full bottle of wine, which usually weighs less than 3 pounds. 

When a co-worker saw the tall, fat bottle sitting next to a standard one on my desk, she insisted that the Bella bottle held a full liter instead of the standard 750 milliliters.  It didn’t. 

What’s the reason behind such a hefty bottle?

It’s simple:  Some people equate a heavy bottle with expensive (and therefore great) wine.  The logic goes something like this:  “That bottle must cost a lot of money, and the winery wouldn’t spend that kind of cash on a cheap, crappy wine, right?”  Not necessarily.  Pricey packaging is not a guarantee of wine quality.  In fact, it might even be trying to “compensate” for something, like a guy driving a conspicuously expensive sports car.

While heavy bottles may be aesthetically impressive, they’ve developed a reputation for being environmentally reckless.  I’ve heard plenty of complaints about them from fellow wine writers, who feel that oversized bottles fly in face of environmental responsibility and sustainability.  (And have you ever tried cramming one of those big bottles into a wine rack?)  A couple years back, high-profile UK wine writer Jancis Robinson launched a “name and shame” campaign on her website to call out vintners that package their wines in ridiculously heavy bottles. 

How are the beefy bottles eco-unfriendly? Let us count the ways:

1. More raw materials and energy are needed to make them.

2. The bottles produce more glass waste. 

3. Because of the added weight, they require more fuel to transport them to their destinations -- from the bottle production facility to the winery; from the winery to the distributor; from the distributor to the retailer; from the retailer to the consumer’s home. 

4. The increased girth of heavy bottles means that fewer bottles will fit in a truck.  And that means more trucks on the road, using even more fuel. 

Oversized bottles are no longer as common as they were, say, five years ago, so it appears that many wineries have gotten the message.  Not only that, a mini-movement has sprung up among wineries to switch over to even lighter bottles than the ones we consider standard. 

Fetzer Vineyards is leading the charge, with help from Owens-Illinois (O-I), a glass bottle manufacturer based in Ohio.  Last year, Fetzer made the switch from 17.5-ounce Burgundy-style bottles to 15.5-ounce bottles (weights when empty).  This may not sound like a big deal, but that 11% weight reduction shaves 10% off the bottles’ carbon footprint.  Fetzer estimates that one year of using their new lightweight bottles is the carbon-footprint-reduction equivalent of planting 70,000 trees and growing them for 10 years.  Not bad.

Not only do the new bottles reduce Fetzer’s carbon footprint, they save the company a ton of money on materials, freight, fuel, etc.

The secret to the bottle’s lighter weight is that it has a flat bottom -- as in, no punt.  If you saw the old and new Fetzer bottles sitting side-by-side, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them.  

Bronco Wine Co.  is also using the lightweight bottles for its Charles Shaw (a.k.a. “Two Buck Chuck”) wines.

To give wineries additional green-glass alternatives, O-I has just introduced an even lighter wine bottle that weighs in at just 11.6 ounces.  The ultra-light bottles were introduced in June, and according to the folks at O-I, a few wineries have already expressed interest -- although they’re not naming names just yet. 

If you’re wondering if the lighter bottles are more prone to breakage than standard ones, O-I has done extensive testing on all of its lightweight bottles to make sure they’re just as strong and durable as traditional wine bottles. 

The bottles have an additional benefit:  They let vintners “lighten up” without abandoning the look and feel of traditional glass bottles.  While many people have no problem buying wines packaged in boxes, juice-box containers or plastic bottles, a lot of folks would still rather not -- especially when it comes to higher-end wines.

Of course, the new generation of lighter bottles doesn’t pack the same packaging punch as those substantial bottles with extra-deep punts.  When you pick up one of those big bottles from a retail shelf, you feel the weight of luxury.  But is that extra heft really worth the additional cost to the environment -- and to your wallet, in subsidizing the more-expensive packaging?

Now, getting back to that big Bella bottle that I received in the mail: In fairness, I should note that the winery only produced 575 bottles of this particular wine -- and the winery’s other Zins are packaged in normal-size bottles.  Since the wine’s production is so limited, most of the bottles probably go directly from the winery to the buyer’s house, rather than being transported across the country in a fleet of fuel-burning trucks.  And once I got past the weight of the bottle, I found the wine inside it to be very good -- not at all over-the-top, as its packaging suggested.  

I would have liked it even more in a 3-pound bottle.