Today we raise a glass to glass, and those wineries that practice restraint in their packaging. I just opened a wine shipment with bottles that have to weigh 5 pounds each. Why, why are these bottles so heavy? Is the wine inside any better than the wine inside a bottle weighing half or a third as much?
I feel compelled to set the record straight as I believe there may be a perception that a heavier bottle means the wine inside is of premium quality. Yes, the wine may be very good, but in reality, not necessarily any better than any other.
I could understand the logic of the heavy bottle if, say, it was a wine that is meant to be aged, as these bottles are also often quite dark in color and hold robust red wines with bold tannins that need years to soften. However, these wines (like a Barolo from Italy’s Piemonte) are often packaged in the exact same bottle as may be used for a light-to-medium-bodied Pinot Noir or Grenache.
In reality, these heavy bottled wines typically are meant to be opened relatively soon after their vintage release. The wines in these bottles are often high alcohol, intense fruit-bombs, leading with ripe, somewhat over-extracted fruit, and ending with vanilla, oak, and spice.
I realize it is a winery’s choice, along with the type of cork they use, the label design, color of the foil, etc. But, heavier bottles simply mean more money. Higher packaging costs that are passed along to consumers who are buying expensive bottles rather than buying expensive wine.
In actuality, reducing weight will save costs at every step from production, to packaging, to shipping.
Most wineries send their wines to distributors or retailers on palates. The lighter bottles mean you can send more wine at one time to your distributor, meaning your business is more financially fiscal, and your carbon footprint is reduced.
Similarly, lighter bottles mean your FedEx or UPS shipping costs are lower to your consumer’s purchasing, and the lighter bottles require less fuel to trek across the country, again, making the winery more responsible to both their economic bottom line and to the environment.
I read an interview with Jason Hass of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, noting the winery’s decision to move to lighter vs. heavier bottles about 10 years ago. In the past ten years, the winery has saved roughly 1,370,000 pounds of glass with lighter bottles, vs. the heavier options used throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. Each pound saved results in monetary savings for the winery. It seems it is just smart business.
I asked a few friends for their opinions.
East Bay, Cali consumers Daphne and Matt Locati hop around wine country often, visiting properties throughout Northern California. They are much more than novices, knowing what they like, buying based on their palates vs. a rating or scorecard.
Matt noted “I do believe that some people would associate a heavier bottle with more expensive wine. I’d guess that would not include the more sophisticated buyers, so that equation might not hold true for the very high-end.” Daphne followed with, “the label also sells ‘high end’ wines (ie: Nickel & Nickel, Far Niente). I know that if I pick up a bottle and it has more girth and weight than normal, I automatically think ‘If the winemaker/winery has put this in such an expensive bottle it can only mean one of two things – they can afford it because the wine is expensive OR they can afford it because the wine is cheap BUT they are selling A LOT of it.”
Don Winspear is one of our dearest friends with one of the best palates in Dallas. As a consumer and collector, Don has spent a lengthy amount of time learning about the grapes, the process, the style, and terroir of some of his favorite bottles, with many being the best in the world. With a love of everything from honey-filled Sauternes and Tokaji, to earthy reds from Priorat and Burgundy, to some of the finest Cabernets from Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Washington, and more, his is a wine opinion I always trust.
Don said, “I hate heavy bottles. They serve no purpose other than to bolster the ego of the winemaker. And the cost of production, hence wine. I believe there is absolutely no relationship between bottle mass and wine quality. The French have it right with their Bordeaux bottling. Simple, efficient and they will last for years, sometimes decades.”
It is no new news that I adore David Adelsheim. He changed the way wine was made in Willamette Valley, specifically Chardonnay. (Click the link here for more on David from my first interview with him over ten years ago. Many more conversations have come after that, as we have built our friendship through the years.) Over forty years ago he co-founded Adelsheim Winery in Willamette’s Chehalem Mountain AVA.
David notes, “there’s a history of using heavier bottles for wines with long aging potential. Glass was/is expensive, so originally you’d only use it for expensive wine that needed a long time to come around. But in the 1980s/90s, marketing and presentation became more important than what was actually in the bottle, particularly in warmer places without a history of making ageable wines. Heavier glass started to be used to imply that the wine inside was expensive and ageable.
In the last 15 years, that trend ran into the obvious environmental cost of producing and shipping heavier glass things. Glass companies responded by making lighter and lighter bottles. My take is that today wine bottle weight is a bit like COVID-19 face masks – those who care about others/the environment wear face masks and use lighter bottles (or even lighter alternatives.)”
Living on an island, where most items have to be shipped to us, including all wine and most spirits, finding environmentally friendly alternatives are always top of mind.
Europeans enjoy “bag-in-box” wines without thinking twice about it, leading Old World wineries to put wines of every quality level in 3L-5L bags. I remember being in a wine shop in Sauternes and finding a beautiful, dry Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend in a 3L bag-in-box package. I picked it up, and Gary and I enjoyed it throughout the rest of the trip. Bonus, this type of packaging also helps the wine stay fresh through multiple days. (I have a hard time drinking wine out of a bottle that has been opened for several days; the wine starts to taste oxidized.) Though we are seeing more wines include alternative packaging options in their portfolio, the highest quality wines in America are still typically not included in the alternative packaging category.
The dynamic Eugenia Keegan is a dynamo in the wine industry. Born into a rancher family in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Eugenia has worked on every side of the industry from vintner to distributor, to winemaker, individual winery management, to having her own label, and to her current role managing operations for Jackson Family Wines in Oregon, specifically the brands first premium property in Willamette, Gran Moraine.
Her thoughts are succinct, finite, and complete, “(the heavy bottles) are ONLY about marketing/the package.”
Adding, “JFW has been working on lighter bottles for a long time. We are currently at the lowest weight that they can find that will not break when put to the test (100-foot drop).” This includes everything from their $16 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, to their $400 Lokoya and Verite.
Eugenia added that the family has been looking at additional alternatives, with their only struggles being how long wine will be able to age without affecting the quality. In reality, the box wines don’t have the ability to age as well as those in the bottle. But, as Don said, the French have been doing it right for generations. Surely, the rest of the world can figure this out. Twenty years ago you would have never found a premium wine sealed with a screwcap, something that is quite common practice today.
At the end of the day, it is always the consumer’s choice, vs. the winemaker’s choice. By buying bottle X vs. bottle Y, you can make the choice to support smart packaging.
I am fully supportive of enjoying a bottle of great wine, as the juice is what is important. But, in today’s world, we also need to think smart for Mother Earth, for our pocketbooks, for our FedEx drivers that have to pick up those boxes.
Just a little something to think about. #Cheers