I spent this past week with winemaker Neil Collins up at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Unified (as everyone in the industry calls it) is the country's largest wine and grape trade show, with 12,000 attendees visiting booths from about 600 vendors representing the newest advances in hardware like vineyard and winery equipment, bottling lines or tanks; annual supplies like barrels, bottles, capsules, corks and labels; and services such as vineyard management teams, biodynamic consultants, consultant winemaking or e-commerce outsourcing. We were there to support NovaVine, who sell cuttings of our grapevines to vineyards around the country. While they spoke with vineyard owners and managers about planting new blocks to our Rhone varieties, we poured samples of the wines we made from our clones and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each grape and clone with interested buyers.
Still, we weren't tied to the NovaVine table, and we took advantage of the quieter times throughout the three-day event to wander the largest imaginable showroom for viticulture and winemaking toys. One area we made a point to visit was the various bottle makers' and agents' booths, as we are in the market for a new bottle for our wines. Two years ago, we finally discarded the bottle that we had been using for our top wines since our inception for a bottle with a more traditional shape and greater heft and quality. You can see the difference between the two bottles below, from the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel to the 2006:
Those of you paying attention to the title of this blog piece have probably already realized what we failed to at the time: that moving to this more substantial bottle would come with costs. This new bottle was about two-thirds of a pound heavier than the old (from about 1.35 lbs to just over 2.0). Some of this cost was explicit in the cost of the bottle to us (after all, it contained more raw materials) but it also came with hidden costs in shipping the bottles to and from the winery, and an environmental cost as well. Half a pound may not seem like much, but calculate it out: we bottled about 9,000 cases in this bottle last year. Those 9,000 cases contain 108,000 bottles. The heavier bottle added some 36 tons of glass weight to our cases, which had a cascade of consequences. Because each full case of wine weighed 48 pounds instead of 40, we could fit fewer pallets on a truck. Because the bottles were heavier, we paid more to ship them via air or ground. And we came to realize that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) increasing the implied quality of the wines, the heavier bottles worked to undermine our efforts toward environmental responsibility that we have been making by farming organically, moving to solar power, and installing one of California's first vineyard wetland water treatment facilities. Just as you might reasonably question an environmental activist with a BMW M-series in his driveway, we felt that whatever the bottle's merits, it wasn't the right fit for us.
Of course, there were other challenges. The bottles don't fit in some of the smaller storage racks, which frustrated a vocal minority of our collectors and retailers. The weight of the bottles made them difficult to pour at events, particularly the whites that had been in icy water. And the strain on our staff, particularly in the tasting room, matters too; those extra eight pounds per case add up in an already-bulky, awkward package.
So, Neil and I have been looking at different bottles all winter, with the goal of finding a new bottle that we can move our top wines into and be happy with from functional, aesthetic and environmental perspectives. We've been getting samples from nearly every glass maker. You can see some of what we've received, lined up on one of our tasting bars, in the photo below. Note that each has its weight on it, and that the weights can vary enormously from around one pound to more than two pounds:
Thus Neil and I spent a chunk of our time at Unified last week speaking to glass manufacturers and researching different options for bottles. It became clear that the bottle manufacturers have been taken by surprise with wineries' desires for lighter bottles. Most of the lightest bottles that they make still are intended for the lowest-end wines. They look cheap. What we're looking for is a bottle that looks like a top-end bottle, but weighs half as much. And, somewhat to our surprise, those bottles just don't exist yet. Several manufacturers have just released lighter-weight versions of one or two of their top-end bottles; one bottle that we like the shape of is the Cabo mold (second from right, above) which is normally 900 grams -- almost exactly two pounds. Their new 700 gram (1.54 lbs) version looks nearly identical but shaves off nearly half a pound. But it's still far from a lightweight bottle.
We still haven't made our decision on what bottle to go with, although the reduced-weight Cabo is probably the front-runner right now. We aren't willing to go to a cheap-feeling or cheap-looking bottle, but would love to be able to further reduce the weight of the bottle we use. We are interested in hearing from you as to what you look for in bottles, both in a wine that you already know and when you're choosing a new wine off a retail shelf. But we are coming to the inescapable conclusion that whatever choice we'll make will necessarily be an interim one. It's clear that bottle manufacturers are hearing a new message loud and clear: that wineries are looking for high-quality, low-weight bottles. And that the first bottle makers to successfully produce the right molds will be in position for a lot of business.