Almost exactly nine years ago, I posted a blog called Introducing a Greener Wine Bottle, in which I shared our decision to move our flagship wines from a heavier bottle to a lighter one. Today, we're bottling our 2017 Esprit de Tablas in a (slightly updated) version of this very same bottle. If you add up the impacts of this change over the ten years that we've used this lighter bottle, the numbers start to get really big. I'll throw a few out there.
A decade ago, we were using two bottles. Our flagship wines were in this beautiful but massive bottle that weighed 31.5 ounces empty. Our other wines (this was pre-Patelin, so that was our Cotes de Tablas and our varietal wines) were in a more classic Burgundy bottle that weighed about 19 ounces. Fast forward to 2019. Our current bottle, which we use for all our 750ml wines, weighs 16.5 ounces empty. For the roughly 8,000 cases of wine a year we switched over from the heavy bottle, that 15 ounces per bottle adds up to 90,000 pounds of extra glass weight, or about 11 pounds per case. Add in the roughly 25,000 cases of wine that on average we would have put each year in the 19-ounce bottle, saving just under two pounds per case, and you save another 47,000 pounds of glass weight. So, in ten years we have saved roughly 1,370,000 pounds of glass weight, or 685 tons.
That extra weight came with costs at every stage. We had to pay more to have it manufactured, shipped to us, and then either trucked away for wholesale sales or sent via UPS or FedEx to our direct customers. We needed larger wine racks to fit the wines in our library, which means we could store fewer bottles per square foot of space. Our trucking company can fit three more pallets of our flagship wines (22 pallets vs. 19) in the new package before reaching their legal weight limit, which means that for the roughly 40% of this wine that we sell via wholesale, we've had to run roughly one fewer full truck of cases of wine each year up to the Vineyard Brands warehouse in American Canyon, CA. And those are just the hard costs. The invisible environmental cost savings are massive as well, with less weight having to be driven or flown around in every stage between manufacture and consumption.
There was a nice article by Dave McIntyre earlier this month in the Washington Post about Jackson Family Wines' moving their production of two of their major brands into glass about two ounces lighter per bottle. Esther Mobley, of the San Francisco Chronicle, picked this up and added her approval on Twitter. I responded with our own story, and this started a couple of conversations I found fascinating. The beginning:
Esther, it was eye-opening for us when we were thinking about making the switch to lighter wine bottles a decade ago. The heavy bottles have all these costs... and people mostly hate them. https://t.co/DKHRkdDLKF— Jason Haas (@jasonchaas) July 8, 2019
You might find my "and people mostly hate them" comment about the larger bottles surprising. But before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle. I was expecting a mix of people in favor of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles and those who wanted the greener environmental footprint of the lighter bottles. And there were a few of each of those. But the overwhelming majority of the responses focused on utility: people wanted bottles that they could lift and store comfortably, and larger bottles don't fit in many pre-made wine racks. The hostility toward the larger bottles was eye-opening. From one representative comment on our blog:
I don't care what the bottle looks like, I care what's inside it. I don't want to pay for heavier glass and increased transportation costs. I don't want bottles that won't fit in my wine rack unless I put them in the Champagne section.
I've never refused to buy a wine because I thought the bottle looked cheap, but I've stopped buying several because they had larger, heavier, too tall or silly shaped bottles.
When a case of wine from one of my favorite California producers (such as Tablas Creek) arrives via UPS at my office, and I can barely pick up the damn box to take it home because the producer used those stupid two-pound wine bottles, you better believe I notice.
Once we wrapped our heads around this as primarily a question of utility, the choice was easy, and we made the switch. The next year, we were able to work out an agreement with our glass company to make a new mold based on this lightweight bottle, but with an embossed version of our logo on the neck, and we haven't looked back. To us, the bottles look great, feel great, and we can feel good about the positive impacts that making this change has made on both our bottom line and our environmental footprint.
So, given that lighter bottles cost less and people seem to like them more, why are there still wineries using the heavy bottles? That's complicated. You can get a sense of some of it if you click through Esther's twitter thread and look at the responses. There is definitely a perception in the market that a heavier bottle signifies a more serious wine. And I'm sure that this is true, to some extent, although I think it's important to mention that most of the great wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, not to mention California icons like Ridge and Calera, have stayed with classic bottle shapes and weights. But I feel like these larger bottles now have more detractors than they ever did before, both because of the sense of environmental tone-deafness that they convey (I had one consumer recently compare it to driving around in a Hummer) but mostly because consumers have to deal with the difficulties and higher costs of transport and storage.
It’s also worth noting that we realized that only a small percentage of our bottles ever appear on a retail shelf, where the bottle has the potential to play into a purchasing decision. Half our production we sell direct. More than half of the rest we sell in restaurants, where all that customers see is a name and maybe description on a wine list. And of that remaining ~20% a significant chunk is sold online, where bottle heft isn’t a factor.
So, I'm hoping that the trend I'm seeing will continue, and more California wineries will make similar decisions to move to lighter bottles, and focus on differentiating their marketing in other ways. After all, bottles are only a part of the perception. Between labels and capsules, wineries have plenty of opportunity to distinguish themselves, and marketing is, of course, so much more than package design anyway.
Hummers went the way of the dinosaur a few years ago. Here's hoping that wineries feel comfortable ushering the Hummers of the wine bottle world offstage too.