Last summer, I wrote a blog I called A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress in which I broke down how we stacked up against the baseline California winery across all the components that make up our carbon footprint, from vineyard to winery to packaging and transport of finished wine. Overall, we look good against the baseline, thanks to the combination of organic farming with minimal outside inputs, solar power, and the lightweight glass that we use for all our bottles. My rough estimate is that we have about 60% of the carbon footprint of the baseline.
One of the things that was really driven home to me as I did this research was the importance of the packaging in wine's overall environmental footprint. According to the assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint published by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) in 2011, which is what I used as my baseline, more than half of California wine's impact is due to the packaging in glass bottles. And that's not surprising; glass is energy-intensive to make and transport, as it requires high temperatures to melt and mold and is heavy to transport. Moving to lightweight glass reduces a winery's footprint by 10%, while using heavy bottles adds 10% to that tally, according to the CSWA's report:
In the piece, I did mark us down a bit for not using the 3L bag-in-box, which is by far the most effective package for reducing wine's carbon footprint. But I admit that I didn't take it particularly seriously, as the market for the 3L wine boxes is still (at least in the United States) almost entirely a bottom shelf one, with boxes topping out around $30 retail. Given that our least expensive wine at the time was $25, and the box contains four bottles, I didn't think it was an option for us.
After I published this piece, I got a number of interesting comments that made me rethink that position. A great example is one on my personal Facebook page from friend and former wine blogger Jason Mancebo:
Really great effort here, Jason. Tons of respect for your efforts and transparency in that effort! One thing that rubs me a bit wrong is: ...."we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all, and likely won't as long as it still carries the stigma of grocery store generic."
Leadership requires risk and without risk, this (stigma) won't ever change. A winery of your size and your commitment to environmental issues is a perfect "Poster Child" to change the stigma. As a consumer I wish I had more choice on quality wine than the 750 glass bottle. Cans are great, but limited selection and volume requirements = lower quality. the 3L would be great, especially to ship for @home consumption. Go for it! Be the change!!
Since then, I've found my own feelings around the 3L bag-in-box evolving. And Jason was right; the issues with the format -- at least for wine made for short-term consumption -- are almost entirely about consumer perception. After all, think of the advantages:
- Preservation. When you open a bottle of wine, the liquid inside is exposed to oxygen, and starts the clock ticking on the destructive effects of oxidation. If you're careful, and re-cork or re-cap the wine promptly and put it back in the fridge, you can get a week or so of life. If you forget and leave the half-empty bottle on your dinner table, it's likely to be compromised by morning. But not in a bag-in-box. Because the bag containing the wine deflates inside the box as you pour wine out of its spigot, oxygen never comes into contact with what remains inside, and you can keep an open box in good shape for weeks or a few months in your fridge.
- Storage space. It's amazing how much space and weight are taken up by the bottles and the fact that because they're round and breakable they can't even sit snugly next to each other. When we got a look at our first 3L boxes they looked so small that we thought the vendor had sent us 1.5L boxes. It wasn't until we measured out three liters of water and filled one up that we realized that it was three liters after all. That saved space is extra room in your fridge and in our winery and warehouse.
- Portability. Liquid is heavy, but wine bottles are too. The 470 gram (1 lb.) bottles that we use are among the lightest on the market. Even so, they end up making up nearly 40% of the finished 1,220 gram (2.7 lbs.) weight of a filled bottle. Four full bottles together weigh nearly 11 pounds. The full 3L bag-in-box weighs less than seven. That's easier to lift and take with you, sure, but it's also cheaper to truck and ship. Plus... glass is breakable. Liquid in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box? Not so much.
- Footprint. The CSWA chart that I shared above makes the case clearly. Compared to the packaging required to put that same wine in 750ml glass bottles, the carbon footprint of the bag-in-box package is 84% less, and the carbon footprint of distributing this lighter, more compact package is 60% less. The CSWA study didn't specifically look at the footprint of delivering direct-to-consumer (DTC) wines, but I'm sure the savings of moving to bag-in-box is similar if not greater than the savings via distribution, given all the packaging that's required to ship glass bottles safely via companies like UPS and FedEx and the greater per-bottle transportation footprint of air shipping compared to palletized wholesale transport by truck or rail.
Of course, there are unknowns about this package too. Is it good for long-term aging of wine? I'd doubt it. Is the package recyclable? The boxes are, although the plastic pouches inside are not in most places. (Of course, in America our glass recycling percentage is a disheartening 31%, so this still means a lot less trash headed to the landfill on average). And will people buy it at a price that allows higher-end wineries to adopt the package? I floated on Twitter that we were thinking about trying it with our new vintage of Patelin Rosé and got a heartwarmingly enthusiastic set of responses.
It seems like it's time to find out the answer to the question "will people buy a high-end wine in a box". To that end, we've decided to dip our toe into this water by diverting 100 cases of the 2021 Patelin de Tablas Rosé into 300 3L bag-in-box packages. The Patelin Rose seems like a great place to start, since it's a wine that we suggest that people drink in the near-term anyway. A few photos of the process. First, Austin at the filling machine (left) and Chelsea building boxes (right):
Then Gustavo putting on labels (left) and the finished box (right)!
Since we're paying less for the packaging, we'll be passing along that savings to customers, pricing each box at $95 instead of the $112 that the four bottles would cost. Because it takes up less space and weighs less, we can pass on shipping savings too, counting each box as two bottles for shipping rather than four.
Will that be enough to tempt people who might not have dreamed of buying a box of wine? I hope so. For this batch, we're only making it available for sale direct, i.e. on our website and in our tasting room, so we can explain directly to the customers who might be interested why we've made this choice. If it works, we'll do it with some additional wines going forward. If it really works, we might even make enough next year to sell some wholesale. After all, there was a time when screwcaps were considered appropriate only for cheap wines. And when wine in keg, to be ordered by the carafe or glass, was unheard of. But in both cases we decided that we trusted our followers enough to try, because we thought that the decisions were the right ones for the wines. In this case, we think it's an important approach to try both for the wine, and for the planet.
No time like the present to find out if we're right. If you're on our mailing list, look for an email next week announcing its release.