In recent months we've been thinking a lot about alternatives to the glass bottle. We've been focusing on reusable stainless steel kegs for sale to restaurants and wine bars and for our tasting room. We've put our first few wines in boxes, and received an enthusiastic response. That's important; finding packaging for wines that allow us to forego the bottle entirely is a key part of moving wine to a more sustainable future. But the reality is that no one has come up with a package that's comparable to glass for wines that are meant to age. Its combination of inertness, impermeability, durability, and track record means that most of our wines are likely to remain packaged in glass for the foreseeable future. That's why I'm so happy that we made the call back in 2010 to move to lightweight glass for all our wines.
Lightweight glass has a number of advantages. It takes fewer raw materials and less energy to make. It weighs less empty and full, so cases require less fuel to transport. You can fit more pallets on a truck before you reach the truck's weight limit. It makes bottles that are easier to pour and fit better in most people's wine racks. And according to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a winery can reduce its total carbon footprint by 10% just by moving from average glass bottles (around 23 ounces each) to lightweight glass (around 16). If they instead are using a heavy bottle (something like 30 ounces, and there are even heavier bottles out there) the savings are even more substantial: something like 22%. From the CSWA's report:
All those are good reasons to move to lighter bottles. And those, along with the perception that our packaging was out of step with the environmental initiatives we'd implemented in the vineyard, are pretty much the reasons we did so. From a blog I wrote in 2010:
As we thought about the challenge and looked at bottle after bottle we came to the conclusion that the aesthetic idea that a broader, taller bottle is higher quality may be becoming a relic of a more profligate age, in the same way that it's easy to imagine a future where the luxury SUV -- for a time the epitome of solid, prosperous respectability -- carries an ever-greater implication of environmental tone-deafness.
For all that we knew that lighter glass costs less to make and transport, that consideration wasn't central to our decision. So when I was asked by a writer last week how much we were saving by using lighter glass, I needed to calculate it. When I did, I didn't believe what I had learned. That decision, back in 2010, has saved us something like $2,236,346 over the last 14 years. To come to this figure, I looked at just two sources of cost: what we pay for the bottles themselves, and what we pay to ship the filled bottles to our customers via UPS and FedEx. First, a little then-and-now. In our pre-2010 period, we were using two different bottles. One was a somewhat-lighter-than-average bottle, around 19 ounces, which we used for around 80% of our production. The other was a big, impressive, heavy bottle, modeled after the one used at Beaucastel, that weighed 31.5 ounces and which we reserved for the Esprit de Beaucastel, Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and Panoplie. We put about 20% of our production in that heavy bottle.
Looking back at our invoices that show what we paid for our new 16.5 ounce bottle vs. what we were paying for the previous bottles gives us the first figure. When we made the move, we paid $0.60/bottle less than the heavy bottle, and a little more than $0.06/bottle less than the mid-weight bottle we had been using. At our average 30,000 case/year (360,000 bottle/year) output, that produced a savings of $43,440 per year for the 20% of our production that had been packaged in heavy glass, and $19,760 for the 80% of our production that had been going into the mid-weight bottle. Add them up, and that's $63,200 per year in savings on glass purchases.
For the shipping, we looked at what we're charged by UPS and FedEx to ship our wines to our customers. It's not as simple as just calculating the reduction in weight, because shippers charge based on a combination of package dimensions and weight, but there are still significant savings. The average cost increase to ship mid-weight bottles vs. our current lightweight bottles would be about 5%. The average increase were we to ship heavy bottles (which weigh 30.6% more full than our current bottles) would be 16%. Last year, we spent $1,340,820 on shipping wine. It's our single largest expense after payroll. Adding 5% to our costs of shipping the 80% of our production that was in mid-weight bottles would increase that bill by $53,633 per year. Adding 16% to our costs of shipping the 20% in heavy bottles would add another $42,906. Together that's $96,539 of additional shipping costs that we'd be incurring now if we were still using the bottle mix we were in 2009.
Add the $63,200 to the $96,539 and you get $159,739 per year. Over 14 years that adds up to $2,236,346. Wowza.
It's worth noting that this almost certainly understates the savings. Glass has gotten more expensive over the last 14 years, so the difference between lighter and heavier bottles has likely increased. I didn't try to calculate the difference in truckloads of palletized wine going our for distribution or to our shipping fulfilment provider. I didn't add in the greater physical footprint needed for the larger cases that are needed for larger bottles. And we were only using heavy bottles for 20% of our wine. If we'd been using 100% heavy bottles and had made this switch, our savings would have calculated out at $446,211 per year.
It seems like we're reaching a tipping point on moving toward lighter glass, driven by advocacy within the industry (from groups like the IWCA) and from press (shout-out to Jancis Robinson for being at the forefront). I'm hopeful that wineries are doing this from a genuine commitment to sustainability. But if they're not, there are other incentives out there. Millions of small, green, rectangular ones.