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02.22.2010

Glass Wine Bottles Strike Back. In the Wrong Direction.

It's not every day I get the opportunity to display my inner cynic. But I'm still cackling at the little bit of fear mixed with preemptive aggression that manifested today in the form of a web site called Wine Loves Glass.

Those who spend time in wine circles know a lot about the "threat" to posed to natural cork producers by the proliferation of alternative closures. In the face of shrinking market share and demand for their product (read: threat to their income streams) they've been winelovesglass.jpgstriking back with a multi-pronged offensive, covering every base from carbon footprints to endangered species protection to the sheer lack of romance in a screwcap.

Who knew that the glass bottle industry was under such an equally imminent and pernicious threat? But of course, if you think about it, the reality is quite dire. Glass bottles are at least indirectly responsible for the biggest component of wine's carbon footprint: heavy glass bottles require a lot of fossil fuel to move around the planet.

Everyone in the wine business that has half a brain has been looking to reduce their carbon footprint, if only to be able to tell their prospective customers that they are, and for many that means moving to lighter glass bottles that contain less.... glass.

That, combined with mainstream wine consumers' resurgence in interest in more environmentally friendly and convenient packaging like bag-in-box and Tetra-Pak (think: kids juice cartons) must have the glass industry a little rattled. Or would that be "shattered?"

Enter WineLovesGlass.Com, where you can subject yourself to the desperate public relations pleas of an industry scrambling to regain some market share. Or perhaps less cynically, an industry trying to convince people that glass isn't all that environmentally problematic. Witness the fabulously named "Truth in Packaging" or "Benefits of Glass" sections of the site, where in neatly composed prose you can learn that glass is superior in every way to every packaging method ever invented, or ever to be invented.

Now I'm no carbon footprint, environmental, or materials scientist, so I can't critique the claims they're making on the web site on those fronts, but I have to chortle at how glass bottles are compared with bag-in-box packaging: "Boxed wine is also not hermetically sealed, drastically limiting its shelf life. Wine in glass on the other can be preserved for any amount of time - allowing you to drink the wine of your choice days, months or even years after it's been purchased."

Um, where to begin? How about with the definition of hermetically, which means airtight, and which doesn't describe a single bottle of wine ever made, considering they all come with a big hole in the top that is normally sealed (and almost never hermetically) with something that the glass industry doesn't produce at all. Not to mention the fact that no one ever attempts to age wines sold in boxes, and that for the average wine consumer, a bag-in-box wine will last them much longer than wine in an opened bottle, because the (ahem) vacuum-sealed bags reduce the wine's exposure to oxygen.

I don't doubt that many of the facts and figures leveled in service of defending the glass bottle on this web site are true, from glass' ability to be recycled completely, to the amount of energy required to produce a bottle. But couched in ridiculously patronizing language like "Glass vs. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET/Plastic): It's a Matter of Safety" or "Glass vs. Multi-Layer Cartons: It's a Matter of Responsibility" underneath animated montages of happy, beautiful, appropriately multi-ethnic people enjoying wine from bottles? Excuse me while I throw up a little in my mouth.

This web site is a complete waste of money in my opinion, no matter how much fun some PR firm and design agency had making it. A huge swath of wine consumers would never buy wine in alternative packaging because none of the wines they want to drink come in such containers. A whole other segment of the population have tried wines in alternative packaging and come to the justified conclusion that 99% of the wines that come in such packaging are positively awful. And then there are the rest of the folks that are content to buy wine in boxes and bags and cans, half of whose minds can't be changed and the other half of whom Fred Franzia's Two Buck Chuck convinced to switch to wine in glass bottles anyway because they feel all "upscale" while doing it.

How about pouring this money into research to reduce the environmental impact of glass manufacture and recycling even further? How about funding some hot-shit materials scientists to come up with lighter, stronger glass that can weigh less but still look solid enough to be used by the classiest wines who want to maintain their image but reduce their carbon footprint? Or best yet, start lobbying the wine industry to use those nifty glass stoppers that I think are the best thing to happen to the wine industry in a long time, and the potential long-term replacement to cork (if there ever will be such a thing).

Like the campaign against the use of Champagne on American wine labels I lambasted last week, this is yet another example of an industry thinking defensively instead of creatively.

Comments (13)

02.22.10 at 9:59 PM

Glass is in fact 100% recyclable (see McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook), though it takes a lot of heat -- and thus fuel -- to produce a bottle (2,600-2,900 Fahrenheit). A lot of the investment efforts in the glass industry are focused on getting that temperature down.

And it's certainly true that bag-in-box wines allow air in much faster than sealed bottles (1 g/ml oxygen every four months after the 6-month mark vs. essentially none), but the points about when drinkers drink that wine (almost always right away) and the oxygen permeability after each has been opened are valid.

But yes, I'd love to see more investment in lighter, stronger, elegant-looking bottles rather than defending glass. A little back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that you could ship roughly twice as much boxed wine in the same space you use for bottled wine and still only increase the weight by 50%

Lar Veale wrote:
02.23.10 at 2:12 AM

Wines, at least the ones I drink, much prefer amphorae. I'm a "classic" winedrinker.

Steve Raye wrote:
02.23.10 at 4:24 AM

Whoa! How about some Rolaids, Ginger Ale and some crackers to settle that stomach! Bilious criticism of biased promotional copy aside, this subject is reflective of a larger issue...or better stated...problem. It's a dirty little and poorly kept industry secret that cork is a lousy closure solution. From cork taint to the problem of having a hot date and no corkscrew, it's a problem (the quality one, not the date one) wine has faced since the Georgians first buried their fermenting must in clay amphorae. It's also the reason for egregious preservative solutions like retsina.

So what's a poor industry to do? There is active R&D going on around the world working on container solutions like lightweight glass, plastic, tetrapak and even cans (think Coppola sparkling wine) to closure solutions. But change is inexorable...witness Austria's adoption of screwcaps for most of their whites.

It wasn't too long ago that a "wood" in golf was made of, well, wood. And hey, telephones used to have a string that attached them to a wall!
So sure, it's a one sided site underwritten by a...surprise!..glass manufacturing company. Get over the poorly written prose and let's look to the future of innovation in packaging. What do you and your readers think a "bottle of wine" will look like in 10 years?

Mark wrote:
02.23.10 at 8:31 AM

Alder, Great points as always. Frankly I'd be interested to see what the folks down at the UCSB Materials Science program think about the glass problem within the wine industry. Given the proximity to wine growing regions and AVA's and the world class stature of the aforementioned program, why wouldn't the industry look to sponsor some type of research?

Personally, lighter glass seems to be a great solution for all involved, especially given the prohibitive shipping costs that we encounter from the heavy glass crowd.

Kelley Yoder wrote:
02.23.10 at 9:10 AM

Alder,

You raise some very good questions about glass packaging, and we have some very good answers. We are indeed investing money into research to reduce the environmental impact of our products.

We have multiple teams of glass scientists working on stronger yet lighter weight glass. To date, we have reduced wine packaging weight by more than 30 percent, and are working hard to expand our lightweight offerings.

Moreover, our new product development and R&D teams continue to invent new packaging designs to compete against market alternatives.

Certainly we realize that recycling also helps reduce the environmental impact of our products. In fact, respected third-party organizations such as the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) have pointed out that recycling should be included in any calculation of carbon footprint.

As a result, the industry is actively pursuing legislation to increase glass recycling rates and collect more high-quality cullet—which further reduces the environmental impact of manufacturing glass.

Dialogue about these issues is healthy, and we appreciate your consideration of our perspective.

Sincerely,
Kelley Yoder
O-I

Jim Silver wrote:
02.23.10 at 12:43 PM

We could save a great deal of fuel if we all drank a little more of our local wine. Then maybe the glass wouldn't have to travel to far, or pass through so many hands.
Hmm...maybe you could even reuse the glass when you filled up the jug at the cellar door, like in the good old days.
Is glass the problem, or is moving the glass actually the problem?

02.23.10 at 6:09 PM

Alder
Glass itself as people mention in the comments is not the only issue.
Production methods, transportation and weight are key factors.
The topic reminds me of what I was writing about this morning ahead of Greener Gadgets conference for my Green Day piece on 'Serge the Concierge', connection between well designed objects, sustainability and recycling.
Serge

BrainWines wrote:
02.28.10 at 8:01 PM

As always, nice read. However, I will now provide a short cautionary tale about using less glass... I will post this eventually on my own website - with all the gory pictures - but, for now, here is the summary…

- I was performing an absolutely standard opening with an absolutely standard waiter's "wine key"

- The wine was from South America, imported into the US

- During the last phase of extraction the neck broke off into my left hand that was holding the shoulder and neck of the bottle

- Sliced instantly to the bone

- With blood shooting everywhere I had to go to the ER for stitches

- I will have scar on my left hand for life now

I tell the above to simply bring up one point... if the pursuit of less carbon footprint stuff leads to inferior bottles, then the very rare accident I had might become much more commonplace.

Cheers,

Keith

Anthony wrote:
03.01.10 at 2:00 AM

"industry thinking defensively instead of creatively"

That is it Alder - we'll have a decade of living through this mess - the global recession is making everyone change, but the first part is always denial. Every industry we know is going to go through this - it won't be pretty!

Chuck Antonio wrote:
03.01.10 at 4:14 PM

I have tried to quit being cynical, which has been hard to do since I have spent the past 25 years working in the RDT&E world where manufacturers constantly overstate capabilities and understate failures (when you can get them to admit there was one). So, I have decided to simply be skeptical or at best suspicious. The WineLovesGlass website fits the familiar profile of defending a point with slick pictures and prose, so thanks for a well thought out and rational response. I love wine. How it is packaged, opened, decanted, served and stored is important but not as important as what goes across my tongue and down. Maybe, as you said, if money was spent on good R&D we could have a container that stores easily, ships cheaply and has a small production carbon footprint. How can we press for that when we still have to buy wine in glass containers?

Todd wrote:
03.04.10 at 8:00 AM

This glass packaging issue is a tempest in a teapot - PET, Tetrapak, or alternatives are fine with me for wines that aren't aged after bottling (remember, even if the consumer doesn't age the wine at home, it is often aged by the producer for 6 months to a year after bottling).
But really, people, of all glass packaging consumption in the U.S., wine accounts for FIVE PERCENT. Foods account for 17 percent and Beer (despite already using a lot of alternative packages) uses 59 percent. That's right, beer uses more than 10 times more glass than wine and is generally not bottle-aged. Soft drinks and water use nine percent. (Source: Glass Packaging Institute, 2006 data).
Want to reduce your carbon footprint? Drive five miles less per week and you'll probably easily cover the energy used to produce the glass in a weekly bottle (or two) of wine. Buy your beer in plastic bottles or cans.
I use a lighter weight, U.S.-made bottle and I'm happy with it. But the incremental gains from shifting to an alternative package are, in my opinion, outweighed by the costs when there is so much riper, juicier, low-hanging fruit out there.

Mark wrote:
03.05.10 at 9:59 AM

Glass bottles certainly have a time and place when they should be used. Much in the same way as deciding which type of closure is the right one to utilize. Each wine is different and each winery has it reasons for utilizing one or a combination of various packaging and closures. For me personally, I wish that decision was based more on which vessel best preserves a particular wine and less to do with the image associated with whether a wine comes in a glass, a bag or any other alternative packaging option. If it's in fact true that the vast majority of wines on the market today are meant to be consumed within one to three years of the vintage date, shouldn't we want to use more “friendly" options that fit in these situations, while utilizing glass in the cases when a wine is intended to be cellared beyond this period?

It makes no difference to me as a consumer which type of vessel that a winery wishes to utilize. But, it’s pretty obvious that a vast majority of wine drinkers are still of the mindset that a wine that comes in a glass bottle with a natural cork is “superior” to a wine that comes in any other alternative packaging.

Len Nap wrote:
05.07.10 at 7:48 AM

What's wrong with a company defending its business, and its industry? They would be irresponsible not to. I've seen that website Wine Loves Glass and found it interesting. So What? its up to me how much of it I believe. I suspect the plastic industry would do the same if their water bottles were threatened by a new material.

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