Tim James: A solution to all those multiform glass bottles

By , 17 June 2024



In my modest way, I do have a response to one of the wine industry’s big problems – a very simple solution that would also solve an irritation in my personal wine life. I’ll return to that idea, and you’ll see why, unfortunately, it just ain’t going to be realised.

The big problem is intimately connected (though not necessarily, in my opinion), with wine’s great glory: its infinite variety. This glory is of course a great nuisance to retailers, especially supermarkets. With washing powder, biscuits, yoghurt, beer and fizzy drinks they’re obliged to stock only a comparatively small number of brands and types to give us customers the feeling (sometimes the illusion) of choice. But with wine they have to devote an unreasonable amount of shelfspace and deal with a large number of producers and distributors. The big wine brands mollify them, but not enough. The supermarkets, a frightening power in modern life, must be itching at that complexity.

The problem I alluded to to is this: leaving aside the large volume of the stuff in boxes, much of wine’s multifariousness comes in a correspondingly wide range of glass bottles, resulting in a carbon footprint that the poor old world can ill afford. An article about bottle re-use last December in Wine Business Monthly quoted the California Wine Institute to the effect that “glass bottles account for approximately 29% of a winery’s carbon footprint”; and then cited another study, by an organisation dedicated to mitigating climate change, putting the total “closer to 50%-70%, when including the energy needed to melt glass and transportation outputs”.

That’s glass for you. I mention the variety of bottles (shapes, weights, sizes) as significant because that must seriously affect the potential for re-use, by complicating it immensely. I remember that 30 years ago I used to take my empty wine-bottles to a little kiosk behind the Drop-Inn in Claremont and they would give me five cents or whatever credit for each bottle – each standard bottle, that is; foreign or otherwise unusual bottles they wouldn’t accept, and those had to go to be crushed for recycling (which is vastly inferior in environment-friendly terms than re-use). No longer. It’s not only a question that the world has moved implacable to waste all resources and whenever possible turn to single-use plastic (another step that wine has fortunately resisted); I’m sure that an increased variety of available bottles, locally produced and imported, makes collection and re-use ever more impractical.

I don’t know where I would take even “standard” bottles for re-use now, though there must be a way, as there is clearly still a tiny amount of wine-bottle re-use happening in South Africa (I had a sub-garagiste friend that used them). And it happens with beer bottles. In fact I’m assured (in an admittedly 2018 article online) that “South Africa has one of the most efficient returnable bottle systems in the world” – certainly nothing to do with wine. Coincidentally, while I’ve been pondering all this recently, a friend took me on a tour offered by the historic Newlands Brewery in Cape Town. Comparatively little of my interest was in the fairly mundane process of industrial-scale beer production – though I did get to taste a tiny amount of hops, against the tour-giver’s advice, and it was probably the most persistent, and pretty horribly bitter, flavour I’ve every experienced.

The process of packaging big-brand beer, in bottle and can, is extraordinary, however. Millions of bottles move around on kilometres of automated tracks from one station to another (with scarcely a human worker in sight). And a lot of the process, prior to the bottling and sealing of the beer, involves sorting and cleaning and multiply-checking, by various high-tech means, previously used bottles. Apparently they can be cleaned, refilled and relabelled some 35 times. Huge truckloads of empties arrive in Newlands, huge truckloads of filled bottles depart, many times a day.

It’s a scenario that is not transferable to wine on a large scale. Wine is small stuff. I have a feeling that Distell did some bottle re-use for one of their bigger brands – perhaps Heineken still does: Heineken SA announced earlier this year that it was working towards 65% returnable glass for its beer portfolio in 2024. I must find out if they’re doing anything remotely as ambitious with wine, but I seriously doubt it.

All those different bottles that the infinite variety of wine revels in is, I presume, an insurmountable problem, even if retailers could be persuaded – or obliged – to take and sort returned empties. And observing the appalling lack of returnability of Coke etc plastic bottles, rational, environment-friendly legislation seems unlikely. Perhaps we could invoke help from those impoverished “scavengers” on our streets that allow returned aluminium cans to be such a South African success story.

Recycling glass, an expensive, fuel-costly business, is far from being the best answer to wine’s big problem with its bottles. Re-use is vital, and if we could only indulge in a bit of unfashionable command-economics, I have the answer. We must abandon all the variety in bottles, all those different versions (including the apallingly overweight ones) of the basic designs. There is one great bottle design suitable for all non-sparkling wine – what we call “the Bordeaux bottle” in its simplest form: no taper, no extra weight or height, no big punt. Anyone who has ever tried to stack wine bottles (or to fit them in most wine-fridge drawers) will know of the problems encountered with extra-heavy or extra-long bottles, with ghastly skittle-shapes, with traditional Burgundy bottles, worst of all with Germanic flutes….

So, a lightish-weight Bordeaux bottle. We could allow a few concessions, for example for screw-cap or cork versions, as well as different formats. Marketers could play with labels and capsules as much as they wish. I could stack the bottles efficiently, empty them happily, and take them to be reused 35 times. Is that sensible, or what? Meanwhile I’d settle for a genuine attempt to re-use the present excessive variety.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


3 comment(s)

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    Gerald D. Boyd | 27 June 2024

    Revino is a company in Portland, Oregon that sells washed and reusable wine bottles. Learn more at http://www.revinobottles. com.

    Paul Vandenberg | 19 June 2024

    That’s the song I’ve been singing for decades.
    Way too many different molds for 750 ml. wine bottles. Trying to reclaim them is a nightmare.
    We try to use the lightest, flint, locally produced, bottle made from post consumer glass.
    We are committed this year to a 306 gram bottle produced in electric furnaces from post consumer glass. That half the weight of the average bottle in the USA.
    I’d love to have a standard bottle or even four. Reduce, REUSE, recycle.

    Stan Slogrove | 18 June 2024

    I and several of my winemaking friends in Calitzdorp make exclusive use of previously used bottles supplied by Bottle Traders in Worcester. I (a very small scale winemaker) personally use only a lightweight 750ml Bordeaux bottle and (for my port) a much harder to obtain 500ml tall long-necked bottle. We all return bottles brought in by our customers to our supplier for re-use.

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