Chief bottle washer: the job is back in the wine biz

Chief Bottle Washer: the title is no longer just a punchline. Bruce Stephens is the CEO of Wine Bottle Renew, a California startup that washes and reuses wine bottles profiled in today’s Wall Street Journal.

“You take a bottle and you empty the bottle, and my God, why would that only be a one-time bottle?” Stephens tells the Journal. He points to the lost era of bottle washing in milk bottles, beer bottles and even Coke bottles.

Reusing a bottle is an important way to reduce wine’s carbon footprint. In a paper I co-authored on the subject, we found that the manufacture and delivery of empty bottles to the winery accounted for anywhere from about half to three-quarters (depending on bottle weight) of the carbon dioxide emissions of a wine locally produced and consumed, taking into account all of production and delivery phases, including the vineyard and winery operations. Recycling is good since in introduces a closed loop. But reusing is better since the energy demands are so much less than recycling.

While the amount of bottles that Wine Bottle Renew can clean in a day still is a drop in the bucket of California’s wine production, it’s good to see that industry heavyweights Kendall Jackson and Sutter Home have invested in the company, which may indicate eventual broader usage.

Obviously, there isn’t a standard shaped wine bottle today as there was for milk or Coke back in the day. But what do you think: if it encouraged reuse, would you favor wine bottle standardization? I would, especially if the bottles were lighter (14- to 19-ounces). Sparkling wine producers could be the first adopters since there is little variation among their bottles, the heaviest in the wine trade.

“For New Wine, Vintage Bottles” [WSJ]

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14 Responses to “Chief bottle washer: the job is back in the wine biz”

  1. If it encouraged reuse, I certainly wouldn’t mind the standardization of bottles. In fact, I’d be more likely to purchase one wine over another (assuming similar characteristics) if I knew that they participated in such an eco-friendly initiative.

  2. I used Wine Bottle Renew for the first time this year and was very happy with them! They have a wide selection of bottles to choose from and in fact most bottles aren’t “used” but extra run from different brands bottling lots. In the wine business brands are forced to buy “stacks” of glass like 98 cases or 112 cases per stack. As an example if I wanted to bottle 5000 cases of wine, I would divide by 98 and find out it’s 51 stacks or 4998 cases so I would need 52 stacks. That would mean I have 96 cases of empties. The empties go to WBR and are sold to other brands.

    I look forward to doing business with WBR again in the future.

  3. Recycling & reusing would definitely encourage me to try a wine that is not on my radar. What are your thoughts on bag-in-a-box? It seems to be widely adopted in the Loire region. Though there is probably a long way to go to change people’s perception in correlating boxed wine to quality.

  4. I don’t really care about bottle shapes. I think the labels are more important.

  5. We’ve used bottles from Wine Bottle Renew multiple times this year with great results. The company is fantastic to work with and the selection is great. We’ve had experience with using both the extra-run bottles and truly re-used. While we haven’t been able to completely switch over yet, we will likely be on 100% glass re-use by 2012. From so many angles, it just makes sense.

  6. If something similar existed in NZ I would certainly be keen to use it. We use a standard Bordeaux bottle ourselve (although the traditional/Champagne green that I like is less commonly used over here).

    I would even be keen to accept some colour variation (after all, the bottles look pretty much black once filled with red wine), but there would have to be some market acceptance of that out there first.

    Probably the key point would be how competent the bottle-cleaning company was in cleaning/sterilising/sorting and packaging the bottles. From the comments above it certainly seems WBR is doing the job in CA.

    To the commentators who have used WBR: how does the product and pricing compare to new bottles?

  7. When I was 11 or 12, that being 1959 or ’60, we spent Easter vacation in California. One of my father’s cousins was comptroller or treasurer for Korbel, so we got an extensive, exclusive tour. In the cellar were long racks with crown-capped bottles stacked heel to toe re-fermenting, and since I’d already handled one of the sturdy champagne bottles, I asked Clarence if they reused them. He said that shortly after the war (WW II) they tried it, but that one exploded, setting off a chain reaction that wiped out nearly all those recycled bottles, and that was the end of that. I remember thinking it must have been something to see it happen.

  8. When contemplating the refillable wine bottle, it might be worth remembering the circumstances that led to the demise of the refillable beer bottle. The circumstances are not identical, by any stretch, but the problems then were real, and there are some potential similarities:

    In the U.S. after World War II, most beer was put into refillable containers. Today, almost none is. The aluminum can, reduced cost of one-way bottles, and consolidation of the brewing industry (empty bottles had to be shipped to ever-larger and more-distant breweries) helped kill the refillable export bottle. (It’s hard to believe now, but in the early ’80s there were only 44 breweries with bottling lines operating in the US). There was also an industry agreement that when a brewery got back a bottle that was too worn to refill, it replaced it with a new one. When margins got thin in the ’70s, that agreement stopped being honored, and that’s what finally did refillables in completely.

    (I was on a team that researched this issue in 1984. The beer industry is very different now, more like the wine industry, but I don’t see refillables coming back in beer, and it seems to me that many of the obstacles that killed refillables then still remain today.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I am totally in favor of refillable glass, but I believe it would require some of that Big Governmnent legislation that is so unfashionable these days to really make it work.

  9. Hi Dave, interesting info. I’m not sure if the problems you highlighted apply in this model though.

    Winery bottling lines are already (and will probably stay) numerous and scattered (at least around wine producing regions). They’re used to bringing their bottles in from great distances (often from Portugal, France or Italy), so I doubt distance from supply is a great issue.

    And the washing and quality control of the used bottles is being carried out by the one company (and, hopefully in the future, its competitors). So the weeding out of over-worn bottles is up to the bottle supplier who has an immediate interest in the quality of their product, and is not reliant on a co-operative agreement between competitors.

  10. In South Africa, I have yet to hear of any businesses implementing this. It would be very interesting to see if it catches on! Right now plastic bottles are catching on for cheaper brands, due to their low carbon footprints and recent approval from the Wine and Spirit Board. I think this could be a great business model, especially for smaller estates 🙂

  11. […] In Napa, the Wall Street Journal reports, a start-up “wants to revive the practice of washing and refilling used glass wine bottles.” The reason? “Reusing a wine bottle emits 95% less carbon than recycling one… since recycled wine bottles must be melted down and re-formed before they enter the market again.” Tyler Colman (who is quoted in the WSJ article) has more commentary on his blog. […]

  12. What’s the energy cost accumulated by sending the bottles out to this companyy and then to have them properly washed and sterilized? Truck them to the plant where they are washed in very hot water and then, presumably, dried with electric- or gas-fueled heat, then have them shipped to wineries? Hmm.

  13. […] A Napa company wants to start reusing wine bottles The Weekly Virginia Wine News Round Up: 8-20-11 by Virginia Wine Trips, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Posted under VA wine news roundup,Virginia Wine and tagged with go red sox, new york wine, new york yankees smell bad, vignoles, virginia wine, virginia wine blog, virginia wine review, yankees evil empire, yankees suck Comments (0) […]

  14. Stewart, Glad to hear these have been working for you. I’ll definitely be checking them out for our next bottling.


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