10 August 2009

Alternative Packaging

The wine industry is abuzz with talk about alternative wine packaging. More environmentally friendly options, ideas that reduce carbon emissions, better recycling potential, etc. In this post, I'm going to cover two bargain wines that utilize such methods in ways relatively new to the US market.

First up is the 2008 Don Simon Cabernet-Merlot. From the Castilla–La Mancha region of Spain, $7, 12.5% abv, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot. Pretty basic red blend, black cherries and blackberries. Touch of sweetness on the first taste, with full fruit flavors following. Firm tannins with a drying finish. It's not the most complex Spanish wine I've ever had, but for the price it's serviceable. What about the packaging?

This is a 750mL PET bottle (polyethylene terephthalate). Because the plastic is much thinner (think a plastic soda bottle), this looks smaller, like an odd 500mL glass bottle. Also, it's squeezable, both before and after opening. Because the empty bottle looks, from a distance, like a real glass bottle, I plan to keep it around and bonk unsuspecting guests on the head, where it will do no harm but will generate great mirth at their fearful reaction. Because of the squeeze factor, it didn't feel like pouring from a regular bottle. With the thinner walls, this is more susceptible to temperature variations--chilled whites will warm up quicker, for example.

2008 Yellow+Blue Malbec. $11, 13.5% abv. Pure Malbec from the lesser-known San Juan Province of Argentina. Overall plum jam profile, softens out with breathing and achieves a sort of Beaujolais-style "juice" flavor. Big, mouth-drying tannins.

This is a Tetra Pak, popular for years in Europe for everything from shelf-stable milk to soups, but is a more recent addition to US markets (aside from the juice boxes packed in kids' lunches for decades). It's comprised of layers of plastic, paper, and aluminum and, unlike the PET bottle, can be smashed flat for lower volume refuse. I preferred this to the PET bottle, because although it felt nothing like a wine bottle, it was like pouring juice or chicken stock or condensed miso soup or any number of products currently packaged like this. (And specifically for this reason, keeping a few around for cooking purposes might be a good idea.)

* * *

There's an inherent logical flaw in conservatism, and I'm not talking about politics. Let's look at the Martini. Various groups have their "set in stone, handed from God to Moses to my cocktail glass" recipes that are inviolable and are the One True Martini. But we don't even know precisely where, how, or when the Martini began, and the earliest versions were so heavy on vermouth as to be undrinkable to most modern cocktail sippers. So people are selecting an arbitrary decade of the 20th century as their source, and they're not all picking the same decade.

It's the same thing with wine bottles. Some people refuse to purchase screwcap wines. Some people get annoyed at a Chardonnay in a Bordeaux-style bottle. One day I hope to meet someone so pure that he only consumes wine that's been packaged in ceramic amphorae. After all, that's what was used to store wine 3,500 years ago, and not only are they really organic and made from natural materials, but even today we keep pulling up intact versions from the floor of the Mediterranean.

The point is that it's what's inside the container that matters. Neither of these are spectacular wines, and I tried them more for the novelty value than anything else. But screwcaps are beginning to catch on as a respectable alternative, and I think other packaging might as well. Give it a generation. And if the thought of serving wine from a plastic bottle or paper box offends your very soul... Use a decanter or a carafe. Classy, attractive, and provides some pleasant aeration. Or I have another suggestion:

Use an empty glass wine bottle. Keep a clear bottle and a green bottle with shapes that you like, and--very important, because you don't want to mislead anyone--remove the labels. Maybe even add your own, and decorate with glitter and unicorn stickers. Or hand it off to an artsy niece and let her paint it. Whatever floats your boat. There's no shame in reusing old bottles if you want that "authentic" tactile sensation.


Wine of Month Club said...

I think we have a fine line to walk between being environmentally friendly and possibly limiting the quality of wine. Using the thinnest glass makes sense as does recyclable containers for shipping.....but plastic is defeating the purpose isn't it? Doesn't it just create more carbon and waste long term?

Benito said...


I'm not trying to argue which packaging is better or worse; these issues are extremely complicated and produce results such as: "If you live on the east coast it's better for the environment to buy French wine than California wine." But how far west do you have to go before that changes? How much of it has to do with your individual distance from a major distribution hub?

You could probably go crazy agonizing over your specific impact with each individual bottle, but I think if you're that concerned, you're much better off drinking beer (which is produced locally in ever-increasing quality all across the US) rather than wine.

I do think there is a legitimate need to look at the packaging of table wines. If something is going to sit on the shelf for a week, be sold for $10 and consumed an hour later, does it need the type of package designed to hold up to 20 years of aging? With a standard, full wine bottle, half of the weight is the glass itself. That adds up in shipping costs, storage space, and other concerns that impact profits and later create waste.

To address your specific question about plastic: it's made from oil, but it requires less oil (gasoline) for shipping due to the drastically lower weight. The exact answer of whether it's better than glass depends on precisely where you live, perhaps even down to a specific ZIP code. (Note that PET bottles are more easily recycled than other plastics, which only complicates the issue.)


fredric koeppel said...

The biggest response I got to any of my weekly newspaper columns in 20 years was when I recommended that all wines under $15 be finished with screw-caps. Most of the letters, emails and phone calls were against screw-caps and accused me of wanting to destroy the heritage, tradition, romance and mysticism of drinking wine. Mt response to that was "Get over it."
And I agree with you: The infinitesimal parsing of fractions of "carbon footprints" does little to address real environmental issues and too much to assuage transient guilt. A company that violates all sorts of scientific and moral scruples environmentally but justifies its practices by saying, "Well, we purchased carbon offsets in Zambia," is operating out of a thicket of hypocrisy and opportunism.

The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

TWC is a purist with respect to cork and glass (there is a certain percentage of schtick that accompanies that statement which I am loath to admit to). Still, like a cigar smoker and his accouterments, there is a certain pleasure to the rituals of opening the wine and pouring.

I have a hunch that the jug wine market will be completely converted to boxes in a few short years. I don't think those guys care and they've been drinking screw top wine for years anyway. Heck, I think Boone's Farm and Ripple have been screw top for at least forty years.

I saw some Bud served a few weeks ago in a shiny bottle that looked to me like it was aluminum. I asked and the chick told me it was the same plastic that you wrote about today. Although I am resistant to making wine bottles out of it, the beer bottle was very cool. It looked like it came from Back to The Future circa 2025.

Setting aside my own prejudices for a moment, I think it is only a matter of time before the wine consumer will come to accept other closures and other containers. After all, when was the last time anyone bought a bottle of rum with a cork in it?

The flip side of that is that until resistance fades, wineries risk losing sales if they try to force changes on unwilling customers.

One of my peeves in life is the sheer number of products that come in plastic bags making it impossible to stack them in the cupboard.

Benito said...

Fredric & TWC,

Excellent points, gentlemen. Though in reference to this:

After all, when was the last time anyone bought a bottle of rum with a cork in it?

Really good rum still has a cork stopper. :)


The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

Really good rum still has a cork stopper.

Well, there ya go. Course rum isn't going to go bad, neither.

I was going to say scotch instead of rum but I figured that there's probably some killer scotch that comes with a cork. Can't win. :-)

I'm not sure I've seen really good rum with a cork stopper. Except in Pirates of the Caribbean.

My 'from scratch' Pina Coladas use good dark rum but not *that* good.

I swear these captchas crack me up. MYCHAW.