Dim outlook for re-sterilized bottles

Dim outlook for re-sterilized bottles

Larry Walker

The proliferation of bottle shapes and ever more sleek and sophisticated labels is to blame, at least in part, for the near demise of the re-sterilized wine bottle in the United States. A Wines & Vines survey turned up only one bottling company still selling previously used wine bottles.

Dick Evans, president of Encore!, said the long-term outlook is not good. “We will try to continue as long as we can, but all the new shapes and styles in wine bottles make it difficult.”

One winery pulling for Encore! to keep up the good work is Husch Vineyards in Mendocino County. In 2003, the U.S. wine industry used about 100,000 cases of re-sterilized glass and Husch bought about half of that. According to Husch, about 500,000 cases were used five years ago, but wineries began rejecting the used bottles because of flaws in the glass that could create problems with labeling and on the bottling line. (According to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report, 264 million 9-liter cases of wine were shipped in the U.S. in 2003, meaning something on the order of 3.17 billion wine bottles were used.)

Husch has struggled with the label problem for years, trying different glues and different types of paper. They even adjusted the humidity in the bottling room to match the ideal specifications of the Mustang bottling line. Finally, they realized it was the glass. A minor flaw, not visible to the untrained eye, can cause air bubbles under the labels, which don’t turn up until a few weeks after labeling.

At that point, most wineries would probably have given up on re-sterilized bottles. Not Husch. “We recycle everything we can,” said Amanda Robinson, Husch marketing director. “We do it for environmental reasons and will continue do it as long as we can push Encore! to keep the service going.”

(Re-use is considered more environmentally positive than recycling. California law requires that all glass produced in the state, including wine bottles, contain a minimum of 35% recycled glass. Such recycled material is called “cullet.” Re-use of the bottle saves a huge amount of energy, compared to recycling.)

Winemaker Zach Rasmuson said Husch has a standing order with Encore! to supply re-sterilized bottles whenever they are available.

“To be honest, it can be a challenge. You never seem to get the same bottle twice. There might be just a slight difference, but it can be enough to cause problems with labeling. That’s the biggest issue,” he said. He added that there didn’t seem to be much difference in applying foil or inserting corks, although sometimes it can hang up the bottling line.

Evans said that Encore!, in Richmond, Calif., was putting more restrictions on the bottles it accepts, in an effort to provide more standard glass. “We will continue as long as we can get supplies,” he said. Encore! sources used bottles from the garbage stream and also works with individual wineries that, for one reason or another, need to have bottles sterilized for reuse. (Re-sterilization is a very small part of Encore!’s total bottle business. One of the company’s latest projects is developing a mold for screwcap bottles.)

Outside the U.S., the use of re-sterilized bottles is much more common. Indeed, it is mandatory in France, where the average wine bottle is used eight times. But there are differences between bottling conditions in the U.S. and those in Europe. For instance, many European countries continue to use water-soluble glues to attach labels. However, U.S. wineries often use heat- or pressure-sensitive glues to attach labels. Also, many wineries are switching from paper labels to labels containing metals. These differences require special handling in the bottle washing process, which adds to the cost.

Looking back over the history of wine commerce, re-using bottles has been the norm. In fact, from 1636 until the mid-19th century, it was illegal to sell wine by the bottle in England, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine. This was an early consumer protection law to prevent merchants from giving customers less than a full bottle. The law may not have been strictly enforced, but the standard was for wine to be sold in liquid measure and poured into the customer’s own bottle.

That probably is not going to happen at Costco.

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