Last month, a 24,000-liter hermetically sealed plastic container, or flexitank, carrying organically grown pinot grigio from Sicily arrived in a cargo container at Filling Station East, a wine packaging facility near the port in Bayonne, N.J.
The wine was for Gotham Project, a company that specializes in kegged wine, which it sells to bars and restaurants in almost 40 states. The Sicilian pinot grigio, the equivalent of about 32,000 750-milliliter bottles, was siphoned through a thick hose from the flexitank into a 6,400-gallon stainless steel tank. Eventually, it will fill kegs, cans and bottles.
But those bottles will not be the ordinary single-use wine variety that should be recycled (but more likely get trashed). These Gotham Project bottles are intended to be reused multiple times.
The idea of returnable, reusable bottles is to cut down on waste, while reducing the carbon output of the wine industry, moves dictated by the necessity of combating climate change.
Researchers have known for at least a decade that the single largest portion of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine comes from the energy used to manufacture that bottle, transport it to the winery to be filled and then distribute it around the globe for consumption.
As the need to reduce humanity’s carbon production becomes more urgent, some in the wine industry have begun to examine alternatives to the long-accepted, energy-guzzling methods for bottling and shipping wine.
It turns out that some of the best solutions may be old methods of shipping and packaging, long ago discarded, like bottles that can be returned, sanitized and reused 10 times or more.
Gotham Project is one of a few companies experimenting with selling wine in returnable bottles. Gotham’s look like sturdy Burgundy bottles, green glass for reds and clear for whites and rosés. But they are embossed with “Return & Reuse” and sealed solely with corks, avoiding the waste that would come with foil capsules.
Gotham is trying out the bottles with a small group of retailers and restaurants in three state: New York, Massachusetts and Colorado.
The reusable bottles are a natural next step for a company that for more than a decade has promoted the use of its stainless steel wine kegs as a better, less wasteful method of selling wines by the glass in restaurants and bars.
“First and foremost, we care about how the wine tastes: Freshness was top of mind,” said Bruce Schneider, who, with a partner, Charles Bieler, founded Gotham in 2010. “The second factor was carbon footprint and reducing packaging waste.”
Mr. Schneider estimates that by selling wine in reusable stainless steel kegs, which each hold the equivalent of 26 750-milliliter bottles, Gotham has eliminated more than 5 million single-use glass bottles from being tossed.
“Over 3 billion bottles a year go to landfill,” Mr. Schneider said. “Only around 30 percent of glass bottles are recycled in the U.S. It’s a huge problem.”
And because the kegs use inert gas to fill the empty space as wine is poured out through a tap, the wine is kept fresher than it would be in bottles, which might sit around half empty for several days in a restaurant, slowly oxidizing, before they are emptied. From Mr. Schneider’s perspective, reusable bottles are a natural evolution. It’s after all not a new technology. Older generations may still remember the early morning arrival of the milkman, who would leave fresh bottles and take away the empties, which the dairy would reuse.
Thick soda and seltzer bottles were likewise returned and reused. Shoppers at farmers’ markets today may still encounter similar reusable bottles from local dairies.
Reusable bottles have a long history in wine, particularly in European wine regions, where even today shoppers might carry their own demijohns to a nearby wine shop or cooperative, to be filled from a tank.
Nonetheless, frugality largely gave way to convenience in the last third of the 20th century. Disposability became a virtue to the detriment of the planet.
Gotham is not the only company to introduce reusable wine bottles. Good Goods, a New York start-up, began testing its reusable bottle with 14 retailers around the country last year. Zach Lawless, the chief executive of Good Goods, says wine producers who are environmentally conscious in their farming and production have a special incentive to adopt the bottles.
“They put so much effort into their work, but consumers don’t experience it,” Mr. Lawless said. “It’s an opportunity to put their mission into how their product is experienced.”
Simply switching to reusable bottles could diminish the amount of glass thrown away, but it cannot reduce the carbon footprint appreciably unless the shipping angle is addressed as well. That’s where the flexitank comes in.
As cargo gets heavier, it requires more fuel to ship. Aside from the energy required to manufacture wine bottles, the bottles themselves are relatively heavy. Environmentally conscious producers understand this and have tried to shave off weight, using lighter bottles. Nonetheless, plenty of producers continue to opt for wasteful trophy bottles, relying on a tried-and-true formula in which consumers equate heavier bottles with higher quality.
A far better solution would be to ship wine in bulk, using flexitanks, essentially giant plastic bladders within metal frames, rather than bottles, and then to bottle the wine close to where it will be sold. This cuts way down on the weight of shipping. Mr. Schneider estimated that the wine in the 24,000-liter flexitank, which fit into one shipping container, would have required three containers if the wine had been bottled before shipping.
Shipping in bulk is nothing novel. Every year wine is sold in bulk, often by producers making inexpensive wine that will be sold elsewhere in the world under any number of proprietary labels.
Sometimes producers whose supply of wine is diminished because of vintage conditions will check the bulk market to see what supplemental wine might be available. During the last series of drought years, sharp-eyed consumers may have spotted inexpensive California wine brands with labels citing sources like Argentina or Languedoc in the fine print.
Conversely, some Napa and Sonoma producers who were concerned that the California wildfires last year might have tainted certain vineyards sold off the wines made from those grapes on the bulk market rather than bottle it under their own label.
Gotham Project does not buy wine on the bulk market. Rather, under long-term agreements it buys directly from producers who farm organically or sustainably in Europe, South America, California and New York.
I tasted Beaujolais, California sauvignon blanc, rosé from the south of France, Tuscan sangiovese and Finger Lakes cabernet franc, all packaged in Gotham’s returnable bottles. Each was fresh, clean and unpretentious, all delightful, inexpensive wines that were a pleasure to drink.
Just as returnable bottles are nothing new, neither is shipping fine wines in bulk. Right up through the 1960s, renowned Bordeaux producers used to ship their wines in barrels to Britain, where they would be bottled for sale by merchants. If you are ever lucky enough to stumble upon, say, an old 1950s Château Latour from the cellar of some old London club, chances are the label will cite the merchant as well as the producer.
The British, by the way, are today far ahead of Americans in point-of-sale bottling. Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer, estimates that as much as 45 percent of all still wine imported into Britain arrives in bulk and is bottled there, generally by supermarkets that sell a great deal of inexpensive wine.
Not all wines can be bottled at the point of origin. Many appellations, like certain Riojas or Brunello di Montalcino, require that wines be aged for a certain period of time in bottles before they can be sold. But plenty of wines face no such impediments.
Creating a reusable bottle system is not nearly so simple as asking people to return the bottles they buy. Of necessity, returnable bottles must be thicker and heavier than those intended for single use, horrifyingly so if they were to be shipped any long distance rather than being bottled and sold locally.
They need to be sturdy enough to withstand repeated cleanings, along with being shipped back and forth from filling facility to distributor to retailer to merchant. (That’s the three-tier system in action, as required by law. It uses a lot of extra fuel.)
Reusable bottles must also have labels that are easy to remove when cleaning, hearkening back to the days before mobile phones, when rather than photograph the label of a memorable wine, you steamed the label off and pasted it in a scrapbook. For its reusable bottles, Gotham had to employ an older form of water-soluble glue rather than the more common pressure-sensitive adhesives, which are far more difficult to remove.
While reusable bottles are laudable and idealistic, they are worthless if consumers don’t hold up their end by returning them. When Good Goods first tested its reusable bottle last summer, Mr. Lawless said, only 25 percent of them were actually returned.
In analyzing the problem, Mr. Lawless said they learned asking for a small deposit, to be returned when the bottles were brought back, was not a sufficient incentive for consumers to overcome their preference for disposability.
But when Good Goods switched from a deposit system to offering store credit for returning the bottles, Mr. Lawless said, compliance rose to 85 percent.
“Framing it as a reward rather than a deposit made a massive impact,” he said.
Gotham Project, on the other hand, has not asked for a deposit.
Instead, Gotham is testing an app that will give consumers a choice of receiving a small cash reward for returning bottles or donating that amount to an environmental charity.
“We are hoping people will do it because it is the right thing to do,” Mr. Scheider said. “But we also believe an incentive will help.”
These reusable bottles are just tiny steps toward confronting a huge problem of waste and energy consumption. They are not the only possible solutions, either. One company in Britain is testing lightweight, flat bottles made of recycled plastic. Bacardi and other companies are testing biodegradable bottles made of plant materials.
What’s clear is the current system of shipping heavy, throwaway bottles around the globe is unsustainable, as simple and familiar as it might be. Change may seem difficult and inconvenient, but it’s necessary and in the long run easier to accept than an overheated planet.