Devil's Advocate - It Isn't Easy Being Green

Switch to lighter glass, say the wine media. Give us commercially appealing packaging say the customers. Robert Joseph considers the challenges facing 21st century producers.

Reading time: 2m 30s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

The wine chatterati are almost all of one opinion. Heavy bottles should go. Ideally, wine should come in bottles weighing no more than 300 or 350g. What matters, after all, are the contents.

Not many of the people voicing this view have, as a New World producer with long experience wryly pointed out to me, ever actually had to sell any wine. If they had, they’d know that shoppers buy with their eyes, especially when browsing products they may never have experienced and that represent a financial risk.

Lighter glass bottles are far more aesthetically attractive nowadays, but they're smaller, and you need to have a very strong brand to be among the smallest bottles on the shelf, especially if your price isn’t the lowest. 

The same applies to closures. Like his neighbours, this producer believes in and uses screwcaps but, also like many of them, he uses very expensive natural corks for the super premium wines he ships to the US. It’s what that market demands, he explains. If you don’t give your customers what they want, you haven’t got a sustainable business - and in that case, there’s little point in talking about sustainable packaging.

"You need to have a very strong brand to be among the smallest bottles on the shelf."

His answer is to use a ‘standard’ 700g bottle - still lighter than many competitors’ -  and to put a lot of serious effort into other genuinely sustainable efforts such as regenerative agriculture and renewable energy.

Assuming sustainability really does matter to him, and I believe it does, there are of course two flaws to this strategy - apart from the extra weight of the bottles:

  • First, no one who cares about these things looking at his wines has any reason to know about the good work that’s being done in the vineyards and at the winery; they just see a heavier-than-necessary bottle.
  • And second, by continuing to use 700g bottles, he’s part of a vinous arms race that encourages others with no interest in the environment to outdo him by putting their wine in bottles weighing a kilo or more. 

These are strong arguments for the environmental moralist to use, but for the winemaker, they’re trumped by his point about the customer. He needs to sell his wine.

Three solutions

There are only three solutions to this bind, and none is straightforward.

He can strive to ensure that his customers are all people who care about sustainability and see a switch to light bottles as a positive move. 

And/or, he can sell all of his wine directly, which would allow him to talk about his packaging strategy (and his other efforts).

Or he can put a lot of effort into brand building that combines messaging about the quality of the wine and the sustainable ethos that is involved at every stage.

Realistically, the first two of these are only really practicable for producers making small quantities of wine. And the third is tough. 

"It’s much more challenging to make and sell wine than to talk and write about it and tell winemakers how to run their businesses."

Because, sadly, however much applause he might get from the environmentally-conscious wine media, their voices will not be loud or far-reaching enough to get his message across. He’s going to have to do a lot of digital marketing as well as direct communication with sommeliers and retailers and others who will pass on the word. Ironically, some of this may involve him travelling across the planet and/or inviting others to visit his winery to see for themselves - trips whose heavy carbon footprint will undermine the savings made with all those lighter bottles.

As someone who does both, the one thing I know is that it’s much more challenging to make and sell wine than to to talk and write about it and tell winemakers how to run their businesses.


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