Porto Protocol asked Nicolas Quillé, the Chief Winemaking and Operations Officer at Crimson Wine Group (USA) the following question:
HOW DO YOU VIEW THE WINE PACKAGING OF THE FUTURE?
Earlier this year, NASA has confirmed that their global warming prediction models have been mostly accurate and that sadly our planet is warming up as expected and that it will continue to do so. The rise in temperature has been unfortunately accompanied by collateral climate change damages such as stronger weather events, wild fires, and a loss of biodiversity. There are no doubts that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, linked to our industrious societies, are the reason behind the warming up. It is daunting to think about the extraordinary effort that humanity will have to undertake to minimize this slow moving cataclysm. It would make sense for everyone, and in every industry, to think about what they can do to curb their GHG emissions, if nothing else than as a survival instinct, but unfortunately we are acting too slowly. For the wine industry, the number one priority must be to reduce the use of glass packaging since it is the largest GHG contributor and represents about 30% of the industry’s carbon footprint. Glass’ carbon footprint share goes up to 45% if one considers the transportation associated with this heavy form of packaging, from the glass plant to the bottling facility and then from the bottling facility to the end consumer.
Change is part of the history of wine and wine leaders should not fear this necessary packaging evolution. The trade has revolutionized how it transports wines from producing regions to end consumers continuously over the past 6,000 years. Wine has been successfully packaged and traded in sheep skin, in amphora, in wood barrels and now in glass bottles and plastic bulk bladders. Glass itself is a relatively new invention and it is not before the 17th century that the wine producers considered it as a viable container. In the early 20th century, the use of glass bottles took hold, probably propelled by consumerism and the great idea that different bottle shapes could be used for different regions thus differentiating wine beyond a simple commodity. This differentiation continues today with many high-end wines choosing proprietary bottle molds and often using heavy glass bottles to appear more substantial. It is understandable that many producers in the world feel trapped by the traditions they have created but this path is no longer sustainable and the industry must collectively make an effort to change.
Reducing the impact of glass bottles on the carbon footprint of wine is already under way. Several acceptable alternative containers exist such as polyethylene bottles, aluminum cans, bags in the box, tetrapacks, and kegs. The weight and the carbon footprint of each mentioned alternative package is a fraction of what glass is today and, most likely, will likely ever be. Many of these glass alternatives offer similar recyclability options than glass and indeed several (aluminum, PET) offer superior recyclability in many countries. The use of alternative packaging solutions must be encouraged, especially for wines that have a short life span of less than 24 months. The industry could still use glass to package the estimated 15% of the entire wine production that ages for longer than 24 months in its packaging. For those age worthy wines, the glass industry has innovated acceptable solutions that will reduce GHG emissions. The two areas that the wine industry can explore is the harmonization of glass colors as well as a reduction in glass weight per unit. The use of a unique dark glass color, away from the multitude of colors the industry currently uses, along with more acceptance of color variation from bottle to bottle, would maximize the use of recycled glass and increase glass plant capacities driving down cost and carbon footprint. Additionally, there are no technical reasons, besides the fear of affecting brand image, to keep using 750ml bottles that weight more than 500 grams per bottle. Besides switching 85% of wine packaging to glass alternatives and reducing relentlessly the carbon footprint of the remaining 15% packaged in glass bottles, the industry needs to completely shift its attitude toward transportation. The idea that wine has to be bottled in the region of origin is an obsolete idea for most wines as solutions for bulk shipping exist and wine can be packaged closer to its region of consumption. Better yet, if the package is produced and recycled in that same region, then a shorter packaging loop with lower environmental impact will be created. The tools and the solutions exist today and the industry need to use them.
The wine industry must step up as a block to implement existing solutions to reduce its reliance on glass and implement existing solutions; it is what leaders do and they do it before they are forced to do it. Fear that the consumer will react negatively to any change is paralyzing most well intended actors: who wants to be putting packaging shackles on its company to discover that the consumer does not care and that the competition has now an advantage? While actions from bold individual wineries are to be commanded, they are often too isolated and rarely financially rewarded. Perhaps the wine business needs a level playing field so no one is taking the earth hostage to sell more wine. If the wine trade is too fragmented to come together, then the change, that will inevitably happen, will be imposed on to a conservative wine world. Corporate buyers, such as country and provincial monopolies, will push changes and local governments will impose packaging standards. How can the wine industry pretend to be a healthy choice for the planet when it refuses to change its number one GHG emission contributor? None of the organic farming, biodynamic practices, natural winemaking concepts will have as large an impact on climate change than seriously reducing the use of glass and rationalizing its use. Yes, everything counts, how grapes are grown and how wine is made – but if the planet warms up too much, then it will be game over for many producers.
The standardization of packaging, the building of shorter packaging loops, the use of lighter glass weight and the use of alternative packaging for the vast majority of wines are a necessity for the wine industry if it seriously wants to tackle its GHG emissions. If the wine business can implement the existing solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of glass, then it will be at harm length of becoming carbon neutral. This should be the priority task for the wine industry even though its high level of fragmentation is a strong barrier to this self-preserving transformation. Let’s have the wine industry lead the world.
NICOLAS QUILLÉ (MW)
Chief Winemaking and Operations Officer at Crimson Wine Group
Nicolas Quillé was most recently General Manager and Head Winemaker of Banfi Vintners’ boutique portfolio of wineries in the Northwest U.S. He spent the last 26 years in a variety of winegrowing positions in both France and the United States. In addition to his role with Banfi, his U.S. experience includes winegrowing and management positions with Pacific Rim and Bonny Doon. Prior to moving to the United States, Nicolas worked in Burgundy (Antonin Rodet and Domaine Prieur), Provence (Domaine de la Courtade), Champagne (Laurent Perrier) and Portugal (Taylor’s Port). He holds a master’s degree in Enology from the University of Dijon, Burgundy, a master’s degree in Sparkling Winery Management from the University of Reims, Champagne, an MBA from the University of Washington and is a member of the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine.