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Northwest Vintners Eye Refillable Bottles

B.C. Group considers bottle-washing co-op for economic, environmental benefits

by Peter Mitham
Refillable wine bottles recycle
British Columbia's Burrowing Owl Estate Winery has been rewashing and reusing bottles from its Sonora Room since 2002. Photo: May So.

Oliver, British Columbia -- Care for a refill? The question could become commonplace in the Pacific Northwest, as a growing number of wineries contemplate refillable bottles for their wines.

The most ambitious initiative could be in place next year in British Columbia, where a 10-member steering committee of wineries and winemakers from the southern Okanagan Valley (including former Vincor head Donald Triggs) recently examined the potential for Okanagan wineries to reuse wine bottles.

The study by Road 13 Vineyards winemaker Michael Bartier determined that no significant barriers exist to reusing wine bottles. Preliminary economic models developed by Dr. Ian Stuart of the Faculty of Management at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan in Kelowna pegged the per-bottle savings of the program at 46 cents (Canadian) per bottle (based on an annual flow of 840,000 bottles through the system). Smaller wineries typically pay between 85 cents to $1.20 Canadian (CA$1 = US$0.94) per new bottle.

Mission Bottlewashing Ltd. of Summerland, B.C., washes bottles for local cider and cooler makers, and Burrowing Owl Estate Winery has been sending bottles from its Sonora Room restaurant through the facility since 2002.

Bartier said the widespread reuse of bottles by Okanagan wineries would have to address potential scuffing of bottles and ensure bottle sterilization, but Burrowing Owl president Chris Wyse told Wines & Vines that it's been ideal for Burrowing Owl's in-house recycling program. It typically sends a container-load of its specially designed wine bottles to Summerland for washing each year. The volume is just a fraction of its annual output of 30,000 cases, but enough to make a difference.

"Why would you throw it out?" he asked. "It's the same glass we're going to use, so it seems ridiculous to pay a buck for a bottle when you can pay 20 cents." Wyse would reuse more bottles if he could, but most of the bottles are sold outside the valley and can't easily be recovered. It's a challenge any industry-wide program would have to take into account, but Wyse said Burrowing Owl's experience shows there's solid potential for in-house recycling programs.

"Wineries could promote it to their cellar clubs and their customers," he said. "If more wineries took advantage of in-house recycling, there's some cost benefits, and an environmental benefit as well."

The initiative by South Okanagan wineries has attracted support from 30 to 40 wineries. Bartier said the idea would tap into a penchant for recycling among consumers and local recycling infrastructure, although an additional sort might be necessary to separate reusable wine bottles employed in the program from other containers.

Wineries would have to agree on a specific type or handful of bottle types to use, Bartier said, and an organization to manage the supply would have to be set up. The body would either be a cooperative owned by participating wineries or a private company established by the wineries to purchase and supply the industry with reusable bottles. If all goes well, Bartier said a bottle reuse program could be in place by late 2010.

The move in the Okanagan parallels an initiative by the Family Winemakers of Washington State, which is seeking an opinion from the state Attorney General's office regarding the legality of growlers, refillable bottles commonly used for off-premise distribution of draft beer. FWWS president Paul Beveridge recently told Wines & Vines that such bottles would facilitate recycling, as well as provide an alternative distribution option for small wineries.

"We just finished looking at the statute, and we can't find any reason it's not legal already," he said. "We're waiting to hear back."

Earlier this year, Pend d'Oreille Winery in Sandpoint, Idaho, released 300 bottles of its Bistro Rouge wine in a refillable, 1.5-liter format (see "Idaho Winery Touts Refillable Bottles"). The program was so successful that its initial release was soon joined by another 300 bottles, and it recently added an additional 600 bottles for a total stock of 1,200. Pend d'Oreille winemaker Steve Meyer said about 250 bottles come back for refill each month.

Sold originally for $25 per bottle, refills cost $16, though rising grape prices could push that to $18 per bottle next year. It's a good deal for both customers and Meyer, who says the initiative serves as a de facto loyalty program for the winery. Buyers who might have bought wine at the local supermarket now come to the winery for their wine, and those who stop in are exposed to the other products the winery offers from more expensive wines to giftware.

"It's a place where we connect with our clients. Every time they come in, we're able to establish rapport," Meyer said. "They're also looking around at other items in our gift shop." The economic benefits have sweetened the environmental proposition that initially inspired the program. Since a local market for glass recyclables doesn't exist in Sandpoint, bottles were typically reintegrated with solid waste and sent to an Oregon landfill. Pend d'Oreille's program helps reduce that waste stream.

Posted on 01.10.2010 - 09:03:03 PST
Springhouse Cellar in Hood River has been refilling 1 liter bottles for almost two years now. All their wines are available in a traditional bottle with a cork, or in a refillable bottle. And, most importantly, the wine is good. If the wine sucked then the refillable bottle would just be a gimmick.
Hood River, OR USA

Posted on 10.01.2009 - 21:56:52 PST
Noble idea! Having a bottle returned that was half full of dried paint cured one such attempt! The complainant advised that the wine above the paint in the bottle - that had been washed - had been consumed! Perhaps clear glass only should be one stipulation!
WILLIAMSTOWN 3016, CA Australia

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