May 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

A conversation with James Sobbizadeh

Fetzer rethinks bottling process to reduce waste, maximize efficiency

by Laurie Daniel

When James Sobbizadeh graduated in 1985 from the University of Alabama-Birmingham with a degree in natural science, he took a job with a winery that produced wine coolers in Stockton, Calif. He started in the lab and ended up as the quality-control supervisor. But that job ended, and he moved to a custom co-packer that worked with juices, energy drinks and other beverages. The job wasn’t to the liking of Sobbizadeh, who realized he wanted to continue working with wine.

He found an opportunity to return to the industry in 1989, when he went to work for Fetzer Vineyards in its quality-control department. He became director of production in 1995. Today, from his base in Mendocino County, Sobbizadeh directs a team responsible for bottling millions of cases of wine every year. In addition to Fetzer Vineyards, those wines include brands such as Bonterra, Little Black Dress, Sanctuary and 1000 Stories.

Q:Fetzer is upgrading its bottling lines. What are you changing and why?
James Sobbizadeh: At Fetzer Vineyards, we have long had a mindset of controlling our own destiny in production, because that gives us more freedom to innovate around efficiency, waste reduction and other business objectives while keeping product quality high. We are currently transitioning our two main bottling lines over to Emmeti lines that handle bulk glass rather than bottles in the case. This will impact our process in a couple of ways. Currently, we receive glass in the case. We place the glass directly onto the line for filling, corking, capsule placement and labeling, then return the glass to the same box in which it arrived. Following our updates, we’ll be receiving glass in bulk and building our boxes from scratch. At the same time, we are leveraging that change to shift to lay-flat cases and pressure-sensitive labels. All these changes have financial, sustainability and efficiency benefits.

The new cases and labels are more resource-efficient in manufacture and transportation. For example, fuel and emissions savings will be realized thanks to more efficient packing of materials in trucks. In our current scenario, suppliers can pack just 2,400 fully constructed 9-liter cases of glass into a 53-foot truck. As we look ahead, we’ll be able to bring in much more (glass, cardboard and partitions) per equivalent truckload. There are also efficiencies in terms of handling and flexibility. By “producing from scratch,” so to speak, modifying our bottling runs based on just-in-time decisions about formatting, we can be more nimble in responding to market opportunities. I can immediately change a 12-pack bottling run to a six-pack run, since I’ll be making the boxes and no longer have to wait for glass to arrive in a six-pack. The marketing team benefits as well, as they can be more choosy and flexible when selecting which boxes to use with specific glass.

Q: How does Fetzer’s dedication to green practices and certification as a zero-waste business affect your packaging choices?
Sobbizadeh: We are always looking to improve the sustainability of our production process, and packaging choices are a big part of that. Take the shift to lay-flat cases vs. the case with one glued corner that we have been using. Going forward, every pallet of cases will be packed more densely, so each truckload will be more efficient. We will also take in fewer pallets overall. And because we’re controlling the specifications on the cases, we can shift to shunted partitions that use less cardboard and still deliver the same quality. Pressure-sensitive labels are less energy-intensive for our printing suppliers, because they don’t need multiple passes through the printer. We’re also sizing the labels to virtually eliminate wasted paper on the printing sheets. We work with Multi-Color Global Label Solutions.

On the recycling side, we rent pallets from CHEP Pallets, which have a long lifespan and are repaired and reused many times over, as needed. We also collect pallets we receive from suppliers and return them to the same suppliers for reuse whenever possible. We follow the same process with capsule and label boxes—even the cardboard ones—stockpiling until we’ve collected enough of them to send back to capsule or label manufacturers, who fill them again and resend them to us with product. We use natural corks and partner with Napa Recycling to send them on to a second use such as flooring, shoe soling or even golf club handles. Any cardboard that can’t be reused is bundled, baled and recycled.
There are opportunities to reduce your impact everywhere, if you look for them.

Q: What closures are you using and why?
Sobbizadeh: Our closure choices start with quality. Our winemakers must be certain that the wine they hand off to production reaches the consumer at the high quality level at which it was delivered. Most of us in production would naturally like to standardize on fewer formats for bottles, labels and closures, but pure efficiency is not the only issue. Brands have different strategies, and consumers have different levels of acceptance regarding closures for different wines.

We use Amorim for corks, the Stelvin closure from Amcor for screwcaps and various types of Saranex liners. We select the type of liner we’re going to use based on the oxygen transmission rate, or OTR, for different products. The SO2 levels happen to be the same between corks and screwcaps, but that does not derive from a recipe. It’s based on data compiled on the wines involved with each type of closure. Specifically, we run studies of up to 24 months to determine the OTR with the closures we use, so that we know exactly how they perform with different wines. This process determines the SO2 levels.

Q: What other alternative packaging are you using, like bag-in-box or kegs?
Some of our brands export wine to Europe using bag-in-box packaging. (We don’t sell bag-in-box in the United States.) Typically, that means 1.5-liter or 3-liter formats, but we also send 18-liter packages to the U.K. Scholle is our supplier for bag-in-box, using a proprietary formula based on PET for the bag. The packaging includes our recommended use-by date, which is 12 months from the date of production. We selected that time period after a lot of testing.

Bonterra Organic Vineyards has an on-premise program in the United States that uses kegs for the Sauvignon Blanc, which, of course, is best when it’s really fresh. We contract with Free Flow Wines to fill them. We like kegs for the freshness and also because they are reusable, which eliminates waste and energy use required for recycling glass.

Q: Label redesigns are generally the purview of marketing, but what has your involvement been?
The shift to new bottling lines and pressure-sensitive labels is an opportunity to increase the sustainability of our labels and production processes, so we are thrilled to be taking this step. We always value-engineer every label from a product’s inception, because that’s one of our responsibilities on the production side. The brand strategists and marketers are focused on communicating to the consumer about what is in the bottle. They are not thinking about reducing one edge of the label by 2 mm to eliminate waste on the print run. They trust us to do those calculations up front, so the labels will be as efficient as they are effective.

When Concha y Toro purchased Fetzer Vineyards in 2011, an early initiative was to significantly reduce the size of the Fetzer label to eliminate unnecessary waste and to achieve a more premium feel. For Bonterra Organic Vineyards, labels are crafted from post-consumer recycled paper. We are continually searching for opportunities such as this for all of our products, and we work closely with marketing to ensure an effective marriage of consumer appeal and environmental consciousness in all of our designs.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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