The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The weight of that wine bottle doesn’t indicate quality, and it’s hurting the planet

Reducing the weight of wine bottles will in turn reduce the wine's carbon footprint. During COP26, a petition for wineries to use lighter bottles has been getting traction. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The COP26 summit began in Glasgow on Oct. 31 with dire warnings of an impending climate catastrophe if world leaders don’t agree on drastic measures to limit carbon emissions and slow the rise in global temperatures. To which a bunch of wine writers replied, “Lighten up!”

Bottles, that is. An open letter and petition rocketed around the admittedly small wine Twitterverse last weekend calling on wineries to abandon heavy bottles in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. The petition was written by Aleesha Hansel, a British wine writer for Decanter magazine and several other publications, and co-signed by Jancis Robinson, the world’s most eminent wine writer who has campaigned against heavy wine bottles for years. In the first three days, it gained more than 300 endorsements by wine writers, fans and producers.

“We are no longer facing climate change, but a climate emergency that is threatening the future of wine as we know it,” Hansel wrote. “ … The production and transportation of glass bottles makes by far the greatest contribution to wine’s carbon footprint. The industry needs to face this head on and do what it can to reduce this burden.”

The petition doesn’t actually ask for much. It calls for wineries to include bottle weight on tech sheets, which are provided to writers, importers and retailers. Consumers don’t see them except maybe on a winery’s website.

It also calls for “all involved in wine” to campaign for effective glass recycling, noting that only 62 percent of glass in Britain was recycled in 2018, and the proportion in the United States was “a shameful 25 percent,” citing statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency.

And the petition calls for writers — such as me — to include bottle weight in our wine reviews so readers will know which wineries are walking the climate walk by using lighter bottles.

Robinson has been including bottle weight in her reviews on her website for some time. I’ve also railed against heavy bottles, but I’ve been reluctant to list bottle weight because I wasn’t sure the information would be meaningful to readers. But as I reviewed the data Hansel presented in support of her petition, I became convinced. Change has to come from us — you and me, as consumers — if only because the industry uses us as an excuse for heavy bottles.

Glass bottles account for 29 percent of wine’s carbon footprint — the single biggest factor — according to a study commissioned in 2011 by the Wine Institute in California. Transport is 13 percent, and bottle weight is a factor in that. About 40 percent of U.S. wineries purchase their bottles from China, meaning the bottles are shipped across the Pacific before they are even filled. Wine Business Monthly, a trade magazine, published a survey last year showing use of heavier bottles, as much as 30 ounces, or about 850 grams, was actually increasing. Why? “The biggest obstacle to making the switch [to lighter bottles] remains the perception among U.S. consumers that a heavier bottle indicates better wine inside of it,” the magazine said.

Let’s be clear: The weight of the bottle does not indicate the quality of wine inside. What it does, though, is add to the price you pay at the register and the price the planet pays unnecessarily in carbon emissions.

To fight climate change, one winemaker wants to think about more than the grapes

There has been progress. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which controls alcohol purchases for the Canadian province, announced this year that as of 2023 it will no longer purchase wines packaged in bottles weighing more than 420 grams, or 14.8 ounces. The ban applies to wines priced below 15 Canadian dollars (about $12), but the agency said it would consider bottle weight in all wine purchases.

That led Symington Family Estates, a leading Portuguese producer with several wineries, to shift from 500-gram bottles to 420-gram bottles for its Douro Valley table wines, CEO Rupert Symington told me in an email. With more than 250,000 cases bottled annually, “that’s a saving of about 240 metric tonnes of glass in a full year,” Symington said. The company is also shifting to lighter bottles for its ports.

That’s just one company, with several wineries. Think of all that glass not coming across the ocean, with this comparison from Wine Business Monthly: “A 40-foot container can fit 1,200 cases of wine on average. The difference in just bottle weight alone between such a container packed with 20.3-ounce [575 grams, about average] bottles and 11.6 ounces [329 grams, the lightest] is 10,440 pounds [4,735 kg], which is more than the combined weight of two Ford F-150 pickups.”

Hansel acknowledged her petition is a small action toward tackling climate change with wine. Others are already calling for more. Robert Joseph, a wine industry analyst, suggested taxing packaging by weight or taking everyday wine out of glass altogether. And I will begin listing bottle weight in my wine reviews, hoping readers will join me in urging wineries to lighten their load, and ours, with lighter bottles.

As the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

More from Wine archives:

Carbon farming, one of the oldest agricultural practices, is growing on winemakers

Go ‘green’ with your wine: Choose cans or boxes, drink local and consider farming practices

The ROC certification could become the gold standard for wineries, and the earth