It pays to be a lightweight

Two years ago, when Dominion Power proposed a new transmission line to serve the growing electricity demand in the mid-Atlantic corridor, plans showed the line bisecting Jim Law's vineyard. Law, owner and winemaker at Linden Vineyards near Front Royal, Va., decided to take action.

He switched to lighter-weight bottles.

"We waste so much electricity in this country, and there's a lot of energy wasted in packaging products, especially wine," Law said. "I'm not one to go out and change the world or hire a lobbyist to fight the power company, but I'll do what I can, one step at a time."

Law had been using a Bordeaux-style bottle with a reverse taper (wider at the shoulder than the base) for his top red wine, called Hardscrabble. By using a more modest bottle that was several ounces lighter, he figured he was reducing his impact on the environment: less energy used in production, in transport to Linden and, once filled, in shipment to market.

The power company eventually changed its plans. But the experience is still saving Law about 30 cents per bottle. And Linden Vineyards changed bottles for about 75 percent of its 60,000-bottle annual production; the rest was already in lighter-weight glass.

The term "carbon footprint" has growing relevance in the wine world. Producers are trying to out-green one another in competition for the eco-minded consumer, touting solar-powered operations or organic and biodynamic vineyard practices.

Much attention is focused on packaging, especially bottle weight. Fetzer Vineyards in California and Errazuriz, a major Chilean producer, recently announced they would switch to lighter-weight bottles to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Fetzer, lighter bottles can make a difference. Reducing the average bottle weight from 20.3 ounces to 17 ounces over its 23 million bottles in annual production will save at least 2,100 tons of glass and avoid pouring 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And an environmental research firm hired by Fetzer estimates that every bottle recycled instead of dumped into a landfill saves nearly six pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to what you would save by turning off your television for six days.

I recently picked up two bottles of California pinot noir. The Sterling Vintner's Collection 2006 featured a sleek, standard Burgundy-style bottle that fit in my wine rack and weighed 2 pounds 11 ounces. The Byron Sierra Madre Vineyard 2006, by contrast, was in a larger, wider, thicker bottle that weighed a full pound more. The Byron bottle is not unusual; many California wineries favor heavy bottles, and some South American producers increasingly are using them for their top-of-the-line wines.

One more pound per bottle translates into 12 extra pounds per case and hundreds of extra pounds per pallet, requiring more fuel to transport them. The heavy bottle costs the winery as much as $2 more, which adds to the final retail price. These often hold high-end wines, so that extra cost might not mean much to consumers who can afford them. But I'd rather pay for the wine than the bottle.

Sommeliers don't like the "bodybuilder" bottles either, and not just because they don't want to look wimpy using two hands to pour. Trained to clasp multiple bottles between the splayed fingers of each hand, sommeliers find the heavy bottles vexing to lug around.

"Have you ever seen a restaurant that doesn't have stairs?" asked Raj Parr, wine director for Michael Mina's restaurant group, which includes the new Bourbon Steak in Washington. "These bottles are a nuisance."

Given the savings wineries can realize, why do so many still favor the heavier glass? If you suspect the influence of a marketing department, you're right.

"You can walk down a supermarket aisle and see 100 different chardonnays," said Eileen Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a California-based market research firm that studies the wine industry. "Price, package and position: The consumer picks the wine that stands out visually. There is an industry belief that the package contributes to the consumer's perception of the intrinsic value of a wine.

"Even some inexpensive wines are packaged in fancy, heavy bottles so they look more expensive," Fredrikson said.

The wine industry "sees heavier glass as a sign of quality," said Caroline Shaw, a spokeswoman for Jackson Family Estates, the parent company of Byron Vineyards in Sonoma County. She said Byron is exploring ways to reduce its carbon footprint, primarily by increasing the amount of recycled glass used in its bottles. But she said heavier glass adds to quality by helping wine age better because it allows less light through the bottle.

"The combination of darker tint and thicker glass ensures the wine will age in a more secure environment," Shaw said.

Of course, most wine collections are kept in dark cellars, where excessive light is not a problem. And European wineries generally do not splurge on ridiculously heavy bottles, even though their finer wines are meant to age for decades.

That brings us back to marketing. Should we even care about the carbon footprint of the wines we buy? Shouldn't we be focused on what's inside the bottle?

Well, if we're willing to pay more for electricity-saving light bulbs and phosphate-free detergent, and if we bring our own reusable bags to tote groceries to our hybrid cars, why not? This is just one more way in which our individual choices can collectively have a big effect.

"Personally, the difference for me is not about dollars but about being a good global citizen," Linden Vineyards' Law told me via e-mail. "We need an attitude shift, and small changes like these will eventually have a big impact."

Wineries already believe we choose wines based in part on the size and weight of their bottles. Let's prove them right. End adv wed Dec. 24

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