New wine in old bottles

Refillable wines, at Whole Foods in London Credit: Flickr

Wine drinkers in many Pacific Northwest towns get frustrated that there’s no place to recycle the heavy glass bottles that hold their beloved vino. In Europe, people go to their local winery and cheaply fill a jug with fresh table wine for the week. Inspired by that tradition, two Northwest winemakers have begun selling wine in reusable liter bottles that local customers can return for refills. Besides giving you a virtuous buzz, it’s a good deal for a solid, relatively inexpensive house wine.

Last summer, Gordon Taylor of Daven Lore Winery in Prosser, Washington began selling his Recovery Red blend in Italian-style water bottles, sealed with a Grolsch-style snap top, at the nearby Saturday farmer’s market. Finding customers enthusiastic, he’s continued the program over the winter through a Prosser wine shop, Bonnie’s Vine & Gift. He’s discussing expanding distribution to Yakima and to local restaurants.

At a price of $20 for the first bottle and $10 for refills, Taylor so far has sold about 300 bottles, which are gassed to last at least two months. The wine is a non-vintage red whose blend varies with each batch; it’s currently cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and malbec sourced from Snipes Mountain. The $10 Recovery Red refills are much cheaper than Daven Lore’s well-made regular reds, which sell for about $25 for a 750 milliliter bottle.

Taylor, a gregarious former food industry consultant who’s been operating the winery with his wife Joan since 2005, got the idea from traveling around Europe and Australia and seeing people fill their own containers at wineries. “Almost everyone gets the concept quick and embraces it,” he says. “For local sales, people are more likely to buy a $10 bottle than a $25 bottle.”

Besides reusing the bottle, Taylor says he doesn’t have to buy corks, foil, or labels, which further reduces the carbon footprint.

Taylor uses the same liter water bottles that James Matthisen of Springhouse Cellar started using about two years ago when he opened his tasting room in Hood River, Oregon, but Matthisen’s refillable bottle program works a little differently. Customers at Springhouse Cellar’s downtown tasting room can choose from 10 wines he serves from spigots. Matthisen seals the bottle with a snap top and charges customers $5 for the bottle plus the regular 750 milliter price. People then bring the bottle back washed, or swap it out for a fresh bottle, and pay only for the refill.

“You spend more on wine and less on packaging, you get 33 percent more wine, you get to save the planet, and you can pretend you’re in Europe,” Matthisen quips. So far, he’s sold more than 700 bottles, which he calls “growliers.” He’s also distributing the reusable bottles at local restaurants. His varietal choices include sauvignon blanc, gewurtztraminer, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and sangiovese, priced at $15 to $24. Or customers can order their own custom blend. “People enjoy learning about blending wines,” he says.

Part of his motivation for the refillable bottle program was the stress Matthisen felt about dumping half-finished bottles after tastings. “The spigot system and refillable bottles seemed like a good way to have a simple elegant approach to distributing wine,” Matthisen says. “It was either that or drink all the unfinished bottles and become an alcoholic.”

Taylor says he hopes his Recovery Red program will be the first of several green initiatives at Daven Lore, including wind machines and photovoltaic panels. “But we’re a one man and one woman show, and it will take time to get there.”

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