Time to Lighten Up

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illustrations by Emily Edgar

“First of all, we don’t use any coal,” jokes Eric Van Drunen to begin our interview. Eric and his wife Clara own Charlie & Echo, one of the OG natural wineries in San Diego. Van Drunen was a scientist in a previous life. Data and research matter. He thinks both broadly and deeply about his work and happily shares his perspective. 

Van Drunen didn’t set out to be a champion of sustainability. His Mom always said, “Throwing out food is a sin,” so he developed a gut-level aversion to waste. He didn’t drink wine long before he noticed variations in bottle weights. Heavy bottles feel wasteful to him since they didn’t change the wine inside. So when he started buying bottles for the winery 14 years ago, he didn’t have a gram weight in mind. He just chose the lighter one because it is the most environmentally friendly thing to do.

Glass for bottles must be mined, made, formed, shipped, filled, shipped again, and then shipped to recycling. The making and moving around of the bottles create the largest part of the carbon footprint. There are many choices surrounding glass bottles that wineries and consumers can make to reduce this footprint.

Van Drunen reevaluates his bottle suppliers periodically and finds that distributors don’t necessarily know who those manufacturers are. Manufacturers issue sustainability reports, so they are making progress towards greater sustainability and transparency. It is as important to know who makes the bottle as the bottle weight. Ideally, he would like to be able to trace the entire supply chain.

How much does a wine bottle weigh? The new bottles can be as light as 390 grams. Van Drunen found some Spanish sparkling wine bottles that came in at 395 grams, but he worries about bottles exploding in people’s cars. Sparkling wine requires thicker bottles to contain the pressure of the bubbles, so Charlie & Echo last purchased 560-gram bottles for their sparkling wines. Bottles that weigh more than 850 grams exceed the weight of the wine inside. People often equate a heavy bottle to higher quality. No one would go to all this trouble to package the wine if it wasn’t good, right? Wrong. What matters is the contents inside.

Once you bottle the wine, you need to chill it. Thicker bottles take more energy to chill. Bottles are repeatedly chilled, from storage at the winery, to refrigerated shipping containers, to a distributor’s warehouse, to the restaurant or retail outlet. When you bring it home from the store, you chill it again.

This brings us to closures. Charlie & Echo were corking their wines by hand, which takes forever. When Van Drunen researched mechanical options, the next step up was drastically expensive. After losing a 25-case lot to bad corks that spoiled the wines with TCA, screw caps were a natural choice. TCA is short for trichloroanisole, a chemical released by a fungus in spoiled corks that makes the contents smell and taste musty or “corked.” Screw caps are aluminum, therefore, very recyclable. Crown caps are also very recyclable but ought to be bundled because they may jam recycling equipment. It also turns out that corks are needy. They need to be stored in humidity, or they will age and need to be rehydrated. And think about it, with all the technology at our disposal, Van Drunen asks, “We’re really still using tree bark?”

This brings us to closures. Charlie & Echo were corking their wines by hand, which takes forever. When Van Drunen researched mechanical options, the next step up was drastically expensive. After losing a 25-case lot to bad corks that spoiled the wines with TCA, screw caps were a natural choice. TCA is short for trichloroanisole, a chemical released by a fungus in spoiled corks that makes the contents smell and taste musty or “corked.” Screw caps are aluminum, therefore, very recyclable. Crown caps are also very recyclable but ought to be bundled because they may jam recycling equipment. It also turns out that corks are needy. They need to be stored in humidity, or they will age and need to be rehydrated. And think about it, with all the technology at our disposal, Van Drunen asks, “We’re really still using tree bark?”

If we are serious about making the most sustainable choices, we need to get over some things. Heavy bottles do not equal quality. Screw caps are the new corks. And Van Drunen thinks that cans will be the future of packaging. So, the next time you buy wine, give the can or the lightweight, brown, or green bottle with a screw cap a chance.