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How Big Is Your Wine Bottle?

Big Canadian wine buyer puts a limit on bottle weights
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 13, 2011 10:34am ET

James Laube and I have a standing joke. In our blind tastings, whenever we pour ourselves a sample from a bottle that feels heavy for its size, one of us is bound to mutter, "It must be a great wine. I can hardly lift it."

Of course, the rule of compensatory judgment suggests that we probably make it tougher on those wines, because it's almost like the wine is bragging. Nobody likes a showoff. Well, apparently, consumers do, because wineries use extra-heavy bottles to send exactly that message—that the wine must be really good, otherwise why would the vintner spend so much on a fancy container?

Lighter-weight bottles hold the wine just as well, in my experience, which is why I have grumped about big bottles before. On a personal level, I am convinced that pouring a day's worth of samples at tastings caused a painful case of tendinitis in my pouring elbow. I have learned to pour these wines two-handed.

I also hate it that heavy bottles often don't fit into my wine rack, and if they do fit they take up so much surrounding space that I can't squeeze another bottle in the slots above it or below it. Heavy bottles are also tall bottles, which means my tandem wine racks sometimes can't accommodate two of them back-to-front, as the racks were designed to do. It's also hard to lift a full case of those bottles. That may be one reason why so many of them come in 3- and 6-bottle packs. And here we thought it was the high bottle price.

It's also bad for the environment and the economy, because it wastes fuel to ship heavy bottles. Those big bottles can weigh more than 2 pounds, without the wine. A standard wine bottle comes in at less than a pound. It's on those grounds—that it's harmful to the environment—that the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada, informed its suppliers last week that it will no longer accept bottles that weigh more than 420 grams, at least for wines priced at $15 or less. (For the metrically challenged, the LCBO's limit translates to 14.8 ounces; the heaviest 750ml bottles weigh in at about 40 ounces.)

The LCBO's limit seems directed at moderately-priced négociant wines that pretend to be something more than they are. The extra costs do seem ridiculous, what with the attendant shipping costs and fuel waste, on a wine that doesn't aim for greatness. 

Encouragingly, a few vintners are beginning to see the environmental light and are downsizing the thickness and height of their bottles. But many are convinced they must present a big-boned package if they ask big prices for the wine inside. One can only hope more will follow.

Follow Harvey Steiman on Twitter at twitter.com/harveywine.

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 13, 2011 1:52pm ET
Harvey,

I understand and appreciate the sentiment....but wonder who has put some empty bottles on the scale and weighed them out. Our least expensive glass, going into our appellation pinots (like our Chehalem and Willamette, which you taste Harvey) or our $10 Four-Mile Creek blends....they all weight 490 grams. We aren't talking heavy weight, 40oz bottles here....

We are talking, inexpensive, light weight glass still being above the 420 gram mark.

Honestly, I hadn't looked at it until now...but I think the limit is too low.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 13, 2011 2:07pm ET
Harvey,

I actually just went thru the entire catalog from Demptos glass, found here:
http://www.demptos.com/demp/stock/thumbwine.html

and there's nothing that meets the 420g requirement.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  June 13, 2011 2:09pm ET
I didn't read this article, but the LCBO has never had a good idea.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  June 13, 2011 3:27pm ET
Great. Another governmental agency thwarting the rights of consumers. When will Pennsylvania enact this same condition?

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 13, 2011 4:17pm ET
It does seem as though 420 grams is draconian. Most basic wine bottles are in the 500-550 gram range, or a bit more than a pound. I still think 2 pounds-plus is way too heavy.
Don Fuller
US —  June 13, 2011 4:50pm ET
I think that to prevent tendinitis and assure a truly blind tasting someone else should be pouring the wine into the glass for you. As you admit the weight of the bottle is having an influence on how you review the wines. When I am doing blind tastings I make sure that I do not come in to contact with the bottle in addition to having it brown bagged as things like feeling the weight and seeing that it is a screw cap wine (not necessarily a bad thing) can have an impact on how the wine is evaluated.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  June 13, 2011 5:04pm ET
great initiative.

right on the money regarding the subconscious influence of weight: the same Torres that flaunts its light-weight bottles for its lower bottlings is the same Torres that uses a small elephant to house its Mas La Plana cab...

next up for the LCBO, I hope: asking distributors with 'cellarable' wines to use screwcaps (also more enviro-friendly) to avoid a bad surprise in the future.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  June 13, 2011 5:17pm ET
Last year we switched to an even lighter bottle than the "light" bottle we'd been using... and the new one still weighs 468 grams. And the new bottle is part of their new "Eco" series. Maybe if the bottle was "punt-less" it'd hit the 420 gram mark. The 420 gram limit is a pretty difficult requirement.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 13, 2011 8:27pm ET
Don, having tasted my share of disappointing wines from big bottles, the joke about them having to be great is just that. I long ago gave up trying to identify a wine by its bottle when tasting blind. Fooled too often in the past.
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  June 13, 2011 10:54pm ET
Harvey,

Isn't it true that most of the 2 lb bottle wine would no be subject to the new LCBO rules due to the cost threshold? Therefore, the new rule would not address your biggest complaint.

Also, I agree with Mr. Fuller ... blind means blind. In fact, I recently joined a wine club which periodically conducts blind tastings where participants have no visual cues from the wine. Not even red vs. white.

Keep up the good work!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 13, 2011 11:20pm ET
Wow, glad I'm not a vintner. This sounds crazy. I hate thick-walled (and subsequently heavy) bottles because I can't see through to the bottom as I'm decanting (I hate sediment). I also experience the same storage frustrations as you do, Harvey. If everything came in a nice, average Bordeaux-sized bottle I'd be a happy man. So many stupid Pinots running around with fat bottoms. Yikes.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  June 14, 2011 1:13am ET
At six feet six inches tall and built like an NFL defensive lineman, the weight doesn't bother me. But the storage issue, both fat and long, does drive me nuts at times. I do have to admit that I have a soft spot for deep punts though.
Howard Kaman
Vancouver, BC, Canada —  June 14, 2011 11:29am ET
Why is the LCBO doing this? Environmental altruism? Or to negotiate lower shipping rates with their freight forwarders and reduce workers compensation claims for an aging workforce... thereby raising their margins?

In addition, there aren't many bottle manufacturers producing decent glass below 420 grams... if a California winery has to ship their glass in from Italy to meet this requirement (as opposed to sourcing it from a US supplier) that would eliminate much of the so-called environmental benefit!
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  June 14, 2011 11:39am ET
i totally agree with troy peterson's comment, "If everything came in a nice, average Bordeaux-sized bottle I'd be a happy man."

i can't stand trying to lay wines down top-to-bottom, only to have one wine's bulk, length and shoulder prevent another bottle from laying down next to it. it's a constant game of musical chairs that results in scuffed labels and jostled wine. drives me crazy!
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 14, 2011 2:24pm ET
Wow Harvey, you've hit a nerve here! I also hate oversized bottles. Our fine looking custom wood wine rack shelves here at The Wine Connection were designed 15 years ago, before the "swelling" really got going. These racks are pretty roomy, but there have been some good wines we've said no to because the bottles were so ridiculous that displaying them would be too difficult.

Maybe some of you winemaker readers would care to comment on why we are seeing so many steroidal bottles these days.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  June 15, 2011 1:15pm ET
I think some might be missing the point. The financial and environmental impact of importing huge quantities of glass are very real and at the end of the day offers no value in terms of wine quality. It could be interpreted as simply marketing at the expense of the planet. This issue of glass weight has been researched quite extensively in the UK. If anyone is interested there is an interesting link to a wine industry report listed below.
http://www.wrap.org.uk/downloads/GlassRite_Wine_Bulk_-_web_version.95e95067.5382.pdf

Thanks for raising this important issue Harvey.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 15, 2011 1:54pm ET
Thank you, Keir. Well said.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  June 15, 2011 3:32pm ET
I agree -- also, capsules also serve no useful purpose (well, assuming you do not have cork weevils in your cellar)and contain lead. So I would push for light, naked bottles as better for the planet and not bad for the wine
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 15, 2011 5:00pm ET
Actually, few capsules are made with lead any more. Most are tin, aluminum or plastic (usually food grade PVC). My favorite is the plastic dot that fits on the end of the cork.
Todd Cook
Dousman, Wisconsin, USA —  June 18, 2011 7:35pm ET
Canada can keep it. I am sick of gov't telling consumers what to do. If any of you hate the heavy or large bottles, stop buying them. Consumer preference is what will drive the market, not more gov't regulation. Quit
w(h)ining! Pay the extra dollar for shipping; if you are so worried about shipping costs, let's look at the cost of your fancy climate controlled wine fridges. I'm sure the fridges are "green" too, right? Ha!
If we keep letting the gov't decide what to regulate, your cuvees will soon have a maximum cabernet content or whoah, too much petite sirah... My subterranean celler welcomes heavy bottles, fat bottles and long bottles.
Pascal Comeau
Montreal, Quebec —  June 20, 2011 3:17pm ET
The LCBO's decision will affect over 75% of their sales. Since it is one of the most important buyers worldwide, it should have an impact on the industry. No doubt the decision has to do as much with profit margins as with the environment, but if some of those savings are passed on to consumers, everyone wins. I don't see that as government interference with consumer free will. I think it is a great initiative to save money and the environment. Hopefully the SAQ (Quebec's equivalent of the LCBO) will do the same.

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