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Maker of red wine goes green with plastic bottles

By Shelley Emling
Cox International Correspondent
Saturday, November 29, 2008
London —- First there were plastic corks. Now there’s another reason for wine snobs to turn up their noses —- plastic bottles.

With an eye toward shipping costs and the environment, Boisset Family Estates in France has announced it will export all its Beaujolais Nouveau to the United States this year in plastic. Other wine and champagne producers, such as Fetzer Vineyards in California, also are converting to lighter-weight packaging.
The release of Beaujolais Nouveau is one of the most popular wine events of the year. The light and fruity red from southern Burgundy is traditionally quaffed on the third Thursday in November, and the vintage is meant to be consumed as quickly as possible after the harvest.

Boisset will ship about 30,000 cases of the wine in recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles supplied by Constar International, sealed with screw caps instead of cork.

Constar’s PET bottles employ a patented barrier technology that protects the flavor, aroma and color of wine for up to two years.

“It is designed specifically for wines that are meant to be enjoyed sooner rather than later,” said Melanie Lux, a Constar spokeswoman.

The move will save the company up to 33 percent on freight charges, but Boisset is emphasizing that the switch will reduce its carbon footprint, because the plastic bottle weighs one-eighth as much as a typical 14-ounce glass bottle.

“For consumers, the benefits are concrete —- better value, unbreakable lightweight bottles, no risk of ‘corkage,’ and no risk of broken glass,” said Patrick Egan, Boisset’s innovation brand manager.

The family-owned producer’s first wines in the United States in PET bottles were Yellow Jersey Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, available at Super Target and Kroger stores across the country.

Also this year, the company has introduced its Louis Bernard Bonus Passus Cote du Rhone in PET bottles, a first for a wine produced under France’s appellation d’origine controlee system, which is designed to guarantee quality.

It’s not clear whether the move towards plastic will become a real trend in the United States.

“This is an experiment in a very tradition-oriented industry and things change slowly,” said Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, a trade association in Washington, D.C. “There’s a sense plastic cheapens the product, so we’ll have to see if there’s consumer acceptance.”

But wine has been appearing in all sorts of new containers —- everything from cans to cartons —- in recent years. And many wine experts believe consumers will accept plastic packaging.

“American consumers are ready to adopt alternate packaging as long as what is inside that packaging is good,” said Tyler Colman, wine writer and blogger at www.DrVino.com. “It could result in lower in lower prices to the consumer if the cost savings are passed on.”

Colman said that if Beaujolais Nouveau exporters were truly worried about their carbon footprint, they’d start transporting wine by sea or pushing back the release date.

“Bottling in plastic offsets only a small portion of the carbon emissions of air freight,” he said.

Nearly 0.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually is attributed to the production and distribution of wine, mostly the latter, according to the American Association of Wine Economists. That’s about the amount generated by 1 million passenger cars each year.

Even so, Boisset’s Egan said every environmental contribution is important.

“If we can make a dent by pioneering alternative packaging for the literally billions of cases of wine shipped around the world, then we will be contributing in our way not only to the larger problem but to the long-term health and vitality of the vineyards and terroir essential for our wines to exist,” he said.

Many wine businesses are taking a partial step in that direction by using lightweight glass.

Fetzer Vineyards, for example, this year switched its entire line of wines to packaging that is on average 14 percent lighter.

Spokesman Jim Caudill said consumers likely won’t notice much of a difference in the bottles.

“What they’ll likely notice is the positive impact these small steps have when everyone makes them together,” Caudill said.

At the same time, a leading champagne producer, Pernod Ricard, is experimenting with lighter bottles for its Mumm Champagne.

The French company is storing a trial run of about 2.5 million bottles for at least two and a half years to make certain they don’t explode as the bubbly ferments in the bottle, and that the new packaging doesn’t change the taste.

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