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How 3 Sonoma and Napa county wineries have changed their packaging to help environment

Aug 21, 2023

Driving near Sebastopol, Ron Rubin had an epiphany when he saw blue recycling bins parked along the road, a punch of color against the gray pavement.

Blue Bin, the vintner thought, would be the perfect name for his new brand of wine in plastic bottles made from recycled materials.

Eco-packaging is a growing trend among vintners like Rubin of Ron Rubin Winery in Sebastopol. They’re hoping to send a strong message to consumers that they’re actively reducing their carbon footprint, the amount of carbon their business contributes to the environment.

Perhaps the consumers paying the most attention are millennials, the most sought-after market in the wine industry because of their buying power, sheer size and potential to become the next big consumer group for wines.

Research shows green marketing could move the needle with these buyers, now ages 27 to 42 and accounting for 21% of the U.S. population. In a recent Nielsen survey, 75% of millennials said they would change their buying habits to favor environmentally friendly products.

Delving into this unfolding trend of eco-minded packaging, we look at three wineries debuting new containers to reduce their carbon footprints. In addition to Blue Bin, a Sonoma County brand called Revelshine is introducing environmentally friendly aluminum bottles. Meanwhile, Napa Valley’s Honig Winery has a cheeky new advertising campaign to announce it’s stripping foil capsules from around the necks of its bottles.

Launched in June, Blue Bin’s recycled bottle is the best option to reduce the carbon footprint of packaging “because the bottle can be used and enjoyed over and over again,” Rubin said. “The bottles are made from 100% recycled materials.”

The vintner said the bottles are lighter than glass, which means less fuel is needed to transport them. A Blue Bin bottle is 52 grams versus 450 grams for a 750-milliliter glass bottle. It’s lined with a thin layer of glass inside to protect the flavor.

Available in four $15 varietals, the brand features vin rosé, pinot grigio, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Rubin said he hasn’t set the number of cases of Blue Bin he’ll produce.

“That amount will be decided by eco-conscious wine lovers,” he said.

He doesn’t plan to use the plastic bottles for his namesake label, Ron Rubin Wines, which he founded after buying River Road Family Vineyards and Winery in 2011.

Rubin said he first began researching plastic bottles in 2019 and has had a long-standing commitment to sustainable farming. His winery is Sustainable in Practice-certified, with a third-party audit of his vineyard, water and energy management. The winery is also Certified Sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

Last year, the Ron Rubin Winery was certified as a B Corporation after a rigorous process overseen and granted by the nonprofit B Lab organization based in Pennsylvania. To achieve certification, companies must score high enough in their environmental commitment, treatment of workers, overall relationship with the local community and customers and their business governance structure.

Yet, despite Rubin’s efforts to be forward thinking, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

In March, California River Watch, an environmental nonprofit based in Sebastopol, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the winery did not obtain a storm-water discharge permit required under the Clean Water Act.

The winery is required to have a permit to discharge stormwater and non-stormwater from their property, according to the complaint. Rubin subsequently hired an engineer to survey the winery’s stormwater system and was able to obtain the needed permit, according to a Wine Business story. California River Watch dismissed the lawsuit in June.

“Our thoughtful innovation and pursuit of continuous improvement and creating products with sustainable purpose started long before this lawsuit,” Rubin said.

With a nod to athletes and the great outdoors, Revelshine in aluminum bottle travels well and offers an environmentally friendly option, said Jake Bilbro, who’s launching the brand now through distributors in many states.

“We chose aluminum bottles because, from a recycling perspective, no other product comes close,” he said.

The reason aluminum is superior to other products in regard to recycling is threefold, Bilbro said. First, aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times without losing its material viability. Glass and other products can only be recycled so many times before the material breaks down. Second, recycling aluminum equates to a smaller carbon footprint versus glass. Finally, research reveals that consumers are mostly likely to recycle aluminum.

The brand offers a red, a white, a rosé and a sparkling wine, all priced at $15. The bottles are 500 milliliters, or two-thirds the size of the standard 750-milliliter bottle. This year, Bilbro produced 10,000 cases of his Revelshine brand, all in aluminum cans.

Bilbro’s brother, Sam Bilbro, owner of Idlewild Winery, is Revelshine’s winemaker. Most of the wine is made at Marietta Cellars, which Bilbro’s other brother, Scot Bilbro, owns. Bilbro and his wife, Alexis, moved with their four kids to Ketchum, Idaho, in 2019 and remotely run the operations in two local wineries, Marietta Cellars and Idlewild Wines, both in Geyserville. But they travel to Sonoma County often.

The allure of aluminum bottles, Bilbro said, is that they’re good for the environment yet keep the romance of the glass bottle alive.

“There’s a utility to aluminum (it being unbreakable) and a huge sustainability factor,” he said. “But I think what we did (by not opting for cans) is keep the traditional culture that multi-serving glass bottles offer.”

Bilbro said glass bottles are important for a certain caliber and style of wine.

“It’s important people understand we’re filling a certain niche,” he said. “Our wines are made to be consumed within a year to a year and a half in the bottle. We’re looking to offer a significantly more sustainable alternative to the demographic of consumers who are buying their wine and drinking it that evening.”

A risqué postcard shows the backs of women siting poolside with the top of their bikinis in hand.

The “topless” campaign from Honig Vineyard & Winery announces the winery’s decision to strip its wine bottles of foil capsules, avoiding 3,800-plus pounds of metal a year going to landfills, according to the winery.

“Foil on traditional wine bottles are mostly for decoration,” said co-vintner Stephanie Honig. “We believe the consumer is savvy and would rather protect the environment than see foils on bottles that are purely aesthetic. Why waste more resources if we don’t have to?”

Forgoing foil is the most recent effort in sustainability for Rutherford-based Honig. The winery, which produces roughly 80,000 cases yearly, has several green projects in the works. The winery is 100% solar powered. It has an integrated pest-management program, with 150 boxes through its vineyard to create a home for bluebirds and swallows, which keep the insect population in check. Sheep graze in the vineyards, to fertilize the soil and reduce the need for mowing and tractors.

The message with forgoing foil, Honig said, is “don’t do things because you have always done them that way. Look to the future, not the past.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or [email protected]. On Twitter @pegmelnik.

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.