Shipments of Fools

4 11 2009

I have been doing quite a few wine reviews lately which, of course, is really fun.  Wine shows up at my door in shippers from around the state of California, usually (and rightfully) requiring an adult signature for delivery.  This requirement can be a slight hassle because that means that the samples need to be signed for and received while we are at home, and considering my hectic schedule and lack of any staff that is challenging sometimes.  But the worst that can happen is that the shipment heads off to the UPS or Fedex warehouse and I have to retrieve it.  No big deal to me since that means my neighbors aren’t drinking it!

That said, I have been noticing that the more samples I receive the more irritated I get.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having wine to taste show up at my doorstep, but you have to understand that I just don’t pop open these bottles that arrive for sampling, instead I need to evaluate them critically, it’s just the right thing to do.  I cannot just open them for a night in front of the fire or give them away to a friend hoping to taste them at their dinner party.  They must be opened and tasted professionally, even if I go ahead and finish the remaining wine later on, and that only happens in rare occasions.  This may again seem like a silly “problem” to have, but all of a sudden you find that as a writer you end up on these lists receiving wines that you have not requested and are not necessarily your priority at that moment.  Because I do not write a focused wine review I gladly accept samples but I cannot assure the sender that their wine will ever be written up.  Its not really the wine that is the problem though, but its the whole issue of shipping.

As the wines roll in, the issues arise.  Opening, unpacking, removing my name from the boxes, stacking them who knows where.  Most of the wines shipped today are packed in styrofoam packaging.  While there are producers that use pressed recycled cardboard, which I really appreciate, there are still many that continue to use styrofoam.  Not only does this create larger shippers that cannot be broken down, but it also tends to break up during shipping, and upon opening the package I am attacked by tiny styrofoam balls that stick to my clothing, my hair and my terriers.  It’s bad for the environment and not fun at all.  I give these containers away, luckily, to friends or our local shipping store (they also willingly take peanuts and bubble wrap).  Unfortunately those friends and folks at those stores ship the boxes to other places where they are likely to become landfill.   I highly recommend that if you have these types of containers that you try to reuse them as much as you can, or ask wineries you work with to use reclaimed cardboard and molded paper boxes and inserts.  Some say they are recyclable, but that still means they need to make it into the right recyclable heap, and not blow down the street in the process.

Another environmental issue that has been irking me is heavy bottles.  Recently during a review I was struck by a couple of ridiculously heavy bottles, we are talking FOUR pound bottles (full).  Some of these came from producers that “claim” to be environmentally sensitive.  I weighed a “normal” bottle, the Heitz Trailside Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley and on my simple little bathroom scale it seemed about two pounds.  Now perhaps you may say that Heitz is “old school” and traditional in packaging, yet this seems like a reasonable alternative with the cost of fossil fuels and shipping today.  Bottles of this shape, height and weight have for more than centuries been able to withstand age, movement, dropping, even sitting at the bottom of the ocean.  My point is that the only reason to change your bottle to a heavier, taller, larger punted (the indentation on the bottom of the bottle) bottle is to increase the perception of quality.  While I understand that the reality is that consumer take interest in the packaging, I do not know how companies can truly justify the additional expense (which is then passed on to the consumer) and the effect this decision has on their energy profile.  This disconnect between the marketing and production in a winery has never ceased to amaze me.

The four pound bottle I tasted recently was from producers claiming to be sustainable or organically farmed.  So their vineyard manager is trying to closely manage how many passes they make through the vineyard on their tractor to manage their fossil fuel use, but they are adding basically doubling the weight of every case they ship, whether it is from Napa to SF or Sonoma to China.  I truly hope that producers will take a step back and reevaluate the importance of the “sexy” bottle.  Just think about the poor sommeliers that have to wield that heavy monster both alone and when moving full cases.  Most of these heavyweights are “cult” wines sold in six pack cases, increasing the amount of cardboard used, oh and the cardboard has to be thicker to support the added weight of the bottles.  Don’t get me started on the wooden cases, although I do have a penchant for saving those.  Saint-Gobin Containers Saint-Gobin is working hard to offer low weight bottles yet in the same classic bottle shapes in their ECO Series sold by Caliber WinePak.  Many of them do away with the punt thus using less glass and these bottles require less energy to produce, and less energy to ship both empty or full.  Wine Business Monthly has a great article on the issue  And a shout out to those branching out into boxes, plastic, and alternative packaging.  They may have some stigma yet to overcome, but they are doing the right thing.

Since I am getting all snippy, lets talk about alcohol levels of wines.  I have been more cognizant of them lately as I have become all too familiar with drinking too much of a really delicious yet deadly wine in terms of alcohol.  I understand the whole ripeness/flavor issue, sure, so that is a conversation for another day, but what is super irritating is the mere act of trying to find the alcohol percentage on the bottle.  While this is not always an accurate measurement of the actual alcohol in the bottle, it helps the consumer.  Despite that fact wineries have become very adept at hiding these numbers in weird foils, subtle colors and miniscule prints.  Yesterday as I tasted the Heitz Trailside I was so happy to see that the alcohol level on the was immediately evident, or at least for a “normal” person.  It was directly in the center of the label and good sized print, but there I was searching in all the sneaky places I am used to finding the alcohol listed, the back label, edges of the front, etc.  Heitz gets a gold star today!

Well, that’s enough for now.  I have to go and rearrange my collection of styrofoam shippers.