As a flying winemaker at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, France, along with Snowden Vineyards and Ashes + Diamonds in Napa Valley, star international winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses is acutely aware of her carbon footprint. Each year she travels on five trans-Atlantic flights between the vineyards where she makes wine. She got a climate change wake-up call in 2017 when St. Helena vineyard temperatures reached 120 degrees on Labor Day, and the Napa Valley erupted in flames weeks later. The extreme heat changed the vines so the fruit stopped developing sugars. “I felt like throwing up,” she recalls. “I felt like fine wine’s days are numbered.”
Her love of wine, which she calls “one of many doors to transcendence,” inspired her to figure out what she could do to decrease the greenhouse gases created by the wine industry. Now, Snowden Seysses is launching a new wine brand to test whether refilling wine bottles on a large scale is a viable way to slow the effects of climate change. The Snowden Cousins brand debuts this fall with a merlot that’s dry-farmed in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Snowden Seysses is making the wine at the Snowden winery founded by her grandparents in St. Helena, and bottling it in lightweight, straight-sided Bordeaux bottles.
She hopes people who buy a $40 bottle of Snowden Cousins will enjoy the biodynamic merlot inside, then send the bottle back for washing and refilling. “It’s an active experiment,” says Snowden Seysses, who knows she and business partner Melissa Monti Saunders will lose money at first in the endeavor. “It is a lifestyle choice and it’s hugely inconvenient. It’s the only approach I can live with.” She and husband Jeremy Seysses, whose parents founded Domaine Dujac, are one of the most high-profile couples in the wine business and she hopes that influence will inspire other wineries to figure out how to reuse their bottles.
Saunders, Snowden Cousins partner and owner of wine distributor Communal Brands, is building a network of environmentally minded restaurants to carry the new brand. The Four Horsemen restaurant in Brooklyn is the first restaurant partner committed to collecting the bottles and shipping them back to the winery. Saunders has also created a wine brand in refillable bottles. The Glass Frog piquette rosé made by Grochau Cellars will debut at Genever in Los Angeles. “My aim is to generate education and awareness at reputable restaurants, and follow up with a direct-to-consumer push,” Saunders says. In the near future, anyone who buys a bottle of Snowden Cousins will need to mail the empty bottle back or drop it off somewhere for collection, similar to what people do with Dispatch Goods reusable takeout containers.
The wine industry’s environmental impact is considerable. U.S. wineries made more than 700 million gallons of wine in 2020, and if even half of that wine went into 750 ml bottles, that’s around 1.75 billion bottles. Glass bottles account for 29 percent of wine’s carbon footprint, according to a 2011 study funded by The Wine Institute, but some estimates put it at 50 percent or more. While refilling bottles is relatively rare in the U.S., it’s very popular and profitable across Latin America, China, Southeast Asia, and Canada, says Caren McNamara, founder of Conscious Container of Sonoma. In Europe, 90 percent of glass is recycled, while just 33 percent of glass gets recycled in the US. That means the last bottle of wine you drank probably is still sitting in a landfill somewhere.
McNamara’s company will wash and ready the Snowden Cousins bottles for their next go-around. But she’s also building infrastructure that will enable other wineries and beverage producers to reuse their bottles. “These systems exist around the world,” McNamara says. “Returnable, refillable bottles both in glass and PET. They have existed for decades. And they exist because they’re profitable. Both Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola are huge players. So how do we get it up and running here?”
One challenge has been stick-on labels popular in the U.S., which are nearly impossible to remove. By way of demonstrating the issue, Snowden Seysses points to an old apple juice bottle she uses for water during a July 14 event at Bay Grape Napa. The writing on the label has worn off, but the label is still firmly in place. McNamara is testing glue-on labels that come off in hot water. For Snowden Cousins wine, Snowden Seysses sources labels from France, where reusing bottles is de rigueur.
Snowden Cousins joins other wineries at the vanguard of wine bottle reuse in the U.S. The Gotham Project in New York, also a wine-on-tap proponent, offers a return-and-reuse program on their own wine bottles. And in California, Michael Sones, of Sones Cellars started offering the Hedgehog line in refillable swing-top bottles in 2010. Customers, most of whom are local, pay $5 for the bottle up front and refills are cheaper than purchasing a fresh wine bottle. The upside of getting this right is huge: reused glass bottles have an 85 percent lower carbon footprint compared to single-use glass.
The women believe wine bottle reuse could be much bigger and are pushing the U.S. wine industry to change, while building the infrastructure to make it possible. McNamara lobbied for the new California law that legalizes refilling beverage bottles, while a new bill that would allow for cash deposits on wine and beer bottles is moving forward.
Snowden Seysses doesn’t want to be wine’s climate change Cassandra — a reference to the Greek woman who tried to warn about the Trojan Horse. But with wildfires and rising vineyard temperatures around the world, we have to make major inconvenient changes, she says. It’s scary pushing a male-dominated industry to change, but she says Beyoncé’s song “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” inspires her to love harder and do everything she can for the earth. “That’s the last thing I want to be is this alarmist, but I’m absolutely convinced this is the only sustainable path,” she says. “I just hope people will hear me.”