Rest assured, your Nonno and Nonna weren't worried about their carbon footprint. In the old days people carried their own jugs to wineries to refill because it was both economical and the way things were done.
Refillable jugs are still a very common practice in Europe where, along with foie gras and early retirement, old-school practices seldom end. Here in Sonoma County., where the ties to the old country remain strong and there's a romantic attachment to the days of Prohibition rebels and speakeasies, refillable jugs are making a comeback, sealed by an environmentally friendly kiss.
At Simi Winery in Healdsburg, everything old is new again with the introduction of Maiale Cieco, a 2-liter red wine blend that comes in a refillable growler. At 135 years old, it's one of the county's oldest standing wineries and one of the few to remain operational during Prohibition, where they used to fill jugs from their original cask tasting room.
Maiale Cieco is Italian for "blind pig," meant to connote the kinds of "unusual attractions" speakeasies would advertise and charge a cover to come and see during Prohibition, a ruse that really just meant you had to pay to drink.
"People fall in love with the story of bringing this jug wine back," said visitor center manager Damy Tamburrino. "It brings them back to the old country they've seen before, in Europe."
The founders of Simi Winery, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, came to California from Italy in 1859. In their native Tuscany at the time, winemakers would load a wine barrel onto a pony or donkey cart and travel through the streets of the village or to workers in the fields to sell their wine. People would bring their own glasses or jugs to be refilled from the barrel. Many such practices still remain.
Simi's Maiale Cieco costs $46 for the first fill with the jug and $36 thereafter for each refill. Its inaugural blend, released last December, consisted of Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and pinot noir. The current blend (it changes every six months) is cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite sirah and graciano.
Simi has sold about 300 of the growlers and sees regulars, mostly locals, coming in two to three times a month to refill them. To keep things fresh, the winery has built a bottling line in the tasting room that allows them to refill sanitized growlers from a keg with a nitrogen line in it. They take the empty growlers, clean them, refill, seal, sign and label.
Tamburrino has decorated Simi's tasting room in a pig theme, from shirts to tap handles. He says that with the pork-centered Bovolo and Charcuterie restaurants nearby, "it fits this region to celebrate the pig."
Other wineries that offer refillable jugs locally include Foppiano (another pre-Prohibition winery, bonded in 1896), DaVero, Preston and Martin Ray.