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Berger: Why wine bottles have gotten thicker, heavier

At a dinner party recently, I brought a bottle of a red to serve for a birthday celebration, and after extracting the cork, and pouring for the honoree, I nearly dropped it.

I had sustained a shoulder injury some years ago, and this heavy bottle was just weighty enough to become unwieldy if the person with a wine glass in an outstretched arm wasn’t right up against me. The problem was the bottle. It weighed roughly five pounds.

This is a relatively new phenomenon: the greater use of ultra-heavy bottles to imply greatness. It started with cabernet sauvignons, spread to zinfandels, and now even some chardonnays are showing up in these environmentally insensitive things.

I’m not alone in my animosity for heavy glass tombs. A wine waiter in a Southern California café told me some years ago that she hated them.

“I’m not real big,” she said, “and when a large party asks for re-pours, and they hold their glasses out from the other side of the table, it’s not easy to pour for them.”

In the 1970s, a case of wine weighed about 33 pounds, and almost all wineries used roughly the same bottle shapes and sizes. This meant bottles weighed about 2 pounds 12 ounces. Today many cases are about 50 pounds, and bottles are 4 pounds 3 ounces.

This puts a greater strain on the backs of retail store personnel who have to re-stock shelves.

Moreover, many bottles are also wider than they have ever been. A reader wrote some to me years ago about this: “I have a built-in wine rack that I have used for several years for the storage of my wine selections. Recently I have observed that numerous wine producers... are switching to a larger diameter bottle which no longer fits into my rack. And they are also difficult to fit in my wine refrigerator.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. One Sonoma County pinot noir producer of some fame sells its wine in bottles that are so wide they don’t fit in my racks. After a while, I stopped buying this wine.

This upscaling of the bottle is aimed at making people think they’re getting a richer wine. Obviously the two concepts can be mutually exclusive.

Starting in the mid-1980s, California winemakers became conscious that thicker bottles felt better to some consumers, so we began to see many iconic wines use more glass.

It coincided with the use of more gold on labels, fancier capsules, and other image tricks. It was almost as if wineries had discovered the gimmick that sells perfume: the bottle it comes in.

So we began to see taller bottles as well as heavier ones. The standard height of wine bottles in the 1970s was about 11 inches. Today many wineries are using 13-inch bottles.

Heavier bottles typically use more glass, which makes the boxes they come in wider as well. A pallet of wine typically holds 56 cases. A box that holds ultra-heavy wine bottles are just wide enough to permit 50 to 52 cases on a pallet. So the wines are more expensive to ship.

Assume you have a five-pound bottle on your dinner table and it’s hard to pour for your across-the-table guest. What to do? See our Wine Gadget of the Week.

Wine Gadget of the Week: Govino Decanter ($12.95) - The BPA-free, stemless, unbreakable polymer wine glasses that have been so popular at pool parties now are joined by a lightweight Govino decanter that is easy to pour because its design is perfect for grabbing. And it weighs only a couple of ounces.

It can be found online; we bought ours at a local supermarket and it eliminates the chore of pouring from heavy bottles.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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