Back in the seventeenth century, most commoners drank cider and beer from barrels; only kings and noble families could afford to have made-to-order glass bottles for their wines. It was a very expensive luxury to hire artisans to make hand-crafted glass bottles to showcase and store wine.
Why glass? Historically the perfect container to preserve the purity, aroma, and flavor of the wine is the glass bottle. The container is inert, can be tightly sealed to prevent oxidation, protects the beverage from sunlight, and is easy to transport and store. But the glass bottle has not always been just used once as it is in most cases in today’s marketplace. The French have been recycling bottles for centuries.
Recently I was reading The New York Times and enjoyed an article written by Eric Asinov from August 4, 2022, entitled “The Problem with Wine Bottles” where Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard was quoted: “It’s the perfect container, if only we could figure out a way to reuse them”. I will revisit this quote in the section on the 21st Century at the end of this article.
Jason’s quote reminded me that the Wine History Project has in its collection four late 19th century artifacts for cleaning and reusing glass wine bottles. These artifacts were commonly used between the 1880s and 1940s. Historically, glass bottles were recycled. In the second half of the twentieth century, things changed. Bottles were designed for single-use only. Let’s discuss the current challenges to the industry and the environment.
For centuries wine was sold from barrels. Customers brought their own vessels to collect the wine – jugs, pitchers and empty bottles that might have originally contained imported wines. The reuse of bottles was commonplace. Remember – new bottles were hard to find in early days; they were pricey. The high prices of new bottles caused many in the wine industry to reuse old bottles although this practice raised the risk of tainting or injuring their wine.
The Industrial Revolution brought change. In the seventeenth century the English developed a new type of glass which was used to manufacture glass bottles. “The father of the modern bottle”, Sir Kenelm Digby, invented a new formula for making a stronger, thicker, and darker glass. The shape of the bottles changed. By the mid-eighteenth century the wine bottle shape had slimmed down from a bulbous shape because the sides were straightened.
Eventually, better methods and formulas halted the need for bottle blowers; the innovations in new equipment led to glass bottles being mass-produced. Glass bottles became accessible for everyday use by the public. By the end of the nineteenth century, many beverages were available in glass bottles because of mechanized bottling equipment and mass production in factories.
Buy Local and Leave a Deposit
The mass-production of bottles led to the introduction of bottle deposits in the 1870s/1880s.
This encouraged recycling. The deposit was refunded when the customer returned the empty bottle to the storekeeper. The bottles were cleaned and reused. Sales of bottled beverages increased dramatically as more and more bottled beverages were purchased and consumed in the workplace and at home. Recycling bottles was essential to meet the demand.
During the Great Depression and World War II there were also material shortages, which made the deposit system common, and people participated in this program willingly.
There was also a demand for containers to store foods. Glass containers, called mason jars, were invented and patented by an American tinsmith, John Landis Mason in 1858. They were a way to store all types of food products in a glass jar with a screw thread to accept a metal ring to seal the container. These canning jars or fruit jars were used to preserve food.
Bottle Cleaning and Sanitation
The bottle dryers in our collection were originally designed and used in France to dry beer and wine bottles upside down on the spikes of the bottle rack. The drying racks are called either an Égouttoir or Her’rison in French.
These dryers were often tall with a round, tree-like appearance and stood upright on the floor. Others, flat or rounded in shape, were hung on a wall. They all were used to dry sanitized wine bottles before returning the bottles to the beverage makers or vintners to be refilled and resold.
Bottle Cleaning Artifacts from the Wine History Project Collection
The four artifacts related to bottle cleaning in our collection, described below, include a bottle cleaner and several drying racks.
La Minima – The French Bottle Cleaner
Preparing wine bottles for bottling wine is seldom discussed. Each state has very tough laws regulating the bottling process. Clean and sanitized wine bottles are crucial to storing and maintaining a healthy wine.
This device, known as La Minima is from Paris, France and was used approximately 120 years ago to clean the inside of wine bottles. The equipment clamps onto the edge of a barrel or tub.
The metal wires are inserted into the bottle and then the crank on the equipment is turned by hand to rotate the wires and thus clean the bottles. I found that twenty-four hours prior to the bottles being filled, they were cleaned and rinsed. Lead shot was commonly employed for cleaning these bottles, making sure that none was left in the bottles, which would have poisoned the next wine placed in the bottle. This tool would have been found in any winegrowing area of France or even Europe and the U.S. It is designed to fix onto the edge of a slightly leaning out wooden barrel or tub. The bottle is placed upside down over the top and as it is pushed down it depresses the brass sheath that protects the brushes. The brushes open up inside the bottle. The handle is turned, which draws up water from the barrel right to the top of the brushes and at the same time turns the brushes inside the bottle. A small length of rubber tube would have been available to return the used water to the barrel or to a drain.
The bottle cleaner tool is approximately 25 inches long and 15 inches wide. The tool exists now in the Wine History Project’s collection and was found on an estate in Napa Valley. It appears to be in fine working condition.
La Minima – the Patent
S.G.D.G. Paris appears on the tool with nice original paint and appears to be in fine working order. Breveté SGDG was a French type of patent that ceased to exist in 1968. The name was a common abbreviation for “Breveté Sans Garantie Du Gouvernement“ (which translates to patent without government guarantees). France and Belgium maintained a system of simple registration of patents. It was believed that patents registered in this way were free from any liability from the government perspective. In France, the law of 1844 states that patents are issued “without prior examination, at the risk of the applicant and with no guarantee of function, novelty and merit of the invention also in terms of precision or accuracy of the description”. In Belgium, a similar regulation was in place in article 22 of the 1984 Patents Act, and, as of 2019, is still in place.
Object ID: WHP-BC2
Materials: Cast iron, brass
Size: 28”L x 12”W
Origin: Paris, France
Nowadays, there are much more advanced and automated ways to clean and sanitize bottles in not only the wine industry but for distilleries, dairy farms, water distributors, the food industry, and microbreweries. They are referred to as bottle washers and are built to accommodate a variety of sizes with exchangeable baskets. These newer bottle cleaners are made of stainless steel and plastic coated for bottle protection. Even newly manufactured bottles should be thoroughly cleaned before use. The mechanized new equipment removes any dust that may have found its way inside the bottles during the manufacturing or packaging processes.
The Galvanized Zinc Bottle Rack
This large rack, designed to be mounted on the wall, is 40 inches high and 44 inches wide. With space for 100 bottles, this rack was used for drying wine bottles. It is made of galvanized zinc. Racks like these enabled them to dry the insides of the bottles naturally. This drying rack is in exceptional condition, a fascinating piece showcasing a step in the process of bottling wine.
Wall hung (flat, large)
Object ID: WHP-DR2
Materials: Galvanized zinc
Date: c. 1900
Size: 40”H x 44”W x 4”D
Origin: possibly France (no markings on piece)
The Razor Back Bottle Dryer
This is an example of a rare, early, half round wall mounted wine bottle dryer. This type was used as early as 1880. I believe it is from Belgium and is referred to as a “Razorback” type.
Wall mounted (early, half round, rare)
Object ID: WHP-DR10
Date: c. 1880
The Tree-Style Bottle Rack – A Favorite of Artist Marcel Duchamp.
The style of this design for a bottle dryer rack is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s (French artist, 1887-1968) design of the period between 1890 to 1919.
Standing (small, five-tier with four splayed legs)
Object ID: WHP-DR11
Materials: Galvanized iron
Date: c. 1920s
Size: 42” x 20”
Jason Haas, proprietor at Tablas Creek Winery, speaks out on the state of recycling wine bottles in the United States
Eric Asimov wrote an article for The New York Times which was published August 4, 2022. As I wrote in the opening introduction of this article, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles was quoted from a recent blog post by Mr. Asimov in his article says that it is discouraging what the state of glass recycling is in the United States. Haas states, “if glass manufacturers were responsible for recycling, perhaps the system would work better and suggests that the wine industry must try to increase its use of recycled glass.” Haas continues by saying, “A better and more wide-reaching solution than recycling would be to return and reuse bottles, as people did for decades until the post-World War II era of convenience ushered in the disposable bottle”.
According to “The Problem with Wine Bottles” article, Tablas Creek experimented with bag-in-box packaging. That experiment sold out the equivalent of 112 cases of Patelin de Tablas Rose’ of the 2021 vintage. The Asinov article ends with the Haas quote inference about the glass bottle, “It’s the perfect container, if only we could figure out a way to reuse them.”
Return to Recycling?
Recycling bottles in our culture nowadays is done mostly by placing your glass bottles into a recycle bin which is picked up by the local garbage or landfill service. In an article quoting Bruce Schneider, “Over 3 billion bottles a year go to landfill and only around 30 percent of glass bottles are recycled in the U.S.” Bruce founded the Gotham Project (2010) with Charles Bieler in New Jersey. The article is “The Message in a Reusable Wine Bottle: Combat Climate Change” published in The New York Times on June 10, 2021.
It is said that glass bottles are the largest source of the wine industry’s carbon footprint. Some in the industry are shipping and packaging wine as it was done in the “old days” – kegs, barrels, containers and then bottled when the wine reaches its final destination into reusable bottles. The Gotham Project is developing new alternatives: wine bottles can be returned, sanitized and reused 10 times or more. This Gotham Project is using sturdy Burgundy bottles – green glass for reds and clear for whites and rosés with “Return & Reuse” embossed on those bottles. The sturdy reusable bottles also are using removable labels to facilitate multiple cleanings .
It takes heat and energy to make glass bottles, and fuel to ship them to their destinations. Most end up in a local landfill. The production of glass bottles is responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse emissions being released into the atmosphere. Most of us know the environmental challenges and climate change issues. Maybe we need to return to the washing, cleaning, and sanitizing of bottles?
Reusing and Recycling Bottles – How do we keep them clean?
The first state to pass a bill banning non-refillable bottles was Vermont in 1953. It lasted four years due to the beer industry lobbying Congress. By 1971, Oregon was the first state to implement a bottle bill requiring a five-cent deposit per bottle.
By 1979 the U.S. government changed the design of the wine bottles and required all wine bottles to contain 750ml of wine. The world then adopted this requirement to facilitate exports of wine to the U.S. market.
In 2019, wine bottle reuse projects emerged in European wine regions. According to Meininger’s Wine Business International (www.wine-business-international.com ) they are moving towards establishing a “circular economy of wine” and determined at that time that wine bottles could be reused at least seven times to substantially lower the carbon footprint for wine production and prevent waste.
Wine bottle production in the 21st century
One of the largest suppliers of bottles to the U.S. is China. The tariffs are 25% higher since 2018. And, I just learned that most of the glass bottles for Europe are made in the Ukraine, which has effectively halted because of Russia’s war with Ukraine. Is it time to return to the reuse of glass wine bottles?
A reminder –
The Wine History Project has a large collection of artifacts used during the 19th and 20th centuries in the vineyards and winemaking, along with a variety of ephemera and publications. If you wish to donate to our Collection, please contact Cindy Lambert at firstname.lastname@example.org