“Chief Bottle Washer”: Was this the title his mother envisioned for him when Bruce Stephens came into this world?
His formal title, CEO of Sonoma-based startup Wine Bottle Renew, is appropriate for press releases but he believes “chief bottle washer” better captures the spirit of his day-to-day work heading up this bottle-washing operation.
Stephens plan is to do well by doing good. The mission? Think back to the days when people put out empty bottles out for the milk man to take when he made his next delivery. Now, translate that to wine. Wine Bottle Renew collects, sorts, washes, sterilizes, inspects and repackages used wine bottles for sale.
The concept is so simple, on the surface, that the immediate reaction is “Why didn’t someone think of this a long time ago?”
According to the company’s procurement specialist and sales representative, Brian Dodd, the answer is “They did — in the 1990s — and they failed.”
Dodd described two previous efforts: Environmental Container Recycling, in Berkeley, couldn’t make a profit and became a wine-bottle distributor. Evergreen Glass, in Stockton, also ended up selling its bottle distribution company. Chris Ronson, the founder of Evergreen Glass, is now a partner in Wine Bottle Renew.
Dodd said that the major sticking points, aside from any qualms that used bottles might not be pristine, were that new bottles were very cheap at that time, so there was little incentive to buy used ones. The logistics of sorting numerous bottle styles, molds and colors added significant cost. And, the new, pressure-sensitive labels of the 1990s had to be scraped off by hand with a razor blade.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Dodd claims that Wine Bottle Renew “can match up the shape, color, thickness of the glass and measure the punt at a rate of 72,000 bottles an hour using ‘facial recognition software.’ There’s also an automated de-labeling system that can handle pressure-sensitive labels without damaging the bottle.
“The cost of buying new bottles has increased enough since the 1990s that Wine Bottle Renew can invest in this equipment and still make a profit by selling the used bottles,” he said. “Plus, it’s not just a new century, but a very different outlook, environmentally. Green is in.”
Here’s his pitch to potential buyers: They can save money and help the environment at the same time.
He said that an estimated that 60 percent of a wine’s carbon footprint is in the production of the bottle and that it takes about 95 percent more energy to melt down recycled glass to form new bottles than it does to wash and sanitize them.
“For Wine Bottle Renew customers, it means reducing that production carbon footprint up to 95 percent. At 9.4 pounds of carbon emission savings per case, every 213 cases of bottles sold means a metric ton of carbon emission savings.
“Also, reuse reduces the amount of glass that ends up in landfills. The EPA estimates that 70 percent of all wine bottles are not recycled. Glass in our landfills never breaks down and will be there 5,000 years from now. With 10 percent of landfills being glass, reusing is the right thing to do.”
Viewing the video on their website, raises the question of water use. Dodd responded that Wine Bottle Renew uses 25 percent of the water it takes to make new bottles. It may be counter-intuitive but, according to Dodd, much water is used in bottle factories to cool down the molds before the bottles come out. Wine Bottle Renew recycles the water used to wash the bottles in kind of a solera-like system. There are five different wash-and-rinse cycles. The last rinse, the cleanest, is recycled into the next-to-the-last rinse and on it goes in a continuing cycle.
The buyer can save from 10 to 50 percent over buying new bottles, the heavier the glass, the greater the savings. Dodd sums up the pitch by calling it the “Duh” model.
Further, Wine Bottle Renew claims that its bottles are “Cleaner than new.” Stephen’s inspiration for this fastidiousness — in fact for this whole venture — came through an unpleasant personal experience with what’s known as “bottle bloom” in 2009.
An avid home winemaker, he bought several cases of bottles for his current vintage, which was ruined because the bottles may have been new, but they weren’t clean, he said. He learned the hard way that as bottles sit in a warehouse, they get dirty with dust, the deterioration of cardboard and bottle bloom, which is a degradation that occurs naturally, more or less, depending on temperature and humidity.
As the story goes, he sat bolt upright in the middle of the night and woke up his wife, wanting to know why no one here in the U.S. was washing bottles like they do in Europe. From there, extensive research and finding investors led, eventually, to the birth of Wine Bottle Renew.
Dodd observed that bottle washing and resale is routine in many European countries and has been going on for at least two decades. So, European companies were the models of how to get the job done correctly, efficiently and profitably.
According to the website, Wine Bottle Renew’s bottle washing system is approved by the California Department of Health Services. It high temperatures and environmentally safe solutions to clean and sanitize the bottles.
To make it all happen, Stephens brought in as president Napa County Supervisor Bill Dodd, the former owner of Diversified Water Systems, more familiar as Culligan Water. (Brian Dodd is the son of Bill Dodd and Napa designer Judy Schindler.) Entrepreneur Bill Angeloni serves as CFO.
Wine Bottle Renew works with Napa Recycling, Upper Valley Disposal & Recycling, California Waste Recovery Systems and BLT Enterprises to collect the bottles.
Brian Dodd said that in most cases, the wineries that supply the bottles can continue with whatever arrangement they already have with their pickup services so the bottles go from the winery, to the recycler and then to Wine Bottle Renew. He said that Wine Bottle Renew may one day be able to make arrangements to collect bottles from grocers and restaurants.
Selection of bottle styles is more limited, compared to buying them new, but on their website they claim to “inventory approximately 80 percent of the bottle types used by U.S. wineries. Bottles from all of the major wine bottle manufacturers are represented.”
Stephens isn’t the only one who sees green in being green. Among their approximately 50 winery customers in California and Oregon, several are also investors, including Futo Wines, Hall, Kendall Jackson, Luna Vineyards, Parducci, Sutter Home and Meyer Family.
Having become operational last February, it’s early days for Wine Bottle Renew, but Dodd says that Chief Bottle Washer Stephens may some day find himself washing wine, beer and olive oil bottles, too, and selling these bottles nationally. At this point, capturing 3-5 percent of the wine market over the next five years is how he defines “wildly successful.”