Star Winemaker Launches New Wine Brand Snowden Cousins in Refillable Bottles
As a flying winemaker at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, France, alongside Snowden Vineyards and Ashes + Diamonds in Napa Valley, star international winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses is acutely aware of her carbon footprint. Every year, she travels on five transatlantic flights between the vineyards where she makes wine. She got a wake-up call about climate change in 2017 when the temperature at St. Helena’s vineyard hit 120 degrees on Labor Day and Napa Valley caught fire weeks later. The extreme heat changed the vines and the fruit stopped developing sugars. “I felt like throwing up,” she recalls. “I felt like the days of good wine were numbered.”
Her love of wine, which she calls “one of the many doors to transcendence”, inspired her to understand what she could do to reduce the greenhouse gases created by the wine industry. Now Snowden Seysses is launching a new brand of wine to test whether filling 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 dry-grown Merlot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Snowden Seysses makes the wine at the Snowden winery founded by his grandparents in Saint Helena and bottles it in light, straight Bordeaux bottles.
She hopes people who buy a $40 bottle of Snowden Cousins enjoy the biodynamic merlot inside, then send the bottle back to be washed and refilled. “It’s an active experience,” says Snowden Seysses, who knows she and her business partner Melissa Monti Saunders will lose money initially. “It’s a lifestyle choice and it’s extremely embarrassing. It’s the only approach I can live with. She and her husband Jeremy Seysses, whose parents founded Domaine Dujac, are one of the most prominent couples in the wine business and she hopes this influence will inspire other wineries to discover how to reuse their bottles.
Saunders, partner of Snowden Cousins and owner of wine distributor Communal Brands, is building a network of environmentally conscious restaurants to carry the new brand. Brooklyn’s Four Horsemen Restaurant is the first partner restaurant committed to collecting the bottles and returning them to the cellar. Saunders has also created a brand of wines in refillable bottles. Glass Frog piquette rosé from Grochau Cellars will make its debut at Genever in Los Angeles. “My goal 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 have to mail the empty bottle back or drop it off somewhere for collection, similar to what people do with Dispatch Goods reusable take-out containers.
The environmental impact of the wine industry is considerable. US wineries produced over 700 million gallons of wine in 2020, and if even half of that wine came in 750ml bottles, that’s about 1.75 billion bottles. According to a 2011 study funded by The Wine Institute, glass bottles account for 29% of wine’s carbon footprint, but some estimates put it at 50% or more. Although bottle filling is relatively rare in the United States, it is very popular and profitable in Latin America, China, Southeast Asia and Canada, says Caren McNamara, founder of Conscious Container of Sonoma. In Europe, 90% of glass is recycled, while only 33% of glass is recycled in the United States. That means the last bottle of wine you drank is probably still in a landfill somewhere.
McNamara’s company will wash and prepare the Snowden Cousins bottles for their next go-around. But it’s also building infrastructure that will allow other wineries and beverage companies to reuse their bottles. “These systems exist all over the world,” McNamara says. “Returnable and refillable glass and PET bottles. They have been around for decades. And they exist because they are profitable. Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola are huge players. So how do we make it work here? »
One challenge has been the popular self-adhesive labels in the United States, which are nearly impossible to remove. To illustrate the problem, Snowden Seysses points to an old apple juice bottle she uses for water at a July 14 event in Bay Grape Napa. The writing on the label has faded, but the label is still in place. McNamara is testing stick-on labels that come off with hot water. For Snowden Cousins wine, Snowden Seysses sources labels from France, where bottle reuse is rigorously.
Snowden Cousins joins other wineries at the forefront of wine bottle reuse in the United States. The Gotham Project in New York, also a promoter of wine on tap, offers a return and reuse program for their own wine bottles. And in California, Michael Sones of Sones Cellars began offering the Hedgehog line in flip-top refillable bottles in 2010. Customers, most of whom are local, pay $5 for the bottle upfront and refills are cheaper than buying a chilled bottle of wine. The benefit of achieving this is enormous: reused glass bottles have an 85% lower carbon footprint than single-use glass.
The women believe the reuse of wine bottles could be much more important and are pushing the US wine industry to change, while building the infrastructure to make it possible. McNamara has been pushing for the new California law that legalizes the refilling of beverage bottles, while a new bill that would allow cash deposits on wine and beer bottles is advancing.
Snowden Seysses doesn’t want to be the Cassandra of wine climate change – a reference to the Greek woman who tried to warn of the Trojan horse. But with wildfires and rising temperatures in vineyards around the world, we need to make major and 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 whatever she can for the earth. “It’s the last thing I want to be so alarmist about, but I absolutely believe it’s the only sustainable way,” she says. “I just hope people will hear me.