Wineaux: Awash in a sea of wine bottles

By From page A7 | April 05, 2012

In response to chef Tony’s having waxed nostalgic about the Chianti of his youth, wine-lover Sue brought a bottle of Chianti — complete with basket — to a Tuesday tasting at Monticello. I opened it on the spot and poured samples for the folks sitting at the bar. “Hey, I like this,” everyone said, including me.

The “liking,” I suspect, had little to do with complexity or elegance and a lot to do with our collective early wine-drinking experiences. Cheap, simple, fun — and, no doubt, wine-drenchedly philosophical. Best of all? A new candle holder for the next romantic dinner. If I’d had a candle, I would have set it right up on the nearest table.

The Chianti did get me thinking about the fate of wine bottles. Almost none of the 3.5 billion bottles sold in the United States every year gets re-used, and 70 percent end up in the landfill.

Come to think of it, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a Chianti basket dripping with wax on a red-checked restaurant tablecloth. And now so many wine bottle labels sport original art or simply sophisticated designs that just tossing the bottles into a recycling bin — or worse — seems a shame. Perhaps it’s time for restaurants to resume the custom of using the nicest ones for candles.

Several San Francisco restaurants, I’ve noticed, have begun to put wine bottles on the table — filled with filtered water — though the labels, which I don’t imagine would long survive a commercial dishwasher, have usually been steamed off. I’ve resolved to start this water practice at home in an attempt to reclaim at least a couple of the “best” bottles — labels intact.

Alas, even all the restaurants on the West Coast could salvage only a fraction of the 3.5 billion. The most efficient “recycling” would, of course, be direct re-use. There are about 50 bottle-washing operations in Europe, which then send the bottles back to wineries. Preparing for re-use, I read, uses only 5 percent of carbon emissions created in virgin production.

The U.S. lags far behind. In February of last year, Wine Bottle Renew, the only such facility in this country, opened in Stockton, but its first phase of operation did not include a post-consumer collection system, and my attempts to call them for an update have failed (have they gone out of business already?), so I guess we’ll have to resort to some re-use activism while we wait.

Home winemakers are often on the lookout for bottles they can fill. If you are a winemaker, an online response to this column (at www.davisenterprise.com) might get you all the bottles you need and relieve at least a few of us of our wine bottle burdens.

I’ve recently seen some quite artistic uses of old bottles, though, again, this is hardly a large-scale solution. Bottles make really beautiful vases with just a simple angled cut with a glass-cutter. I’ve never used a glass-cutter, and I’m sure it takes some skill and care, but it seems easy enough for the clever crafters among us.

And while you have glass-cutting equipment set up, you can make tumblers as well, by cutting the bottles in half. (You also can buy these ready-made at greenglass.com among other places.)

More elaborate uses of old bottles abound. Scott Cohen, for instance, a Southern California landscape architect, regularly incorporates bottles into his designs — to create waterfalls, spas, barbecue counters and back splashes. A restaurant in Buenas Aires called Ginger used 5,000 old bottles to create a drop ceiling. They claim the acoustics are now wonderful.

Crafters in San Francisco melt wine bottles, labels and all, for use as cheese trays or wall-hangings. There’s almost always a booth selling hundreds of them right across the street from the Ferry Building. And if you have equipment to melt glass — i.e., a kiln — you also can make glass tiles for countertops or mosaics or whatever.

How about a wine bottle tree?

And as long as we’re in re-use mode, we can take on the corks, too. I’m sure you’ve seen a cork bulletin board or trivet, but what about door mats, jewelry, birdhouses and baskets? I’ve even seen several entire armchairs made of corks, though I didn’t get a chance to try them out for comfort.

I bet if you gave your favorite 10-year-old a bag full of corks and a bottle of (nontoxic) glue, you’d get amazing sculptures of giraffes and cars and bicycles and trees.

My favorite cork re-use, though, is pictured on thisoldhouse.com — the baseboard of an entire room made of upright corks sandwiched in between ¾-inch wood molding. Stunning.

Doesn’t someone want to open a gallery/shop dedicated to arts and crafts made from wine bottles, corks and barrels? The contributing artists’ raw materials could be collected for nothing — come to my house first.

So put on your thinking caps and, for inspiration, pop a cork. I suggest a straw-wrapped Chianti (available at Nugget), just for fun, but if you’re in the mood for something more elegant, try a bottle of Capay Valley Vineyards’ estate-bottled cabernet sauvignon (Nugget, Valley Wine Company and the Co-op as well as at the winery), which just garnered a gold medal from Tastings.com, an independent wine review. Congratulations, Tom, Pam and Terri!

And mark your calendars for the semiannual wine -asting party at Putah Creek Vineyards for an afternoon of excellent wine, food, music, art and company. It runs from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 5. Admission is $15.

No straw, but, nonetheless, Capay Valley and Putah Creek bottles will make perfect candlesticks.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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