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Bottle Shock

Growlers may radically change Oregon’s wine industry

In the golden years of my youth (ages 8-11), our family was transferred by the U.S. Navy to Rabat, Morocco. My mother blithely enrolled me in a French-run school. I made some friends. My closest bud was Pierrot; his dad was a sergeant in the French Air Force, his mother Bedouin. Pierrot periodically invited me to lunch at his house. Before lunch could be served (outside, under a shade tree, at a long table), his father grabbed a couple of empty wine bottles, handed them to Pierrot and me with instructions to return with vin ordinaire rouge (ordinary wine, red) and rose (rosé). We ran to our neighborhood grocery store and self-importantly (lunch couldn’t begin without the wines) handed over our bottles. The owner blandly turned to the kegs, filled our jugs, took our money, somehow closed the containers and sent us dashing home. No questions about our ages, no issues about whether we intended to get drunk. This was routine, the mature development of a country (France — Morocco was then still French Morocco) where wine had a cultural history two millennia old. When we reached Pierrot’s, lunch was launched; and the kids were served wine (half water) with the grub. A nap soon ensued, very civilized.

Could such an event occur in some Oregon kid’s future? Maybe. This year, HB 2443, requested by the Oregon Winegrowers Association, sailed virtually unopposed through the House, co-sponsored by Reps. Paul Holvey and Jim Thompson, then through the Senate, guided by Lee Beyer (D-Springfield), then was signed, April 11, by Gov. Kitz, and immediately went into effect. Now dubbed the “wine growler bill,” the law allows changes that could alter deeply our behavior with wine.

For those who might have missed the first blip of the trend, the term “growler,” usually applied to beer, is a customer-supplied container that can be filled by licensed retailers from kegs bearing the consumer’s favorite brew. The customer gets a price break. Retailers and brewers move a lot of juice. With the passage of HB 2443, the growler can contain wine (limit: 2 gals.).  

Now what? The change is still so new that retailers, wineries and others are scrambling to adapt. For just one example, Randy Stokes, manager of Eugene’s Sundance Wines, the largest wine shop in Oregon, is already looking at appropriate equipment: “My ideal would be to have six taps” on kegs dispensing whatever wines the suppliers have on offer. Very likely, these would not be the premium wines that still do best in bottles, but good, ordinary, everyday wines. However, some of Oregon’s best producers — Cameron, Brooks, King Estate — are already putting very drinkable wines into kegs, especially for restaurants’ by-the-glass pours. 

One guy very enthused about the new law is Jeff Philpot, owner-operator of Velox Wine Works, a wine distributor specializing in kegs. Philpot calls the new law a “great idea,” and some of his enthusiasm arises from his environmental research, showing that “50-70 percent of a winery’s carbon footprint is glass.” Reducing the amount of glass can result in long-term benefits, especially locally. Philpot points out that in Lane County, “only about 20 percent of glass is recycled.” And Lane County tries harder than most.

Mark Nicholl, the talented winemaker formerly at Sweet Cheeks, now concentrating on his own label, the William Rose wines, says, “I’m still on the fence about this,” but concedes the change could work as a “definite advantage” in terms of bringing wine into people’s everyday lives.

Mike Coplin is as beer-wise as anyone in Eugene; he’s also owner of 16 Tons. His take on the wine growler prospect is simple: “It’s just like beer.” His stores have contributed mightily to the growler business, in part through retailing the growler bottles themselves (a 64 ounce and a 32 ounce), and filling the growlers has been “a huge part of our business.” He notes, “We’ve had wine on tap at our café for over a year.” The most impactful outcome: “The playing field has been leveled for people who don’t have deep pockets.” Coplin insists on two conditions for growlers (beer or wine): “Any bottle that’s cleanable and sealable can be a growler. You can’t send someone out of your store with an open container.” He’s also looking at machines that sterilize bottles before they’re filled from kegs.

Oregon is still recovering from the devastating effects of Prohibition (1916-30), which nearly eradicated our early history of grape-growing and winemaking. In fact, our entire relationship with all alcohol-containing and alcohol-using products lingers in a kind of infancy. Now that we have more than 450 wineries producing $2 billion in revenue annually, can we begin to grow up and learn to accept ordinary wines (and beers and ciders) as part of our everyday dining?

We’ll soon find out. I know that someday soon I’d like to send my grandson to the local little store, toting a couple of vacant growlers, doing the essential work of garnering our lunch vins. He’d dig it. And nobody can run like that boy. 

Note: I had help on this article from my daughter, Paloma Sparks, an attorney and policy advisor to Senator Lee Beyer.