WINTHROP, Wash. – At Lost River Winery in Winthrop, refilling reusable containers called growlers — with wine is the second most-popular offering after pinot gris.
But the winery’s owner, John Morgan, said he can’t offer wine in growlers at his Seattle tasting room near Pike Place Market.
That’s because state law doesn’t allow wine to be sold in growlers in any location other than the winery where it was made, he said.
It’s a barrier that wineries and other businesses are hoping to see the state Legislature address in its 2014 session.
What the Family Wineries of Washington State is asking for appears simple — allowing wine and hard cider to be sold in growlers at any location where beer can be sold, as well as winery tasting rooms, restaurants with beer and wine licenses, and specialty wine shops.
It’s a common practice in Europe and has already been embraced by other states, including Oregon, said Morgan, a board member of Family Wineries of Washington State.
The potential environmental benefits are huge, supporters say. About 65 percent of a winery’s carbon footprint is glass, including vineyard operations, Morgan said. Glass is not very recyclable in a lot of places.
“This is something that consumers are really, really excited about,” he said.
Piccola Cellars of Woodinville treats growlers like old-fashioned milk bottles. They take the pre-filled containers to farmers markets, where customers can exchange their empties for the new bottles, owner Diana Kaspic said.
The bottles are then sanitized and reused. Growler fills are also available at the winery.
Since Kaspic got into the business four years ago, she’s made her niche with growlers, kegs and 1.5-liter sauce pouches, which basically look like giant juice bags of wine.
With growlers, the wine is fresh, the price point is low because of the lack of packaging, and the customer gets to walk away with a great container of wine to drink in the next few days, she said.
“We are making it too formal,” Kaspic said, adding that there are many ways to create a pleasant experience with wine that doesn’t include glass bottles.
Her primary business is providing kegs to businesses such as brew pubs, golf courses, resorts, restaurants and hotels. Her wines also are featured at six businesses in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.
So far this year with the keg program, Kaspic estimates she’s saved about 47 tons of glass from ending up in landfills or recycling centers.
All of Piccola Cellars wines are made by winemaker Victor Palencia, who opened Palencia Wine Co. at the Walla Walla Regional Airport earlier this year.
In the kegs, a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide sits like a blanket on top of the wine, preventing it from oxidizing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a week or six months, there is no chance of oxidation, Kaspic said.
“The consumer gets a really high-quality glass and it’s 100 percent fresh every time,” she said.
Restaurants like it because they don’t have to throw away wine still left in a glass bottle, Kaspic said.
The restaurants she sells kegs to tell her they have many customers who want to buy her wines to take home, but they can’t sell it to go in a growler under current law, she said.
When Geoff Gruetzmacher opened Growler Guys in Richland on Nov. 14, he hoped to sell craft beer and hard cider in the reusable containers.
But he sent the cider back to the distributor when he found that it would be at odds with state law. He hopes legislators will change the law, and said he would then add hard cider and consider adding wine.
“Cider hasn’t been as popular as it is now,” he said, attributing the popularity surge to the fact that cider is gluten-free.
Growler Guys offers about 41 craft beers and one root beer that are rotated through the taps.
Gruetzmacher has been able to keep up his beer inventory, but his growlers have gone quickly, he said. He’s down to 12 of the 145 Washington State University steel growlers he ordered.
“We don’t really have any waste, as far as container waste,” Gruetzmacher said.
A bill to allow wine in growlers in locations other than wineries was proposed last year, but did not pass because of concerns about federal law, Morgan said. The current bill — House Bill 2812 — is sponsored by Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.
To sell wine in growlers, businesses will need to get a license from the federal government, because wine only can be bottled at a bonded winery or a tax-paid wine bottling house, he said.
But Morgan said it’s just another license and one-time fee that he would get in a heartbeat to use growlers at his tasting room.
Marty Clubb, president of the Washington Wine Institute, said the institute is supportive of wine growlers.
Growlers are like an expansion of wine by the glass, Clubb said. It’s a convenience factor and customers tend to get better prices when they buy a larger quantity.
But Clubb, owner and managing winemaker for L’Ecole No. 41, said the proposed bill needs to be fine-tuned in order to be a real fix.
Clubb said they are working to try to find a better way to mesh state and federal laws to make growlers easier for retailers.