Time for Creativity: Wineries scrambling amid glass bottle shortage and climate challenges

Posted: Nov 30, 2021

In New York’s Finger Lakes wine region, every year brings its own set of challenges, most of them related to weather — cold winter temperatures that can kill vines, late frosts that can damage buds and rain and humidity that can cause grapes to rot.

But the events of the past two years have created a unique set of headaches for wineries.

The year 2020 brought the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also ended up an ideal year for making wine in the Finger Lakes. Dry weather in August, September and October meant the grapes were high-quality and free from disease. The harvest, which was smaller than usual, started early and ended late, allowing winemakers to pick at the optimum time.

“Everything was sort of picture perfect,” said Meaghan Frank, vice president of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, a historic and well known winery in Hammondsport, in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region.

During the pandemic, people were consuming more alcohol and taking advantage of online ordering, either through retail stores or winery websites. And when wineries were able to reopen, people arrived in droves, eager for a getaway when air travel seemed risky and foreign travel was off limits.

That was the good news. The bad news: The smaller harvest in 2020, compounded with high demand, has meant Dr. Frank is out of 15 of its wines. And if the winery loses its spots on wine lists and retail shelves, it is difficult to get them back, she said.

Frank is anxious to begin bottling the winery’s 2021 vintage, starting with rosés in January — if they can find the supplies it needs to do so.

“We are producing a lot more rosé than we produced last year, but the glass is in short supply,” she said. Clear glass, required for rosés, is particularly hard to find. “Color is part of the experience,” Frank said.

Screw caps for the bottles are 16 to 18 weeks out and even labels have long lead times. Time is of the essence, she said, because rosés are most popular in the spring and summer — and to get them on wine lists and store shelves, they need to be sent to distributors well in advance. “All of it is timing,” she said.

A national issue
When Michael Kaiser, vice president of government affairs at WineAmerica, asked members what they were worried about this wine season, he repeatedly heard one answer: concerns about a glass bottle shortage. WineAmerica is a trade association consisting of 500 wineries, suppliers and associations, and is based in Washington, D.C.

“If you don’t have the bottles that you need, how are you going to get the product out of barrels and to customers?” Kaiser said, adding the shortages come at a time when many winemakers have just harvested this season’s grapes.

Over the past 10 years, the industry has changed, said Bill Lutz, president and owner of Waterloo Container in Waterloo, which supplies bottles, closures and corks to the wine and craft liquor industry.

Wineries started buying bottles from Asia and Europe to save on costs, and domestic glass plants closed due to lower demand.

In addition, distributors became brokers that did not carry inventory. “They want to get the product in today and ship it to you tomorrow,” he said. “That’s all well and good if the supply chain can keep it flowing.”

But freight issues and labor shortages — which started before the COVID-19 pandemic and were greatly exacerbated by it — have revealed the risks of that approach.

“Just-in-time is collapsing,” Lutz said. “The model can’t work anymore in the short term.”

A 40-year-old company, Waterloo Container has the relatively old-fashioned business model of maintaining an inventory of products; roughly 90% of its products are made domestically. Many of its customers are in the Finger Lakes, but the company also has customers in all 50 states as well as Canada and the Caribbean.

Lutz predicted supply chain issues beginning in 2019, and started increasing inventories. “We’re probably in better shape than other companies that do what we do,” he said. Indeed, many Finger Lakes wineries say that they’ve had few major issues purchasing bottles this year, but aren’t sure what to expect next year.

Lutz predicts that the situation will not be resolved quickly, and the situation could become dire for some wineries.

“It’s very difficult for those glass plants to get fired back up,” he said. “There’s just not enough capacity to have it all come back to the United States. It can’t be fixed in the short term. I’d be surprised if it could be fixed in five to ten years.”

Climate challenges
In addition to supply chain issues, wineries also are contending with a challenging growing season. Whereas California experienced a historic drought in 2021, the Finger Lakes experienced the opposite.

“We had very challenging rains throughout the growing season and that continued into the harvest,” said Frank from Dr. Frank winery. The harvest was large, giving them the opportunity to replenish supplies, but they had to be careful to find quality fruit.

“There are going to be some very good wines made during this vintage,” she said, but it will take take skill. “The wineries’ creativity is going to shine in this vintage.”

Kaiser from WineAmerica said the issues impacting the wine industry have yet to impact customers directly, whether through increased prices or low stock in stores. That may be on the horizon, depending on how long the issues persist, he said.

“It may get to the point where it may be difficult to find some of your favorite wines,” he said. “It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.”

Frank said the long lead times and increasing prices are “a little worrying” but remains steadfast.

“We’ve faced worse before and we’ll probably face worse in the future,” Frank said.  “We’re a tough breed. We’ll be OK.”

Tracy Schuhmacher
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

This also includes reporting from USA Today News Now Reporter Christine Fernando; follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

Tracy Schuhmacher is food, drink and culture reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @RahChaChow. 

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