The four bottles came in a compact cardboard box with the words: “Your Drink Now Wines Are Here.” Picking up a bottle, I noticed three things simultaneously. The playful caricature of a woman on the front; the brief manifesto “Fight Like a Sister. Enjoy Today. Adventures Well” printed on the side; and the fact that the bottles were…well, squishy.
These were the inaugural release from Nomen, a wine brand started by Angelica O’Brien and her three eldest daughters. O’Brien and her husband David are the founders of Owen Roe Wines, a wildly successful wine brand that makes wines in Oregon and Washington State.
Nomen is the first project of the Distaff Wine Company, which Brigid O’Brien says was a project that her mother initiated as a way of giving the women of the family the opportunity to shine.
“We were all sitting at dinner and my Mom said, ‘You know, I’ve been in the wine industry a long time, but your dad gets all the credit!'” she says with a laugh.
Distaff launched a way for the women of the O’Brien family to tell their stories and to shine in an industry that too often foregrounds men.
They have several wine projects in the works, but their first efforts (mid-Pandemic, no less) took aim at two issues that were important to them: women’s empowerment and sustainability.
Sourcing wine from the Owen Roe portfolio and getting assistance from their David O’Brien in the final blends, the mother-and-daughters team put together an initial set of four wines and adorned them with labels drawn by Marie-Therese O’Brien depicting various career women.
Perhaps most impressively, the team packaged these four wines in PET plastic bottles, making them lightweight, reusable, 100% recyclable, and fairly unbreakable. In other words, perfect picnic wines and a slam dunk for the environment.
Wine packaging is a double-whammy when it comes to impact on the carbon footprint of wine. The combination of the manufacturing process for glass bottles, plus the cost of transporting those bottles around the world makes up a full 68% of the total carbon footprint of the wine industry.
So the single best way to reduce emissions in the wine industry would be to package wine in a lower impact, lighter-weight material, as the ladies behind Nomen have done.
But it wasn’t easy.
“We had a hard time finding a bottle we liked, and then once we did we had plenty of people tell us that we couldn’t bottle our wines in plastic bottles,” says O’Brien. “We eventually found one guy who was willing to tweak his bottling truck equipment in order to make it work.”
The bottles themselves are, frankly, brilliant. From 10 feet away, they look like any glass screwcapped bottle. Pick them up, however, and you realize just how much lighter (and less breakable) they are than what we’re all used to.
With one of these bottles in your hand, it’s difficult to avoid asking the obvious question: why isn’t every wine under $15 packaged like this? Figuring out the positive impact this would have sounds like a McKinsey & Co interview question or the subject of a WSET diploma essay, but let’s just say “huge” as a starting point. One piece of math I was able to track down was that a 40% reduction in the weight of a wine bottle produces an overall 20% reduction in that bottle’s overall carbon footprint.
Fully 90% of all wines are consumed within 2 weeks of purchase in the United States, and if we restricted that to $15 wines sold in grocery stores, I’m willing to bet that the number would inch dangerously close to 100%.
There is no reason I can think of that every single one of those wines shouldn’t be packaged in plastic bottles. Getting the wine industry to do this, of course, would take some serious effort, and likely couldn’t be accomplished without some serious commercial leverage. Something akin to Wal Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, and Safeway all telling their wine vendors that they have to transition to such packaging within 3 years in order to continue selling them their products.
Of course, Gallo and The Wine Group could also make a pretty sizable dent through unilateral action themselves.
Until that happens, though, at least 2000 cases of a women-led wine brand will be showing the way.
Noteworthy, too, is the fact that these scions of a fantastically successful wine family have opted to focus on making a remarkably inexpensive product. Usually you’ll find the children of well-known winemakers splashing out with boutique, micro-production efforts very much in the same or even higher price points than their parents’ efforts.
As for the wines themselves, well, they’re not amazing, but they are perfectly serviceable, which, you know, is kind of what you want for $12 a bottle. They’re polished, solid examples of their varieties that aren’t going to turn heads, but will do the trick if what you really want to concentrate on is the experience of having a picnic in the park or a pool party without the threat of broken glass.
While this first set of wines was cobbled together from bits and bobs that were already in process under the O’Reilly family brands, Brigid O’Reilly says the 2020 vintage will have been made entirely by the three sisters and their mother from start to finish—farming to final bottled wine.
Having launched mid-pandemic, the brand is currently focused on direct-to-consumer sales, but O’Reilly says they haven’t ruled out distribution if they continue to grow.
And I hope they do just that, if only as an example that I hope many, many others in the wine industry will follow, both from the standpoint of sustainability and, frankly, gender.
2018 Nomen Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cocoa powder, and a touch of toasty oak. In the mouth, black cherry, blackberry and a touch of cedar have a light, muscular tanninc structure and decent acidity. Good length. 14.1% alcohol. Packaged in an innovative plastic bottle and closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $12.
2019 Nomen Dry Rosé, Columbia Valley, Washington
A pale baby pink in color, this wine smells of strawberries and bubble gum. In the mouth, strawberry and crabapple flavors have a sour bite to them, but not quite enough acidity to really make this wine sing. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty decent rosé. 95% Syrah, with 5% Pinot Gris added. 13% alcohol. Packaged in an innovative plastic bottle and closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $12.
2019 Nomen Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley, Washington
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of green apple and a touch of kiwi fruit. In the mouth, decent acidity enlivens somewhat plain flavors of green apple and gooseberry. A straightforward, pleasant rendition of Sauvignon Blanc. 13% alcohol. Packaged in an innovative plastic bottle and closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $16.
2018 Nomen Malbec, Columbia Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and blackberries. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are straightforward and pleasurable. Faint tannins, good acidity. Easy to drink. 14.1% alcohol. Packaged in an innovative plastic bottle and closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $15.
You can purchase these wines, which I received as press samples, from the Nomen web site, from where I borrowed all the images above.