A Case of Creativity

By Janet Eastman

Even empty wine bottles hold value.

To start with, they're pretty. You haven't noticed? Look closely at a wine collection and you'll see a rainbow of cobalt, cyan, emerald, forest, royal blue and topaz glass. Then study the bottles' shape: A tapered hock style. A high-shouldered Bordeaux. A contoured Burgundy. A voluptuous Bocksbeutel. The neck, too, makes an aesthetic impression. It can be long and elegant, or bulbous. Even bases are distinctively flat or dramatically indented.

In addition to their appearance, empty wine bottles sometimes store memories of very special occasions. And they're practical, too. Everyone who's ever mishandled a wine bottle knows that this thick glass is strong.

So why ditch all of these qualities just because the wine's gone?

Instead, more people are coming up with clever solutions that reduce landfill waste and recycle glass bottles into everything from juice tumblers and chandeliers to countertops and garden gravel. Others are showcasing the drained wine bottles, placing them on pedestals of one kind or another.

The recently released book, "Living With Wine: Passionate Collectors, Sophisticated Cellars and Other Rooms for Entertaining, Enjoying and Imbibing" by Samantha Nestor with Alice Feiring (Clarkson Potter, $75) makes a fascinating case for finding new uses for old wine bottles. Throughout its 256 dreamy pages, there are examples of high-design wine cellars housing thousands of unopened bottles in tidy rows.

Breaking from those uniformed arrangements, however, are inventive ways in which bottles are being employed as décor:

  • The cover of the book shows bottles enhancing a ceiling in a Weston, Mass. cellar. Oiled cherry wine racks stretch up one wall and arch over the ceiling to join the other side. Passersby can look up and see channels filled with bottles sporting the faded gold Caymus Vineyards label.
  • In true cellars, windowless subterranean spaces can't rely on natural light to achieve a sense of richness, so the pressure is on color, visual variety and supplied light. The book displays a neo-Georgian hilltop house in New Canaan, Conn., in which light is forced through a jewel-like wall of wine. Empty wine bottles were stacked sideways and sealed in place with silicone by artist Jean Shin, who also created a wine bottle block for an entrance to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Like stained glass in a church, the light filters through the bulky bases and glows leafy green, amber and starry white.
  • The sunlit living room of a 1920s cottage in tony Bel Air, Calif., is a rare example in the book in which a wine cellar is above ground. One prominent windowsill is dressed with sentimental bottles of 1982 Mouton Rothschild. The contents are now just a memory, but the bottles' brag-worthiness continues. Not only are the Imperial and Balthazar sizes of this Robert Parker 100-point wine impressive, but the label reproduces the final watercolor painted by John Huston. It gaily depicts Ram leaping in joy with the sun and the vine. In effect, the spent bottles now serve as upright art easels or curved glass frames.

Out of the Book and into Oregon

Surprisingly, long before Andrew French shot the first of 300 photos for "Living With Wine," Oregonians were already applying empty wine bottles to their design projects.

The most dedicated to "upcycling" empties is Tom Carlisle of Selma, who has used wine bottles as the main ingredient for his own creations: a double-walled wine cellar, mini tasting room and hundreds of feet of landscape walls. One serpentine wall uncoils across 150 feet.

Carlisle's constructions represent more than 20 years of collecting "virtually every" empty bottle from nearby Foris Winery in Cave Junction. Most days, Carlisle spends two hours scooping wet cement and positioning different colored bottles in straight rows. He adds a layer. Then another. He confesses it's his therapy, a break from his ghostwriting job and a claim to fame: "I believe this may be the most exotic bottle sculpture garden in the state of Oregon."

His rustic installations captivate guests in the same way as the famed Los Angeles' Watts Towers, which Italian immigrant Simon Rodia cobbled together from bottles, ceramic and other found objects.

Below the entrance of Carlisle's house, he's installed a series of his signature walls 40 feet wide that terrace down and reinforce what was once a sheer embankment. His two dogs use this as a lookout point to stare down visitors who come to see the bottle fortress. "It's something of a community attraction; really quite fantastic," Carlisle said. "Lots of wonderful colors and shapes."

As to the number of bottles he's reemployed, who knows? Thousands and thousands, at least, maybe more. "Who can count them anymore?" asks the Simon Rodia of Selma.

The Bottled Transformed

When it came to incorporating used wine bottles into a design scheme, Sokol Blosser Winery took a much easier route than Carlisle. In 2007, expansion plans called to double the Dayton office space and create a private Garden Room in which the staff could have lunch, host meetings and hold intimate events.

The Garden Room's countertop needed to be attractive, durable, stain resistant, and, if possible, green.

"We did everything to make the project eco-friendly," said Kitri McGuire, Sokol Blosser's marketing communications manager. "We believe making a room eco-friendly doesn't mean sacrificing beauty and meaningfulness. We also wanted to tie the Garden Room back to what we do: making wine!" 

The design team found exactly what they wanted: a countertop made of recycled, crushed wine bottles from the EnviroGLAS Co. of Plano, Texas ( They ordered inch-thick slabs of dark sand-colored resin embedded with specks of soft green, brown, gold and clear glass. The cost for each custom 27-by-84-inch slab is under $800.

Unknowingly, they also bought a conversation piece. "People always want to touch the counter," McGuire said. "Most don't realize that it is actually recycled wine bottles." She continues: "People are interested and want to learn more, perpetuating the sustainability message to each new group of excited visitors."

Bill Steele of Cowhorn Vineyards & Garden in Jacksonville devised another way in which wine bottles can make a glorious return to a winery. Steele ships his empty bottles to the Green Glass Company in Weston, Wisc., to have them cleaned, cut in two, ground, heated and molded into super-strong drinking glasses (from the bottom half of the bottle) and goblets (from the top half).

"Recycling our bottles into glassware is one way that we are working to limit the footprint of our business," says Steele, whose winery along the Applegate River is certified organic and Biodynamic.

The Topaz collection of tumblers made from Cowhorn's bottles come in smooth and sandblasted finishes, and sell for around $12 each at Mirador Community Store and Natural Spaces, both in Portland, and Pico's Worldwide in Jacksonville. A set of four ($40) is also available at

On a recent sunny Saturday, day-trippers relaxing at the Cowhorn tasting room patio were admiring the stubby tumblers and their prominent punts. Suggested one taster: "This could serve as a nice one-glass decanter." But when they inquired about buying a few sets, the server had to confess: "This is all so new, we just have them for display right now."

But that will surely change as the value of empty wine bottles rises. 

Janet Eastman writes for national publications and covers Southern Oregon wine for Her work can be seen at

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