When meeting Lowell Jooste, the soft-spoken owner of LJ Crafted, a jewel-box-sized wine bar and urban winery in La Jolla, Calif., for the first time, you would never guess he comes from one of the most well-known wine families in the world. But when he lights up speaking about his wine bar, which is driven by a specific objective, you know there’s something special about his role in the industry beyond legacy.
Proudly displayed at every turn are reminders of LJ Crafted’s commitment to the environment. Along the shelving behind the bar clearly reads a simple statement: “Supporting a zero-waste lifestyle.” At the entrance hangs a plaque denoting the wine bar as a “Platinum Level Ocean Friendly Restaurant,” certified by California’s Surfrider Foundation, as well as a sign that reads, “Proud to have avoided using over 144,000 single-use bottles.”
This is the core of LJ Crafted’s mission — to support a zero-waste lifestyle by eliminating single-use packaging, among the biggest offenders when it comes to negative environmental impact.
To that end, Jooste built the wine bar around his patented “Wine Steward®” apparatus, which allows wine to be served straight from the barrel. Jooste sources grapes from top California appellations in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County, and works with longtime winemaker Alison Green-Doran to produce the wines at a shared facility in Napa. The wines are then transported as finished barrels straight to the tasting room in La Jolla, where visitors can try a diverse selection of 15 white, rosé, and red wines.
But rather than simply being a wine-on-tap bar, Jooste took a page from San Diego’s vibrant craft beer scene and introduced a wine growler — and mini “growlette” — program. Visitors to LJ Crafted can sign up for the Growler Club, or purchase wines in refillable 1-liter or 12-ounce glass bottles that they can return to be sanitized and refilled with their favorite selections. At no point is a traditional, single-use bottle of wine opened or sold.
Inspired by what this could potentially mean for tasting rooms, wine events, and the industry in general, VinePair caught up with Jooste to learn more about this little wine bar trying to change the world, one wine growler at a time.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
1.You essentially came from what one might consider wine royalty in South Africa. Why leave that to come to the U.S.?
When my father bought Klein Constantia, it was a derelict property. One of the first people he spoke to was the professor of viticulture from Stellenbosch University, and he asked if he could get involved in a project where we try and reproduce the famous dessert wine. That was before the days of DNA, when mainly leaf shape was the biggest thing for telling a grape variety. But [this professor] had been spending time at UC Davis, so he was pretty famous in the whole thing and he helped us get going.
I think we were very fortunate having historical customers like Napoleon and King Louis Philippe. In those days, the very premium end of the wine industry was completely ruled by the French and they accepted this wholeheartedly. [But the dessert] wine went into the top restaurants in France, just like that. And that was a nice foot in the door because it was very difficult as a New World person to do that.
We grew it and then later on I bought another derelict vineyard in the Stellenbosch area and partnered with two well-known Bordeaux winemakers — Bruno Prats and Hubert de Boüard — and made a top South African red wine that we sold through the Bordeaux trade. We had a fairy tale start thanks to Robert Parker! But my wife and I were keen that our kids could get a college education in the U.S., so the vineyards were sold, and we came here not knowing that we’d ever get back into the wine industry or anything like that. But it’s kind of in the blood, you know?
2. What inspired the idea for LJ Crafted? Was “zero waste” always the goal?
Firstly, I believe that wine tastes best directly from the barrel. My second inspiration came from observing local breweries’ use of growlers. While “zero waste” was a goal, I wasn’t initially aware that traditional single-use wine bottles accounted for half of the wine industry’s carbon footprint when we opened seven years ago.
A few years ago, they said 70 percent of wine bottles came from China. The logic of making a vial in another continent, with all that energy used to make the bottle and then shipping, say, a 500-gram empty bottle across the ocean to be filled with wine only once — when you think of it like that, it’s difficult to justify.
3. What has the response been to the concept of wine in growlers?
When we opened, we were uncertain about customer reactions to wine in growlers. Consequently, we bottled half of our wine in traditional 750-milliliter bottles with corks, offering customers the same wine in 1-liter growlers for the same price, because the costs of bottling and packaging were eliminated. Nearly everyone chose the growler option, which included an additional 250 milliliters, leading LJ Crafted to become an exclusively growler-focused tasting room.
4. What is the percentage of bottles that come back to you for refill?
Approximately 90 to 95 percent of growlers are returned for washing, sanitization, and reuse.
5. What makes LJ Crafted unique compared to any other wine bar serving wine on tap?
Our tap system, which we trademarked as a Wine Steward®, displaces the wine in the barrel with inert gas, specifically 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide. By creating an oxygen-free airspace, the wine’s integrity remains intact until the barrel is emptied. We’ve already gone through over 400 barrels using this method. [Watch a video on how it works here.]
While LJ Crafted may resemble a wine bar, it’s actually a winery and tasting room. This licensing allows us to fill growlers for takeaway, which is not permitted at wine bars. If our tasting room was filled with kegs instead of barrels, I don’t believe it would create the desired ambiance for high-end single-vineyard wines.
6. Do you think it’s possible to scale this concept beyond a local business? Do you have plans to do so?
I like to think that what we’re doing here is much bigger than this business. We would like this business to be the proof of concept. And then we have a patent on the equipment which we use for dispensing the wine off the barrel and [we would like] to build the business of producing and selling that equipment to wineries.
If we look at all the wineries around, there’s a lot of entertainment, weddings, functions, tastings, wine by the glass — they need to start considering all the single-use bottles that they do use because, really, if they’re going to be serious environmentally, the bottle is the elephant in the room.
Why not start at home? That’s the place to show the customer that you’re serious about it. I think for a lot of wineries it would be quite easy just to serve the wine straight out of the barrel or out of a keg in those tasting rooms for all those functions.
And we’ve shown it works. We’ve been doing it for seven years and I don’t think we’ve had one bottle come back for quality reasons.
7. I know City Winery is making similar efforts with their Re-Wine program with wine on-tap on quite a large scale. Why do you think we don’t see more businesses taking this same zero-waste approach in their tasting rooms?
When we started, I had no idea that the bottles were the big problem of the wine industry. I think it’s really come out in the last three years, especially because of glass shortages and the unavailability and price of bottles. But I don’t really know. Some smaller wineries are doing growlers as a sideline. But I’m surprised more tasting rooms are not doing it.
Sustainability also has to be economic. We’re cutting out huge costs. If you think of all the packaging — not just the bottles, but the corks, the capsules, the label overruns, then the bottling line, the warehousing, and the tracking backwards and forwards — if we had to pay for all of that, we wouldn’t make ends meet.
Implementing this concept allows wineries and businesses to significantly reduce their carbon footprint while cutting costs associated with packaging, bottling, and warehousing.
8. Is something like this possible for wineries who want to be in distribution?
I don’t think the distribution systems are there for people to cope with reusable bottles. But I think we then have to look at other forms of packaging. I think the place we can learn the most from is Scandinavia and how successful bag-in-boxes are there. It’s much more environmentally friendly, especially much more than glass. Apart from looks, it beats a bottle. And a lot of the wines are very good.
8. What does the future hold for LJ Crafted?
As growlers are not suitable for shipping, we have now introduced a new shipping option using easily recyclable, lightweight 750-milliliter screw cap cans.
We hope to serve as a successful model that other wineries and tasting rooms can adopt.