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Pump It Up

Author Deborah Jian Lee Illustration Graham Roumieu

CLERMONT-FERRAND, FRANCE

In a discount supermarket in central France, a machine about the size of an industrial refrigerator with protruding pumps and tubes draws a crowd of puzzled shoppers. Standing before it, a middle-aged woman fills a plastic jug with a dark liquid. Numbers climb on a digital display. A bar code prints on a sticker. The onlookers whisper. Then they nod approvingly when they realize what it is they’re seeing. It’s a wine dispenser.

The machine is called “La Cuve,” which harks back to the old days of France when people lugged empty bottles to purchase wine from a cuve à vin, or wine vat. It’s the brainchild of Astrid Terzian, a businesswoman who a few years back enlisted the help of automotive engineers to devise a way to provide cheap, tasty wine with a smaller carbon footprint. Eliminating the cost of bottling allows her to sell for less, she explains. Customers fill up reusable bottles for as little as $2 per liter.

“It’s an everyday wine,” Terzian says, noting that her target consumer is not looking for an exquisite vintage to store in a cellar. “People who buy this wine drink it immediately.”

In 2010, eight stores across France bought or rented one of these 500- or 1,000-liter vending pumps, which dispense red, white and rosé wines from multiple regions. Terzian is now in talks with investors interested in bringing La Cuve to Russia, Israel and the U.S.—the latter arguably the global epicenter of bulk buying.

As for the woman filling up her jug at the supermarket, it’s her first time using La Cuve, but she’s sold. Apart from the convenience and low cost, she says, it’s easy to use. “Like a gasoline pump,” she says, grinning.

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