As any home brewer can tell you, buying bottles can be a significant cost. A five or six gallon batch of wine or mead will take at least two cases of bottles, costing $12 or more per case. This is why most brewers collect bottles from friends and family to clean, sterilize and re-use. However, there are other largely untapped sources out there for the enterprising brewer.
Many bars and restaurants serve various wines & beers from bottles and with current recycling laws they cannot just throw out the empties. Obviously knowing someone who works there is helpful, but even just asking the manager or bartender can work. Be prepared for the odd look and occasional rejection, but this can be a ready source. One collection of several dozen bottles sitting in my garage waiting for a use was acquired from a restaurant in just this fashion.
Similarly, even small wineries use bottles in staggering quantities. They will often have surplus lots either from an overage or discontinued batches. If they have a tasting room or banquet hall then they will generate cases of empties on a regular basis. Due to the various legalities involved, it is just not worth their time to re-use the bottles and they are generally considered a disposal problem. The wineries I have spoken with generally destroy, cart off or otherwise recycle bottles by the pallet load. They are also generally very supportive and welcoming to home brewers. If you are operating on a slightly larger scale, wineries and brewers will also often have kegs, vats, bladders and other equipment that they are upgrading from or otherwise getting rid of which you might be able to acquire.
Lastly, a final nod to garage, estate and downsizing sales is warranted. A careful watching of the listings for this sort of sale can turn up the occasional trove of collected bottles or other brewing equipment.
Always be friendly and be ready to accept a brush-off now and again, but a little bit of effort and luck spotting the right opportunity can greatly enhance your brewing ventures!
~ Lord Wolfgang Starcke, Guildmaster Æthelmearc Brewer’s Guild