Beyond The Bottle

Blazing new trails in packaging fine wine



Twenty years ago, if someone posed the question "Would you drink wine from a box, a plastic bottle or—gasp—an aluminum can?" to our average reader, the answer would be a resounding "no!" But today, as more high-quality wines are being packaged in non-traditional materials, increasingly the answer seems to be, "Why not?" The sales percentages, which are increasing monthly, speak for themselves. What began as a movement to alternative closures, mostly in response to the problem of corked wines, seems to have merged with the Millennial generation's penchant for upending the conventional.

Wine closures made of glass, exotic anti-corks such as Zork, and wine sealed with beer bottle crown caps make the screw cap closure seem tame. Sommeliers, ever zealous of their turf, have even devised a special corkscrew for screw caps, so they can maintain some ceremony at the table. One way or another, consumers are warming to the notion that screw caps do not signal plonk, and wineries are thrilled at the idea that screw caps eliminate TCA taint, which affects up to five percent of wine with natural corks.

In fact, the latest ACNielsen data, presented at the January 2007 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, showed that the number of American wineries using screw caps on standard 750-ml bottles had climbed from three percent in 2002 to 24 percent in 2006—an eightfold increase. Still, wines topped with screw caps account for just four percent of all 750-ml table wine sales in the U.S., compared with 61 percent in New Zealand and almost 50% in Germany.

Alternative closures are just the beginning of the industry's efforts to attract new consumers with innovative ideas. Stemware without stems, sparkling wine in cans—with straws attached—and still more tradition-thumping designs are rapidly changing the way wine is packaged, promoted, purchased and poured.

The Alliance for Innovative Wine Packaging, an association of wine industry marketers and suppliers, defines its mission as "to reset the shelves of the world's wine marketplace by advancing the culture of wine through innovative, exciting and easily accessible packaging." That begins, says AIWP, with screw caps on glass bottles and quickly moves on to premium wine in boxes, PET plastic, flexible packaging, aluminum containers, and beyond. They call it "a revolution in wine access."

For wine lovers running the gamut from campers to collectors, the new packaging offers more than just novelty. Apart from freeing up designers to move beyond putting new animals on crayon-colored labels, many of these innovative packaging solutions have solid practical advantages. Here's a quick overview.

Wines in Boxes and Casks
Bag-in-a-box or "cask" wines are going mainstream. Although five-liter boxes of nondescript, generic wines initially gave boxes a bad rep, the arrival of upscale, vintage-dated varietal wines in three-liter packages has dramatically changed the playing field.

ACNielsen scan data identifies the three-liter boxed wines as the fastest-growing premium wine packaging segment. Volume sales have roughly doubled over the most recent three-year period, as has market share.

A standard three-liter package is the equivalent of four glass bottles. Unlike bottles, boxes are disposable, unbreakable, easy to stack, store and carry and they require no corkscrew to open (at least until the sommeliers figure something out). Once chilled, boxes hold their temperature longer than bottles, and offer extra protection from the damaging rays of the sun.

Most boxes are stamped with a "packaged on" or "drink by" date, a useful guarantee of freshness. They have explicit instructions (usually on the bottom of the box) for opening, and there is nothing cheap or cheesy about the functionality of the airtight bag or dripless spout. Because the bag collapses as it is emptied, the wine is never exposed to air. Freshness is guaranteed for a month or more. You can enjoy a small glass with dinner and it will be as fresh on day 30 as it was on day one.

The bag-in-a-box format is especially popular in Scandinavia (ACNielsen reports that almost two-thirds of the wine purchased in Sweden is box wine), but on the production side the trend first took hold in Australia. Hardy's Stamp and Banrock Station are brands that offer excellent value; unsurprisingly, the Chardonnay and Shiraz are best in show.
These days, you'll find wines from Italy, France and other formerly tradition-bound countries trying the box format. A South African brand, Rain Dance, is offering Chardonnay and Shiraz in three-liter cartons, emphasizing that the product stays fresh for weeks after opening.

In California, Black Box has introduced vintage-dated varieties such as Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon and Napa Valley Chardonnay. Black Box is part of the Pacific Wine Partners (Constellation Wines U.S.) portfolio, and talks up the value aspect of boxed wine: "The more you know about wine, the less you have to pay."

Another California winery, Delicato, has succeeded with well-made, vintage-dated Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet in their three-liter Bota Box. And now The Wine Group's Fish Eye brand is launching an ambitious network television advertising campaign that promises to do for the box what Aldo Cella did for the jug several decades ago.

Washington wineries have also begun to jump on the trend. The three-liter line of Washington Hills "is on fire as a brand," according to its Seattle distributor. A project dubbed Revelry takes the bag-in-box idea, sizes it down to 1.5 liters, and offers Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a hip and colorful package. Same bag, but papa's got a brand new box.

Wines in Tetra Pak Packages
For those who want portability and convenience, but in smaller packages, more and more wineries are releasing wine in Tetra Pak cartons. These come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from one liter on down. In the U.S., Tetra Pak is best known as a purveyor of milk and juice cartons, but elsewhere in the world the wine industry has used them for years. In 2004, the most recent year for which data is available, 1.6 billion liters of wine worldwide were packaged in Tetra Pak cartons.

Given their smaller sizes, they do not have a self-collapsing inner pouch and are not designed to keep wine fresh once opened. However, if you want just a glass of wine, you can (very carefully) squeeze the air out of the carton, and it will keep the wine reasonably well for several days.

Among the widely available brands in Tetra Pak packages are Vendange, Three Thieves' Bandit and Boisset America's French Rabbit. In Canada, sales of French Rabbit in Tetra Pak cartons are expected to reduce waste by 350 tons a year—the equivalent of 310 compact cars.

Opici Import Company is introducing Australian wine in B-Paks, with a strong emphasis on their environmental friendliness. The entire package is made from sustainable and renewable resources, and uses half the energy glass does. It's shipped in rolls to the winery, so a single truck can deliver enough material to produce 500,000 bottles. The same number of glass bottles would require 26 truckloads. The one-liter B-Paks will be rolled out for the Long Flat and Thirsty Lizard brands.

An Italian brand, Tavernello, is offering some of their wines in 250-ml cartons, which are sold three to a package (one brick-sized package equals a regular bottle of wine). Tavernello claims to be the world's fourth best-selling table wine brand, but has only recently been introduced in the U.S. They offer Pinot Grigio and Merlot in the single-serving size, and add Trebbiano, Sangiovese and Nero d'Avola to their one-liter lineup.

Wines in Cans
Francis Ford Coppola had the audacity to put his California sparkling wine (named after his daughter, Sofia) in a pink tin can—with a straw attached. Sacré bleu! This is clearly not your daddy's "Champagne." Yet, sales of Niebaum-Coppola's Sofia Mini Blanc de Blancs have taken off spectacularly.

Barokes Premium Australian Wine in a Can is available in four styles: a Blanc de Blancs, a Blanc de Noirs, a Chardonnay and a Shiraz. The company is marketing the wines worldwide, with particular success in non-traditional outlets such as service stations and coffee houses. Airlines and hotels are also being targeted. The single-serve, 250-ml cans are offered in mix-paks with one can of each. Meanwhile, the first canned wines to hit Canada are being introduced by Australia's Dal Broi. The Billygoat Hill and Billyrock Station Chardonnay, Merlot and Shiraz, all in 250-ml aluminum cans, were first made for airline sales. But now 20-something females are the target market, says Aluminum Now.

And more is on the way. Relax Juniors, 375-ml wines in aluminum bottles, are being imported by Schmitt Sohne Wines USA. The Relax Riesling and Relax Cool Red are specifically designed for summer parties, tailgating and outdoor picnics. In-store displays advise customers to "Take Two, They're Small!"

Wines in Plastic Bottles
PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles have also migrated from other liquid refreshments (like soft drinks and water) to wine. Fetzer and Beringer pioneered the packaging in the U.S., in single-serving 187-ml bottles. The initial markets were places where breakage was an obstacle to using glass, such as airlines and sports arenas.

Standard California varieties are offered, and the wines, in 4-pack cardboard carriers, are available in supermarkets and convenience stores. Convenience is the main selling point. Never one to be left behind, Australia's Hardy Wine Company has launched "Shuttles"—wine in a plastic bottle sealed with a plastic cup perhaps the first to eliminate the need for both a corkscrew and stemware.

Don't look for your Château Mouton-Rothschild to be coming out of a spout, can or carton any time soon. Virtually all of the non-glass, non-cork wine packages are designed for near-term consumption. Their advantages are convenience, safety, portability and economy. But their appeal—hip, youthful and trendy, with the added bonus of eco-friendliness—means you'll be seeing more and more of these new packages in the months and years ahead.

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