Among the many ways the novel coronavirus outbreak has affected the wine and hospitality industries is the rejuvenation of the 375-milliliter bottle of wine. Easily shippable for virtual tastings and a sensible substitute for by-the-glass service, the small-format bottle is especially suited to pandemic life.
“Most people don’t want to open three or four [standard] bottles of wine at home to do a traditional tasting, so the half bottles have been a very nice alternative,” says Laura Kirk Lee, vice president of sales and marketing for Knights Bridge Winery. “We find that our guests enjoy the opened bottles with dinner after the virtual tasting.”
Rachel Martin, vintner/owner of Oceano Wines, sent half-bottles of her Chardonnay along with recipes and videos as “care packages” to members of The Supper Club in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin. “In St Louis, I hosted an Oceano virtual tasting block party where we sent a couple of cases of half bottles to residents, and they distributed them to their friends and family,” she says.
Frank Pagliaro, owner of Frank’s Wine in Wilmington, Delaware, increased his selection of half bottles by 60% to accommodate virtual tastings. Suzie Kukaj-Curovic, director of public relations for Freixenet Mionetto USA, says smaller-format sales have increased, though modestly, at less than 10%.
Will this enthusiasm continue once customers regain greater access to winery tasting rooms and in-store retail tastings?
“We had started offering virtual tastings before Covid-19 because we wanted to stay connected,” says James Blanchard of Blanchard Family Wines. “We’ve been selling a lot of 375s, and I think our virtual tastings will continue for some time.”
Other wineries express similar sentiments about continuing online tastings even after tasting rooms reopen. At a recent webinar sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank, winery consultant Paul Leary emphasized the importance for producers to maintain contacts forged during the pandemic. “The worst thing we can do is to go back to our old ways,” he says. “You now have the opportunity to go directly into the customers’ dining rooms.”
Wines in cans, another 375-ml option, have also grown in popularity during the shutdown. It raises the issue of whether some wineries will see half bottles as a suitable alternative for consumers.
“The question is whether the consumer trend will trade down to value over premium wines, like the previous recession, and what will premium wines do [to] make up sales—reduce price or seek alternate packaging in 375 ml,” says Todd Nelson, director of marketing for Winesellers, Ltd. “I don’t know if this kind of trend to smaller formats will translate very much for the high-end premium.”
Rob McMillan, EVP for the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, points out that sales of half-bottles increased 20% in 2019 while standard 750-ml bottles declined slightly. This growth trend continued into the first quarter of 2020. In his annual report, McMillan gave another reason for increased interest in premium 375-ml bottles.
“As boomers retire, they will join millennials as frugal consumers and change their consumption and spending,” he says. “But as any wine lover will tell you, it’s hard to drink good wine and go backward to lesser-quality wine.”
It is still too early for most restaurants, many of which have pivoted to takeout and delivery sales, to reorder wines of any size. Nevertheless, wineries have begun to order additional half bottles for upcoming bottling runs. “We are getting more requests than normal for 375-ml bottles,” says TJ Hauser, president of Hauser Packaging. “It’s too early to tell if wineries are using them as a stopgap for virtual tastings or whether 375s will become a more permanent trend in the industry.”
Jason Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard partner and general manager, has decided to give the format a second look.
“Before the pandemic, we saw a sustained decrease in the interest in half-bottles, to the point that we’ve been considering eliminating them,” he says. “But for virtual tastings, they’re really ideal. It’s definitely opened up new connection possibilities with our customers, but will people still want to do virtual tastings once they can visit wineries again? Right now, we’re in a holding pattern.”
Instead of eliminating the format, Haas says Tablas Creek will be reordering the same numbers of half-bottles for the next bottling period in case the resurrected interest becomes permanent.