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Editor's Letter

 

Partisan Packaging and Variation

May 2012
 
by Jim Gordon
 
 
The world of politics makes room for both conservatives and liberals, and so does the world of wine. Since this is the 13th annual Packaging Issue of Wines & Vines, I am talking about conservative and liberal approaches to packaging, of course, not gun rights or gay rights.

In wine packaging terms, conservatives favor glass bottles and natural corks. Liberals prefer bag-in-box, PET plastic, paper cartons, foil pouches and now even ceramic and aluminum bottles, plus screwcaps, synthetic corks and even stoppers made from glass.

The liberals
We picked out two of the most unusual new wine packages for this month’s cover image, because they show extreme contrast in materials, sensibility, target consumers and even shipping weight. What could be more different than a sleek aluminum bottle (or is it a can?) chosen by a startup winery for its light weight and convenience for outdoor settings, and a clay bottle (or is it a jug?) that Henry the VIII might have hoisted along with a leg of venison?

The ceramic bottle that Mer Soleil of Monterey, Calif., bought for its concrete-fermented Silver label Chardonnay caught my eye at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in January. Writer Laurie Daniel followed up with Charlie Wagner II, whose family owns Mer Soleil and Caymus Vineyards, to learn about the challenges of filling, labeling and corking the clay product. Contributing editor Jane Firstenfeld discovered the aluminum Flasq brand package while researching choices that the newest wineries in North America were making regarding packaging.

The conservatives
Besides the Flasq wine, Firstenfeld found that many new wineries were conservative in their choices of packaging elements.  Most of the startups she contacted for our cover story (see “Tradition Wraps New Wines”), stuck with 750ml glass bottles and natural cork or agglomerated cork closures. They did, however, specify somewhat unusual tapered bottles, clear bottles and unique label art. One operation, a meadery, used a beeswax capsule to keep the honey theme, well, buzzing.

It could be that starting a winery is such a risky venture in itself that these new vintners wanted their packaging choices to be conservative as a way of balancing their risk. There is no question that glass and cork are good, solid conservative choices.

Glass bottles and natural corks, of course, remain popular with an overwhelming majority of North American wineries, and also with North American wine consumers. The latest survey numbers I could find from the Glass Packaging Institute reveal that 98% of consumers picked glass as the type of container they prefer when buying or drinking wine.

Thought-provoking study
It’s a pleasure to have another contribution from Britain-based wine science journalist Jamie Goode in this issue. His piece, “Major Study Examines Bottle Variation,” covers packaging, too, but not from the design angle. This is the first published report based on an ambitious study of bottle variation conducted in 2010, commissioned by DIAM closures and organized by Cube Communications.

Goode holds a Ph.D. in plant biology, has authored two books about wine and writes for UK national newspaper The Sunday Express. For this article he digested an impressive collection of data from the bottle variation study on 30 of the top-selling wine brands in the United States. No wines with DIAM closures were included in the study, and in fact DIAM did nothing to promote the findings, so there’s very little room to claim this was a self-serving project.

It does raise serious questions about the overall state of bottle variation in wine production. Using a combination of lab tests and sensory evaluation, the study examined 18 bottles of each wine for various attributes—especially total SO2, free SO2 and TCA. You will want to read the article and look at the charts to digest it all.

Wines & Vines is publishing this report because we think it’s important for the industry to take the subject of bottle variation seriously. It always has been and still is a common reason for consumers to reject a brand. The experience of one bad bottle can cancel out several good bottles in a consumer’s mind, and the winery almost never gets any feedback about it.

The bottle variation study is far from conclusive, but as one of the experts who reviewed Goode’s article said, “Any decent groundbreaking research raises more questions than it answers.  What’s wrong with that?” As always, we welcome your feedback; you can email me directly at jim@winesandvines.com.

 
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