Alternative wine packaging has made nary a crack in glass bottles’ domination of the wine industry. Bag-in-box, PET, pouches and aluminum options appear to have swallowed some of the extra volume of increased wine production and consumption worldwide, but glassmakers maintain their traditional grasp on most wines at every price point.
That’s the take-away message we heard from top executives of eight leading North American bottle suppliers at the end of 2012. Their success reflects both the confidence of winemakers, marketers and the consuming public as well as supplier response to environmental concerns and ongoing innovations in design.
What makes glass green?
A visit to the Tracy, Calif., glass-manufacturing plant of Perrysburg, Ohio-based O-I (formerly Owens-Illinois) provided a lesson in the “endless recyclability” of glass bottles. O-I, according to Sean Gallagher, VP of sales for the wine category, operates 81 plants in 21 countries, 159 furnaces and 444 glass-forming machines internationally. O-I produces some 40 billion bottles for all sorts of products every year in the United States. (The Tracy plant once concentrated on ketchup.)
“We are the largest glass-bottle manufacturer in the U.S. and supply glass to nine of the 10 largest domestic wineries,” Gallagher said. Minimum wine bottle orders are around 1 million cases per year: According to WinesVinesDATA, only 30 wineries in North America currently produce that volume.
Looming like a monolith in the bland rural outskirts of Tracy, in the San Joaquin Valley east of San Francisco, the plant receives mountains of crushed glass cullet from Northern California recyclers every day.
Every kilogram of cullet used in the manufacturing process replaces 1.2 kg of virgin raw materials that would otherwise need to be extracted from the earth: limestone, soda ash and sand.
Mixed with these fresh components at the plant, the cullet is heated in furnaces at temperatures of 2,800°F. When it’s attained a honey-like texture, it’s funneled in molten, glowing “gobs” into cylindrical molds to create an inverted bottle shape. Each gob is lopped off by strong jaws of metal alloy (designed to withstand the heat).
The newly formed “bottles” are upended and moved into machines that mechanically reproduce the traditional, 2,000-year-old glass-blowing process, delimited by forming machines, then slowly cooled by reducing air temperatures to 900°F.
“The inside is still hot,” said plant manager Dan Armagost. Reheated in “lehrs” to a uniform temperature to anneal the glass, the bottles are then coated with a proprietary protective scratch-preventer.
Automatically inspected for 17 quality benchmarks at points from gob to completion, any bottle that doesn’t measure up goes right back to the cullet pile and is recycled to begin its life anew.
It’s a satisfying image for those who enjoy the cheerful clank of glass dropping into those blue recycling bins. Not only does recycling curtail the plunder of raw materials, use of recycled cullet makes the manufacturing process itself more eco-friendly.
Remelting cullet requires lower temperatures and less time than making new glass from scratch, hence reducing demands for fuel to heat the furnaces, Armagost explained.
“For every 10% increase in cullet used in our manufacturing process, energy costs are reduced by 2%-3%; less raw materials (are) consumed, and the life of glass furnaces are extended,” said Andrea Laughlin of wine sector marketing at Verallia (formerly Saint-Gobain), which has plants in key winegrowing areas worldwide and claims to be North America’s largest wine bottle producer.
The percentage of recycled cullet is similar for most of the wine bottle manufacturers. “Use of recycled glass depends on the production color and type. For wine bottles, we can reach about 40%-50% recycled glass,” said Teri Kisle at Bruni Glass Packaging, a distributor for high-end European producers.
“Each factory and each color has different amounts recycled,” commented Erica Harrop, founder/president of Napa’s Global Package LLC, which offers custom bottles produced around the world. “I am quite sure 30%-50% or more is recycled. It is a cost-saving measure and has been part of the glassmaking formula for a very long time.”
Domestically, Verallia averages 50%-60% cullet. “The U.S. has laws that require specific quantities of recycled glass. Importing from Europe, Mexico and Asia, recycled content is not as easy to confirm,” according to Andrew Bottene, senior VP for distributor TricorBraun WinePak.
John Shaddox, president of the U.S. Container Division for Vitro, which manufactures wine bottles in Mexico for distribution in the U.S. and Canada, cited an industry average for recycled materials in wine glass “probably around 30%,” a figure he suggests could be boosted by “better recovery rates from consumers and government associations.”
When it comes to recycled material, M.A. Silva USA is a singular holdout. President Neil Foster explained, “Due to winery requests for the best and cleanest glass, we have taken a course whereby our wine bottles do not use recycled glass in order to avoid possible contamination. We did look into this and found the cost savings to be minimal, due to the cost associated with testing and color separation.”
Recycling is not the only way bottle makers have become greener. “Saverglass is reducing its environmental impact and its use of natural resources in different ways,” said Franck Collet, newly installed president of Saverglass Inc. Collet touts “installation of rainwater-recovery tanks to reduce consumption of drinking water; saving energy by using regenerators in our furnaces; reduction of air emissions with low-NOx burners, installation of electro-filters, gradual changeover to natural gas,” as additional eco-friendly decisions.
Saverglass makes wine bottles at three plants in France and is currently installing a factory in Dubai to manufacture its luxury bottles. Collet said that overseas shipping brings an “optimization of transportation. Shipping containers of bottles by sea between France and San Francisco is better than shipping the same containers by ground from New York to Los Angeles,” he claimed.
Has lightweighting leveled off?
| Trione bucks the trend
|Galloping horses on the label evoke the thundering hoof print of the super-heavy bottle Trione Vineyards & Winery uses to package its high-end Alexander Valley varietal wines. The winery was launched in 2005, when the Trione family, which has owned and managed Sonoma County vineyards for more than three decades, decided to go vertical.
Under the guidance of winemaker Scot Covington, Trione produces some 4,500 cases per year of Pinot Noir, Primitivo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay wines, retailing between $30 and $40 per bottle.
The package, designed by Jeffrey Caldewey, originally was intended to be something simple, along lines of respected Russian River producer Rochioli Winery.
“It morphed into something more meaningful to us,” Covington said of the design process. “The horses on the label, the quasi-bank-note style are intended to convey a masculine elegance,” he said. The original winemaker at Trione, Covington had gained experience in the industry and the neighborhood at Sonoma-Cutrer, Marimar Torres and Pellegrini wineries.
Trione, Covington said, “has always planned to do the very best that can be produced in the county.” This commitment led to the winery’s packaging. It could be considered old fashioned: As much of the industry was transitioning to lightweight bottles, Trione opted for heavyweights from Saverglass.
“The weight of the glass is important,” Covington said, “not the least because it is protecting the wine from physical damage and light.”
Equally traditionally, Trione is committed to natural cork. “It’s the best closure for wine,” he asserted, "with technology developing the ability to analyze for TCA." Still, he said, he hedges his bets and doesn’t limit his cork needs to a single supplier: Recalling a TCA disaster at a previous employer, Covington likes to keep his options open. Capsules also are heavyweight tin.
The majority of Trione wines are sold direct-to-consumer (90% per WinesVinesDATA), but a small percentage is sold through distribution in California and out of state. “We want it to say ‘substance,’” Covington said of the package.
Trione’s heaviest bottle is for Cabernet Sauvignon, weighing in at more than 1,000 grams (35.2 ounces). Since 750ml of wine weighs only about 26.5 ounces, Covington observed, “You never even know when the bottle’s empty. You could use it as a weapon.” Or for arm curls.
The package, Covington believes, represents Alexander Valley’s old-fashioned, Wild West style. “We are trying to elevate the reputation of Alexander Valley to that of Napa,” he said.
As winemakers began marketing their sustainability and environmentalism in the past decade, lighter weight wine bottles lost their low-end connotations. Bottle producers began to offer more—and more attractive—bottles resembling heavyweight luxury packaging, but without the excess poundage that increased incoming and outgoing case-shipping costs and inflated greenhouse emissions.
Lighter weight bottles are here to stay, but their use may have leveled out. Virtually every manufacturer now offers attractive, lightweight bottle options, but the trend, most agreed, has plateaued.
Verallia introduced its trademarked ECO Series in 2009. Now called Ecove, Laughlin said, “These bottles average 15% less weight than bottles of their comparable standard designs, yet still have the same shelf appeal. They also have the same wall thicknesses as the original bottles, maintaining the same quality performance standards, and therefore becoming our new standard bottles.”
“In 2010, more than half of U.S. wineries moved to lighter weight bottles,” Gallagher reported. “O-I’s Lean+Green wine bottle product line caters to this consumer preference. At the moment, the most popular-priced wines are in bottles ranging from 14 to 16.5 ounces (empty).”
While the move toward lightweighting may have been led by wineries, consumers have accepted these products without question. After all, an empty case of 1-pound bottles is so much easier to tote to the recycling bin.
“There was a trend to use lightweight bottles for various reasons, including carbon footprint and cost savings. That has stabilized as most wineries have opted to use lighter weight bottles for volume wines and medium to heavyweight traditional glass for their high-end, limited-production wines,” said Foster at M.A. Silva.
Sales for lightweight bottles have flattened,” he reported. Currently, M.A. Silva’s typical weight for a 750ml wine bottle varies from 500 to 700 grams (17.6 to 24.6 ounces). “Most wineries are working to maintain the profile of the bottle and have gone to lighter versions.
“Lightweighting of containers has stabilized over the past couple of years, with the standard industry bottles now averaging around 14 ounces of glass, but there has not been a new wave of conversion from the heavier shapes,” confirmed Shaddox at Vitro. Noting the recent uptick of premium-range wines, he suggested, “These wines have typically been sold in heavier containers, so we might see some people returning to these bottles.”
On the other hand, a ruling by the Canadian government could have the opposite effect. “The Canadian requirement to have bottles available under 400 grams (14.1 ounces) has impacted our business,” said Bottene at TricorBraun. “We have bottles available that meet the Canadian market requirement.
“It’s funny. Customers will call us to look for more unique shapes at the 400-gram weight: That weight is very limiting to uniqueness in shape,” he said. While “the trend is still to look toward lightweight, ecologically friendly bottles, there are emerging brands looking to get back to the heavier, unique bottles and custom designs.”
At Bruni, which is well known for unique bottle designs and shapes, Kisle estimated the average weight for a 750ml bottle is 450 grams. “But even we go from 390-gram lightweight up to 1,200 grams (42.3 ounces).” She stressed that, despite concern for weight, bottles must meet the same strict quality standards as heavier traditional bottles.
Saverglass, bottle maker for traditional prestige wine brands including Roederer Cristal, Château Margaux, Romanée-Conti and “the great names in Cognac,” Collet said, “couldn’t remain insensitive to a marketing evolution that became gradually steeped in environmental concerns. Here in Napa, we were the first to express this important need. In Australia and South Africa, ‘green pressure’ is also very strong.”
In 2010, Saverglass released Eco-Design, a range of bottles for wines and spirits with relatively light glass weight “while maintaining the requirement for design quality.…The challenge is to conceive models that are sufficiently distinctive and qualitative without a glass overload,” Collet said. Saverglass offers 750ml bottles ranging from 500 to 1,200 grams.
Global Package’s customers also skew to the higher end, but Harrop emphasized, “Bottles at lighter weight are just an intelligent thing to do. However, sacrificing style for practicality is not required. Being aware of the choices available is a smart option, and we find our customer base is very aware of how to save money intelligently without giving up an elegant image. I think that now we discuss weight less, but it is present in any discussion.”
Shapes, sizes, colors and custom décor
Whatever your ideal weight, bottle décor is always an option. As detailed in our October 2012 issue, aftermarket options abound. Bottle makers can provide built-in decoration.
At O-I’s Tracy plant, Armagost showed off a prototype wine bottle. Its working title is “vortex,” after the Miller Lite beer bottle with interior grooves that supposedly enhance carbonation. The wine bottle is lined with a wave-like moirée pattern molded on the interior (photo on page 38). Neither commissioned nor yet adopted by a wine company, the clear glass version virtually cries to be filled with a lovely rosé wine.
Realistically, wine bottles are available in a standard range of colors from clear to amber and various hues of green and blue (for Rieslings). “Colors are not yet a big option for change, because the production quantities make this option almost unavailable,” Harrop explained.
“However, color-coating a bottle would be a good idea. Not many in the wine industry choose to step out of the norm,” she said.
Harrop, meanwhile, is enthusiastic about unique bottles. “The MBS bottle or bottle decanter was designed by a famous Spanish chef, who believes wines can be decanted from the bottle. He worked with one of our major suppliers to create this innovation. What a great marketing concept to teach consumers about wine and its natural behavior,” she said.
“More than price, our customers are looking for the best quality,” Collet said. To stand out, Saverglass offers “a whole range of patented original bottles as well as infinite possibilities for decoration and finishing.” This can help clients reduce
R & D budgets when launching new models or brands, he said.
Saverglass, he said, constantly optimizes glass-decoration processes, now using water-soluble varnishes and “totally eradicating heavy metals involved in enamels and avoiding solvents” commonly used in coating and polyurethane varnishes. The company also introduced “Select Colors,” with a selection of eight tinted glasses, through the installation of coloring feeders.
The industry has seen remarkable increases in terms of quality performance and ease of application for anti-scuff coatings, Kisle said. “In terms of quality performance and ease of application, latest developments to coating provide high performance for extreme transportation and handling requirements” with tailor-made slip angles and excellent scratch resistance.
M.A. Silva’s Foster explained, “Most of the advances are in technology, in the areas of computer programming, laser dimensional analysis packaging automation, coating dispersion, (which) have resulted in consistent, quality bottles at stable pricing.
“Most wineries are responsive to the end-point user,” Foster said. When it comes to size and shape, wine bottles remain remarkably similar, not only because of government regulations (anyone remember the “fifth”?), but also “to satisfy their consumers’ requests for the bottles to fit in wine racks, wine storage cellars, etc. Wineries that are primarily direct-to-consumer and restaurants choose bottles that will stand out but remain traditional in appearance.”
The precise demands of bottling lines are another limiting factor in changing to diverse bottle sizes/shapes.
“One famous winery used a very unconventional shape, and it failed,” Tricor Braun’s Bottene recalled. “There are very few wineries capable of pulling off an untraditional style or shape. Most likely this is due to the limitations of the filling process. Anything in the wine industry has to be able to make it through a traditional process of filling. To do this for a unique shape is problematic.”
Only two packages have materially affected wine bottle suppliers, according to our sources: the supersized 3-liter or 5-liter bag-in-box, (who buys gallon jugs?) and the mini 187ml bottles served on airlines (now virtually all PET plastic).
“PET has become the packaging of choice for 187ml airline wines. It makes sense from the perspective of packaging weight and convenience,” Bottene acknowledged.
Screwcap: everybody does it
In terms of wine bottles, the screwcap debate is so 2002. Every producer tools bottles for screwcaps.
The Saverglass catalogue contains more than 20 screwcap-fitted items for “extra premium” and “standard premium” bottles in Bordeaux, Burgundy and flute shapes. O-I’s 2013 product line includes 25 different Stelvin-finished bottles, accounting for about 40% of production. Screwcap bottles account for about 15% of overall bottle sales at M.A. Silva, a noted supplier of premi um corks.
“Screwcaps are becoming more popular all the time. Each year, the percentage increases,” according to Bottene.
Ancient and traditional, the glass-packaging industry clearly stands strong, continuing to evolve as a partner in response to the wine business and its changing market.