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January 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Bleeding-Edge Packaging Tests the Market

Newly public winery, Truett Hurst, vies for attention with assertive design choices

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 
There’s no shortage of drama at Truett Hurst Winery. The six-year-old company went public this summer; one director (entrepreneur William Hambrecht) stepped down, and net sales increased by about 5%, according to its first-quarter financial statement issued June 26, 2013. On top of this, the Healdsburg, Calif.-based winery has launched three radically different packages since October 2012.

At first glance, the innovative packaging does not do much to support a brand that is not a household name among consumers. But the people involved stalwartly believe they are breaking a whole new path for wine marketing.

Beyond cutting-edge, this is “bleeding-edge packaging technology,” winery CEO Phil Hurst said in late October 2013. “Our company has a long history of creating lots of brands,” said Hurst, who previously worked at Marin County’s Winery Exchange, a specialist in private brands.

“We like to create new brands in new categories, when it makes sense.”

Truett Hurst’s top tier of Russian River varietal wines retain traditional packaging. In winemaker Virginia Marie Lambrix’s mid-tier VML line (which retails from $22 for a Pinot Noir rosé to $45 for a Blanc de Noirs sparkler), “You can start to see the evolution,” Hurst said. “They’re very elaborate, creative and fun.”

“We started making and selling wine the traditional way, the same way everybody did,” said Jim Kopp, the national sales and marketing director who previously worked with Kendall-Jackson.

“Everyone talks about the dirt, but no one walks into a wine shop asking for a wine from the Russian River Green Valley on a west-facing slope,” Kopp pointed out. “We started talking about establishing a point of difference. No one was really addressing the needs of the consumers to make it easy for them to get what they wanted.” 

The question, Kopp said, then became “What do they want the wine for?”

Wrapping it for the occasion
    The big branding picture
     

     
    Our meta-question in talking with the people of Truett Hurst was simple: Do all these brands and packages dilute your brand? Marketing chief Jim Kopp thinks not.

    “In the big picture, we’re trying to say: What are the little ways we can make it easier for people who are drinking wine, while encouraging newbies? We’re not hiding our brand name, but to us, each of these wines has a slightly different path. Each brand should stand on its own. And we’re not done yet.”

    Designer Kevin Shaw noted, “We’re already deep into the next idea. My intention is that there will always be something new on the horizon. I feel passionately about trying to push the wine industry to evolve past offering the same confusingly similar 6,000 Pinot Noirs.”

    The new packages are not “necessarily for sale” in Truett Hurst’s two Sonoma County tasting rooms, Mengali said. “But we do display them, as many of our visitors are curious about them.”

    Phil Hurst wants the world to know that “a little company called Truett Hurst is trying to innovate.” But he’ll also keep us guessing. He hinted at “a whole new category” for TH, something too top secret to reveal now, involving “new categories related to wine.”

    J.F.
Brainstorming among the Truett Hurst (TH) “family,” including Lambrix and her husband, designer Kevin Shaw, culminated with the 2012 launch of the Evocative Wrapped Wines, a half-dozen different brands of California-sourced wines targeting specific wine-drinking occasions: barbecue, for instance, or fish. “Anniversary” is a lush, juicy Pinot Noir. “Curious Beasts,” a best-seller, is “red wine for red meat,” according to Kopp.

Safeway supermarkets snapped up the concept; after a second round debuted in 2013, the line currently includes 15 individual SKUs at price points from $12 to $15, according to Kopp. Even on a crowded California supermarket shelf, the wraps are eye-catchers. 

Each wrap is a brand of its own: Nary a trace of Truett Hurst can be found on the outer paper wrapper or the die-cut front and back labels.

Many consumers may never even see the bottle itself. The tear- and water-resistant wrapper can be refrigerated or iced without deterioration. “It will not change in an ice bucket,” Hurst asserted.

The wraps are adorned with individual art commissioned by Shaw and his studio Stranger and Stranger, which maintains studios in New York, N.Y., and London, England. Although each brand and its package remain individual, there is a certain continuity of design.

“It’s entirely deliberate,” Shaw commented. “No one wants ‘corporate wine.’ Each wine in the TH portfolio has been crafted by the same person (Lambrix), but every wine has its own distinct character. That’s how I think about the brands.”

Seattle, Wash.-based WCP Solutions (formerly West Coast Paper) sourced and devised the form-fitting wraps, which fit snugly on the bottles and are further secured by a rubber band. Account manager Mike Groves explained that TH sought his company, a specialist in printed bags and boxes, to manufacture the cylindrical wraps.

“We took it back to our fine paper division, which converted an envelope,” Groves said. Citing a non-disclosure agreement with Truett Hurst, he declined to give more specifics about the process.

The wrap, Paper Tyger envelope stock from Neenah Paper of Atlanta, Ga., is available to the market, Groves said. “It starts out as a standard sheet. It’s a very green stock for what it does; a paper and polylam sandwich: The poly is the ham. It’s very print-friendly: No special inks or equipment are required.” The actual wraps, he said, are exclusive to Truett Hurst.

Squaring up
In October, Truett Hurst introduced “California Square fine Russian River Valley wines.” Sold exclusively through Total Wine & More in its 98 outlets in 15 states on the East Coast, Southern California and Sacramento, Calif., it retails at $19.99.

The California Square package looks familiar but is unique to the wine industry: Like the Cuervo Gold tequila bottle that inspired Kevin Shaw, it’s square. Similar to bottles for olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the dark green bottle is embossed on one side, silk-screened on another, paper labeled on front and back, with a natural cork and polylam capsule.

Even though the square bottles are not lightweights, they are greener than traditional bottles. Their shape reduces the cost of pallet shipping and the size of case shippers.

Square bottles can also save space at home: “Instead of a wine rack, put them on a book shelf,” Kopp suggested.

The proprietary bottles, made in China by a subsidiary of TricorBraun WinePak, were a long time in the making, and Truett Hurst has applied for a patent, which might take three months to a year for approval, Hurst said. “We designed them from the ground up,” he said. “They are difficult to produce, but not expensive. No one has done this in wine.” The original run of bottles, he said, was 20,000-30,000 cases.

Truett Hurst hopes that consumers reuse the unique bottles, possibly for infused oils or vinegars, for instance. Just save the cork, and don’t confuse it with the EVOO.

TricorBraun Winepak packaging consultant Vivian Bolman worked with TH to develop the keepsake bottle. “I do believe this is a first in the wine business,” she said. “Private mold making is one of our specialties. We started discussions about this bottle in late 2011.”

“This bottle weighs 530 grams, fairly normal for a wine bottle,” Bolman said. “The height is also fairly standard. The box size is a little smaller than for a round bottle, but the quality of the box and divider is the same as for our other wine bottles.

“Round bottles are easier to produce than square bottles,” which require more know-how and experience, she added. During production of a square bottle—especially with sharp corners like this one—it is much more difficult to control the glass distribution of the walls. Obtaining an even distribution in the corners of the sidewall and the square heel is very difficult compared to a round bottle. Blowing the glass into these corners and maintaining a minimum glass thickness can be trying.

“Another difficulty is that the label panels are not flat, but instead have a slight bulge to them. This bulge has to be controlled to within a few thousandths of an inch for proper labeling. If the bulge exceeds specifications, the screenprinting on the front panel will cause misprinting, and the paper labels will wrinkle on the side panels.

TricorBraun also supplies the printed shipping cases, so the bottles arrive stateside already in their shippers. As the main bottle supplier for Truett Hurst, “We also sell them about eight to 10 other wine bottles: stock wine bottles for all their projects,” Bolman said.

At the other end of the supply chain, Total Wine & More public relations associate Courtney Rhodes explained that although the chain sells various other TH wines, it is not concerned about lack of brand identification.

“We focus on the wine, not the winery,” she said. In a store with more than 8,000 wine choices, none look like California Square, she explained. Since the national launch in October, California Square has performed well for the chain: The wine was poured in the gifting suite at the Emmy awards, where it was quaffed enthusiastically by thirsty stars.

Extra, extra value
The square bottles may look familiar, but there is no template for Truett Hurst’s newest package, Paper Boy, available through Safeway since October at about $15 for 750ml of blended Paso Robles red wine and a 2012 Mendocino County Chardonnay.

Even Hurst admitted it’s “weird.” It’s also difficult to describe. It is, he said, “the world’s first paper wine bottle: basically a bag-in-box liner encased in recycled cardboard with a screwcap.”

Manufacturer GreenBottle of London, England, sought out Truett Hurst when searching for a winery with “the chutzpah” to introduce the packaging to the North American wine market. GreenBottle claims that the bottle’s carbon footprint is less than one-third of an equivalent glass bottle.

According to Kopp, it is 80% lighter than a standard bottle: Although the bottles are manufactured in the UK and shipped to the U.S., “Every truckload saves 7 tons of shipping weight. The savings in fuel are enormous. Trucks carrying similar quantities of glass bottles average 7 miles per gallon (mpg); they get 8.5 mpg with these packages.”

Bottles are shipped from the assembly plant via ocean freight and routed by mini land bridge to California. This means rail transport of shipping containers from East Coast seaports to California for truck delivery to the Hopland winery. The arrangement permits the winery to control the movement of containers after their arrival in the United States. Transit time door-to-door is about 28 days, according to TH production manager Teresa Mengali.

Paper Boy is designed to tap into and build the growing “on-the-go” wine market. “It’s easy to take that bottle everywhere,” Kopp pointed out. He cited statistics showing that wine drinking is still reserved mostly for special occasions.

Unlike pouches, boxes, single-serve and bag-in-box products already on the market, “The beauty is that this is obviously a bottle of wine. It doesn’t wander too far off from what people understand. We’re trying to capture a niche of people who want a good wine that’s not too cumbersome,” Kopp explained.

Word from the winery
Winemaker Virginia “Ginny” Lambrix should take up juggling. She’s personally responsible for all of Truett Hurst’s 200,000-plus-case production in all its guises. Although the various packages demand adaptation and different types of wine, “I really like it,” she said. “It’s a labor of love.”

She focuses on making wines for each brand’s price-point. “If we show up at party, we take party wines, not $45 Pinot Noir. People buy wines for specific occasio ns,” she pointed out. A supermarket array of 60 Merlots is confusing; TH packaging is designed to simplify the purchasing process.

“Let’s make it easy for people, put out wines that are approachable in their youth. I want to make wines that are enjoyable. Our partnership really loves wine. We want to make it so people can find excellent value for their money.”

Lambrix said she also considers the world her children will inherit. “With Paper Boy, the gloves are off,” she says. “It’s totally recyclable.”

Teresa Mengali guides the company’s non-winemaking case production and on-boarding of its innovative packages. With a strong background in federal compliance, Mengali helps develop brands and labels that are “compliant from day one,” she said. This vital knowledge makes the COLA (certificate of label approval) process much easier down the line.

Bottling lines (or lack thereof) can present last-minute scheduling headaches. Truett Hurst works with Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services for all its packaging—both conventional and innovative, according to Mengali.

“Handling these (Paper Boy) bottles on the filling line is similar to filling PET bottles, as both are lightweight.” Paper labels printed by Napa’s Metro Label California are applied during filling, on a standard rotary labeler. Metro also prints paper labels for the California Square bottles. Quest Industries LLC of Stockton, Calif., did the silk-screened side.

 
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