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Packaging Strategies for Wine Pros

UC Davis event offers tips for appealing to customers

by Jane Firstenfeld
Emphasizing the winery’s namesake stone during its label redesign helped Garnet Vineyards’ packaging become more eye-catching.
Davis, Calif.—A “line extension” of the University of California, Davis’ Wine Executive Program, “Wine Packaging Strategy: Decide, Design, Impress” provided a rich mix of senior winery executives, marketing specialists and suppliers with an intensive short-course June 4.

Organizers Wendy Beecham and Angela Stopper of the university’s Graduate School of Management emphasized their intentions to create an “unconference”: an interactive discussion that included group brainstorming sessions.

Keynote speakers Vivian Barad and Judy Guo from the international design consultancy IDEO, suggested that when it comes to researching your market, trailing customers who are shopping can provide a glimpse of real-life behaviors. “Consumers can tell stories about what they choose and why, but these don’t always match with their real actions,” Barad noted.

In the marketplace, “Food and drink is an emotionally laden area. People will present themselves as their ‘best self,’” she observed, suggesting, for instance, that self-proclaimed “healthy eaters” may have pantries stuffed with junk food.

Meanwhile Guo, a materials and manufacturing engineer, shared examples of future packaging trends from industries beyond wine:

• Customizable wine offerings.

• Touch-code labeling that allows touch-code screens to provide customized information (now in use on certain prescription drugs).

• Bluetooth labels: Identify product characteristics on retail shelves.

• Printed electronics: Electro-luminescent ink, wireless charging units in retail shelving.

• 3D printing.

• Materiology: Ever-expanding available materials such as consumable packaging.

• Self-activated expiration dates.

• Continued development of sustainable packaging.

“Design for the top and bottom line,” Guo stressed. Packages that challenge consumers will not help your bottom line, she said, citing designs for square 1-gallon milk jugs that confused end-users, and a winning, user-friendly paint can design with a screwcap lid.

Working with research
Christian Miller, director of research at Full Glass Research, said it is extremely difficult for individuals—even those who work in marketing or design—to predict consumer reactions to package changes.

“Research can inform the design process and make it more likely to succeed,” he said. “You can then test designs to pick the best one and to avoid disasters.”

He added, “It is risky to make decisions between packages based on a very small number of consumers.…Often a quantitative test is preferable.”

Why do we buy anything?
Jeffrey Slater, director of global marketing for Nomacorc LLC, posed that meaningful question, facilitating a panel dubbed “Stories From the Front Line.”

“Packaging is deeply emotional, something that we cannot really explain. Rarely can people describe what draws them to a particular package. How would Steve Jobs have gotten into the wine business?” he pondered. As with Apple products, “It ain’t about the features: It’s about the experience.”

Since the late 1990s, consumers have relied on the Internet for everything, including viewing packages, said Patrick Merrill, cofounder/general partner with Merrill Research

Perhaps the voices of the Internet have contributed to the success of alternative wine packaging in the past decade. “Skepticism of alternative packaging has been replaced with acceptance,” Merrill noted. Where previously the most knowledgeable wine drinkers were most dubious, “Now they are the most accepting” of screwcaps, synthetic cork, bag-in-box, especially with white wines under $30 per bottle, “a little higher” for reds, he said.

Consumers of higher end wines also have embraced wine on tap and keg wines in on-premise locales. “They perceive it as value-positive, something they can try, or for assurance of freshness.”

Packaging is 99% art and 1% science, Merrill said. “If you have a physical winery or vineyard, showing that in your graphics demonstrates it’s not a fantasy brand, that there is a ‘there there.’”

He recommended using back labels or other packaging space to explain what the wine tastes like. “Use your customers’ vocabulary. For a $10 wine, you might say ‘fruity and light.’” For a pricier wine, specify the fruit or spice flavors.

Voices of experience
Corey Beck is GM/director of winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County. “It’s a winery run by an artist,” he said—and a very successful artist at that, who is willing to invest virtually limitless financial resources to get what he wants.

Beck described a 2009 decision to elevate packaging for Coppola’s “Claret” Cabernet Sauvignon. Coppola wanted to recreate the decorative netting he’d seen on bottles of wine from Rioja, sent his team on a quest to obtain the netting and the means to apply it. “Turns out it was hand-applied in a cellar in Rioja,” Beck recalled—not a practical solution for a wine that sold 150,000 cases in 2009.

Eventually, the winery bought two custom-built netting machines at $250,000 per unit and replaced the Bordeaux-style bottle with a straight- sided Burgundian bottle to simplify application. Since the re-launch, Claret sales have grown to 325,000 cases.

“You never say ‘can’t’ to Francis,” Beck said.

Not every winery has the deep pockets of the famous director. Alison Crowe, director of winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, discussed the process of rebranding Garnet after it was acquired from Napa’s Saintsbury.

Originally, she said, “We wanted to preserve the brand equity,” with a design that retained the colors and traditional format without infringing on the Saintsbury label. When it hit retail shelves, however, the package literally disappeared. “And most buyers didn’t know or care about the Saintsbury connection.”

For the second iteration, Plata focused on the brand name, Garnet. With the crimson gemstone front and center in all its faceted glory, the brighter, bolder package popped on the shelves.

Rules are meant to be broken
Bill Leigon, CEO of Jamieson Ranch Winery, spoke as a member of a panel facilitated by Wines & Vines senior correspondent Paul Franson.

Leigon, whose resume includes a 12-year stint at Hahn Family Wines characterized the “natural packaging hierarchy” for wines, top to bottom, as “cork, screwcap, Tetra pack, Bag-in-Box and cans.”

The bar to more acceptance is not the consumer, but the gatekeepers of the three-tier distribution system. Strive for congruity throughout your marketing materials, he said.

A leader in alternative packaging today, Jordan Kivelstate is founder/CEO Free Flow Wines, which supplies high-end keg wines to on-premise accounts. Wineries that choose alternative packaging, he stressed, “need to make a commitment.

He cited the introduction of screwcaps to mainstream table wine. “When screwcaps came to the U.S., they aimed at high-volume brands. WRONG! You’ve got to start at the top.”

More to come
Wines & Vines will launch its first packaging conference, W&VPACK on Aug. 20 at 500 First St. (formerly Copia) in Napa. The daylong event will include a trade show as well as practical applications in wine packaging: What works, what doesn’t, how it serves wine sales and more. For details and registration, visit

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