Growing & Winemaking


What Bottle Weight and Label Copy Convey

October 2017
by Andy Starr

If it seems like the use of heavy bottles is increasing, that’s because it’s true. Rich DuBois, product manager for M.A. Silva and one of the industry’s most knowledgeable packaging professionals, told me just that. During the recession in 2010-11, the use of eco-friendly lightweight bottles (those weighing 450 grams or less at 750 ml capacity) peaked. Since then, the use of heavier glass (600 grams or more) has increased. Wineries that have moved to heavier glass are staying with it, because it’s working for them.

To categorize glass by weight and cost, DuBois gives this guidance:
Eco-bottles: less than 450 grams
Standard 25 mm push up: 525-550 grams
Upscale: 600-700 grams, with prices starting 30% higher than standard-weight bottles.
Luxury: 800-1,200 grams, with prices starting 70% higher than standard-weight bottles.

A number of respected wine writers have written about their distaste for heavy bottles, citing the difficulty in lifting a case, pouring for guests, not fitting into standard wine racks, as well as the lack of environmental concern associated with heavy wine bottles. 

Heavy bottles do impress critic Robert Parker. Here is his review of a well-regarded Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that retails for $150. The wine “offers blueberry, blackberry and cassis fruit and subtle wood, licorice and lavender in the background. This full-bodied, rich, beautifully pure, textured and complex wine needs another 4-5 years of cellaring, but it should keep for 25-30 years.” He added an additional comment: “Big changes seem to be underway, at least in packaging, at (this winery). Big, heavy bottles and a strikingly beautiful, engraved paper label...are impressive.” The wine received 96 points and is sold out.

The choice to use heavy bottles serves no quality or functionality purpose. It doesn’t make the wine taste better or worse. Glass production consumes a lot of energy, very often using “brown” energy sources. The use of recycled material doesn’t save much energy, as bottles are crushed and remelted rather than refilled. We know there is an increase in cost and greenhouse gases for shipping heavy bottles to the winery and shipping case goods out. Lighter bottles are easier to lift, move and pour.

In addition, wholesale and direct-to-consumer shipping costs increase as well. A luxury bottle weighing 300 grams more than an upscale one will cost $11 per case more to ship from California to Chicago.

Being green is at least a part of every winery’s story, so why use heavy glass? To answer that question I turned to Tim Hanni, who has spent 35 years studying and lecturing around the world on the topics of flavor balancing, perception and sensory sciences, wine and culinary history. Hanni is the author of Why You Like the Wines You Like and is recognized for introducing the concept of “umami” to the wine industry nearly 30 years ago. 

Bottle as metaphor
Asked to offer up an explanation for why certain consumer groups buy wines in heavy bottles, Hanni connected work done in different disciplines. He referred to the work of Dr. George Lakoff, a neurolinguist, as well as Dr. Michael O’Mahony at the University of California, Davis, and Benoit Rousseau at the Davis-based Institute for Perception, who are specialists in the field of the psycho-sensory phenomena.

In his book, Metaphors We Live By, Dr. Lakoff proposes that metaphors provide connections between things that can override reality. “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but in thought and action. Metaphor is not just a matter of language—that is, of mere words. On the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” Lakoff argues that by the time we are 4 to 5 years old, we have several hundred metaphors wired into our brains. Up is good. “Things are looking up!” Down is bad. “You look down today.” Sweet is good. My son was a “sweet little guy,” though he was never actually coated in sugar. 
Hanni uses this to explain that in general, “Human beings tend to create metaphors that drive our behaviors, attitudes and preferences. With wine, people will argue what metaphor system is best.” Is it the use of descriptive words as a metaphor, like cherry and raspberry vs. leather and chocolate to describe a Zinfandel? Numerical 100-point-scale metaphors have great power in certain segments. A 94-point wine is more desirable than an 86-pointer, yet these numerical metaphors tell us nothing about the wine’s attributes, or why one might enjoy it. Is it sweet or dry, tannic or not, etc. But if it gets 94 points, it will sell for $50 or more, and if it gets only 86, well, good luck. 

Back to glass bottles. Hanni believes “serious wine,” “big wine” and “heavy wine” are simply additional metaphors. Serious, big, heavy wines go into serious, big, heavy bottles. The irony is that what we call “heavy” is inverse to reality. “Light” sweet wines have a higher specific gravity than “heavy” dry wines.

Hanni is arguing that the product experience must directly support the metaphor. If it does, then you are very likely to get a repeat purchase. He used an example of a winery whose wine was promised to be heavy and smooth. They followed through by using a very heavy bottle, combined with a “felt-like” smooth label. 

Then we moved on to labels and label copy, where the metaphor is articulated. Hanni believes the wine industry sometimes uses metaphors that border on delusion. Examples: To be worthy, wines must have a high numerical score from a leading reviewer; serious wine is dry and sweet wine is for “beginners;” or that Spaniards only drink dry Rioja, yet the national drink is actually sweet sangria—wine mixed with fresh fruit juice. 

Hanni believes brand owners must focus on their messages. Consumers “only see what you guide them to see,” he notes. “No matter how you try to metaphorically explain the flavor, pairing, etc., you should think of what will make them take it home. Make it personal.” For example, not every consumer cares about origin and provenance, but a small sub-section cares a lot about those. Make sure you are marketing to them, because “if you are marketing to those who don’t care, you are spinning your wheels. They just don&rs quo;t care.” 

Hanni warns against unwittingly telling people to avoid your wine with your back label copy. “Yes, your Riesling goes well with Asian and Thai food. What if the consumer isn’t serving that food tonight? Why limit a wine to picnic status, when you can enjoy it by the fireplace in the winter?” No matter how you try to metaphorically explain the flavor, pairing, etc., you should think of what will make a consumer pick the wine up and take it home with them, enjoy it with the food they love, and buy it again. Make it personal. 

Andis Wines: label copy for consumers
Jenae Plasse is the COO for Andis Wines, in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, Calif., and has worked in the industry for 10 years. Andis’ first wines were made in 2008 production has since grown to 7,000 cases priced between $19 and $29 per bottle with two reserve lots at $38 and $50.

Andis uses a standard-weight bottle instead of heavy glass. Plasse explains, “We are not in a region known for $200 bottles.” They feel it’s important to match the varietal with the expected bottle shape. They looked at light-weight “eco” bottles but found that these didn’t matter to their consumers.

“It’s a challenge writing labels. There are trade-offs based on who will be reading it to make a buying decision.” If it’s sommeliers and restaurants, they tend to have affluent clientele, so they want to know about the vineyards, appellation, growing and winemaking techniques, whereas a consumer wants information about flavors, aromas and food pairing. Will the wine go with what they are cooking? To assist in the challenge of marketing to both groups, Andis produces sales materials for sommeliers, so the label can focus on the consumer. Andis Wines made for the tasting room or wine club only have purely consumer-oriented label copy. 

Broman Cellars: small lots, understated packaging
Bob Broman is the owner and winemaker at Broman Cellars in Napa Valley. He runs it with daughter Lisa Broman Augustine, who manages sales and marketing. Broman has been making wines since 1973, having worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and others before starting his own label in 1994. The winery currently produces 1,300 cases of four wines priced from $24 to $85 per bottle. About 40% is sold direct to consumers.

Broman seeks “clean and simple elegance” for his packaging, putting the wines in 640-gram bottles from TricorBraun WinePak. He notes that the industry has standardized bottle shapes and colors based on traditions, e.g., Chardonnay always goes into dead-leaf green Burgundy bottles, so “the only thing you can do to differentiate is make it bigger and heavier.” 

He has an interesting historical perspective. Originally, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 was bottled in a traditional straight-sided, punted claret bottle. The wine was sold based on quality and reputation. Heavy, tapered bottles were not common back then.

Broman’s price point is not that of a cult wine, so the bottle weight reflects that. At cult prices of $100 or more, the weight of glass may have cachet to it. Lisa Broman notes at that price point, “It’s all about image, like the car you drive.” The Bromans stay close to their DtC consumers and have heard appreciative comments from them for not using luxury-weight glass: that they can lift and carry a case from their office (where UPS ships it) to their car and then their home; that the bottles fit their wine rack or wine fridge. 

Broman’s label copy and graphics continue the clean, simple elegance. The front label has the logo, brand and vintage. The back label repeats the front and adds the number of cases made to inform the consumer that these are handmade wines. An 800 number is added, but no blend descriptions or food pairings. Augustine notes that at their price point, “people don’t care if it says it goes with steak” on the back label. She will, however, suggest food pairings in person. Broman recommends that you work with a true “wine label” company, one that knows about wet strength, bubbling and other factors.

Frey Vineyards: green to the bone
Paul Frey is winemaker for Frey Vineyards, America’s largest producer of sulfite-free, organic wines. Frey produces roughly 245,000 cases under the Frey and Pacific Redwood brands, ranging from $9 to $48 per bottle. 

Sustainability permeates everything Frey does. Not only is the wine certified organic, Frey asks all vendors about their use of wind and solar power vs. coal, natural gas or nuclear power. They want to know if the glass is not only light in weight, but did it travel half-way around the world to get to the winery? Was the glass made overseas using coal, or was it produced using more advanced methods locally?

“We try to source as locally and as light as possible to minimize carbon footprint,” he said. Frey uses 400-gram bottles from Gallo Glass in Modesto, Calif., a company that says it purchases (and diverts from landfills) 175,000 tons of recycled glass annually. 

He has seen no bottling line issues relative to regular weight glass, and the trade has praised the winery’s green commitments. Consumers understand and appreciate the dedication to a small carbon footprint.

We did a little math. A fully loaded truck holds 40,000 pounds of wine in eco-weight packaging, or 1,120 cases (20 pallets multiplied by 56 cases per pallet) times 35.7 pounds per case. 

Shifting from the eco to upscale bottle category would add 200 grams per bottle and 5.3 pounds per case, making each case weigh 41 pounds. Filled with upscale-weight bottles, the truck is now carrying just 976 cases, or 13% less wine, and more than 2.5 tons more glass. 

Our conversation turned toward the future of green energy and sustainability beyond the wine industry, with Frey referring to the work of environmental author Tony Seba. Silicon Valley is making fossil fuels obsolete. Deutsche Bank notes that in 2017, solar energy is now at grid parity (the price utilities charge for energy) for 80% of world markets. By 2030 the cost of solar with a battery pack will be so low that it will make economic sense for all vehicles to be electric. Gigawatts of wind and solar energy are being installed annually. Even Dubai is putting in solar power plants.

When our energy grid goes completely green, we can make bottles from clean energy sources without creating excess greenhouse gases. So all bottles will be green, regardless of weight. Until then, do what works for you. But if you insist on including pH, TA and total phenolics on your back label, be sure it’s something your customer cares about, too. They might not. 

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (, is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provides strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA.

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