Wine Packaging For Leaner Times

November 2009
by By Tyler Colman

At Astor Wine & Spirits in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, boxed wines from the Rhône, Bordeaux and Argentina are nestled next to bottles on the shelf. “There’s a slew of great offerings in larger alternative formats,” says head buyer Lorena Ascencios. And consumers are seeking them out—if not always in droves at Astor, certainly out of curiosity, she says. More generally, year-over-year sales of premium box wines have increased nearly 30%, according to IRI Scan Data.

Alternative packaging lies at the confluence of two major trends in the wine industry. The first is economical. Despite the recession, the thirst for wine in America has not abated. Even though consumers have “traded down” to lower priced wines, sales by volume are flat to slightly higher. So larger format alternative packaging fits in with these trends.

Further, environmental awareness has been on the rise. The early emphasis focused strictly on the vineyard, with an emphasis on protecting local habitats, worker safety and perhaps even having healthier vines to make tastier grapes.

More recently, green thinking in general also has come to include the greenhouse gas emissions. Granted, wine’s “carbon footprint” is a mere canapé in our overall carbon diet. Nonetheless, consumers tend to see this as an important part of wine’s being “green.”

According to a Wine Opinions survey, 69% of wine trade respondents believe that consumers would be “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to purchase “wine produced and delivered with a light carbon footprint.” (By way of comparison, locally grown and produced wine generated a 72% positive response, and organically grown grapes garnered an 83% rating.)

Alternative packaging often cuts the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, since it means hauling around more wine in less packaging. Although a portion of a bottle’s carbon footprint is derived from the vineyard and the winery, it’s not uncommon for the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to exceed the emissions from production. Considering that California makes about 90% of American wine, and a huge number of consumers live east of the Mississippi, a lot of relatively fuel-inefficient trucks haul wine thousands of miles from west to east.

I co-authored a paper in the March issue of the Journal of Wine Research with Pablo Paster, a sustainability metrics engineer. We found that two factors can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine: more carbon-efficient forms of transportation and lighter packaging. Given that improvements to our rail infrastructure are decades away (at least), it would make sense to focus on reducing the mass of packaging.

Just a few years ago, heavy “bodybuilder” bottles appeared all the rage. Now, glass bottle manufacturers have reported increased demand for lighter bottles, as producers such as Torres in Spain and Fetzer in California are slimming their bottles by as much as 16%. Still, the wine industry has been slower to react than the beer industry, whose bottles are now 30% lighter than they were two decades ago.

The dominant form of lightweight alternative packaging remains the box. Boxes come in two styles: the bag-in-box, featuring a collapsible plastic bag inside a cardboard box, and TetraPak, a multilayer aseptic carton (think juice box, but for adults). This packaging is best for wines destined to be consumed within the first year, which is to say, all but the very top of the market. Marc Weinstein of California Natural Products, a bottler of TetraPak wines, cites rates of around 25 cents per carton. Buying a bottle, label, cork and capsule often cost considerably more.

Low rates of recycling plague the new, alternative packaging. But unfortunately, the recycling of glass wine bottles also remains at a frustratingly low 15% according to the EPA. So if the packaging is bound for a landfill, at least there is less of it.

Lighter packaging can have a big impact on the final greenhouse gas emissions. In our paper, we calculated that, holding everything constant, it was about a third more carbon efficient for a New Yorker to have a bottle of Bordeaux than a bottle of California wine, because of the relative inefficiency of trucking as opposed to container shipping. But a 3-liter box of California wine, sent by truck to New York, would be more efficient per ounce than the Bordeaux. Maybe that’s an edge for getting a premium box wine from California on the shelves at Astor.

Tyler Colman writes the wine blog He is also the author of Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (University of California Press) and A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip for Each Season (Simon Spotlight Entertainment). To comment on this viewpoint, e-mail

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