Friday, Nov 2, 2007
Posted on Wed, Oct. 31, 2007
Suspicious of screw-top wines? Brace yourself.


By Jeff Siegel
Special to the Star-Telegram
If you're a wine drinker who is still suspicious of the screw top, brace yourself.
You may soon be pouring your chardonnay from single-serve bottles, sipping it from juice boxes -- even unscrewing plastic and aluminum bottles.
Yes, most wine in the United States is still sold in a traditional glass bottle with a traditional cork, but nontraditional packaging is becoming more and more common:
In 2006, sales of single-serve bottles increased 12.6 percent, while sales of premium 3-liter boxes, such as Australia's Hardys and California's Black Box, were up a stunning 46.3 percent.
Also in the 2006, in the Beverage Alcohol Annual study, the Nielsen Co. noted: "Vintners will continue to try new things ... to make wines less pretentious and more approachable to the mainstream consumer -- e.g., packaging, pack sizes."
Proven successes
That's the rationale behind one of this country's most successful nontraditional wine brands, California's Three Thieves. It sells well-made, affordable wine in jugs and Tetra Paks, the same boxes used for milk and juice.
"We know our wines aren't for everyone, but we're OK with that," says Charles Bieler, one of the three men who run the company. "We want to bring something fresh to the packaging, something that's new and interesting and that has a story."
Dtour, a white French box wine packaged in an attractive tube, sold out its first vintage, the equivalent of 5,000 cases, within four months after it was introduced in the United States at about $12 a bottle. The launch was so successful, says Daniel Johnnes, whose New York company released Dtour, that the company will do a red and a white next year.
"We were really surprised about what happened," Johnnes says. "We were shocked, really."
Already happening in Europe
But that's not the only factor driving new packaging. Retailers, especially in Europe, want something more environmentally friendly than glass bottles.
In Britain, the 490-store Sainsbury's grocery chain is testing plastic wine bottles (the term in the trade is PET, for polyethylene terephthalate), which are easier to recycle than glass, according to spokeswoman Melanie Etches. Sainsbury's wants to cut its chain-wide carbon-dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2012, she says, and a plastic bottle is one-eighth the weight of a glass bottle, which means more bottles can be shipped in the same bulk container. Fewer containers should translate to lower emissions.
In August, Sainsbury's introduced store-brand New Zealand sauvignon blanc (about $9) and Australian rosť (about $8) in plastic bottles as part of a project supported by the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme. It plans to add more plastic-bottled wines if these are successful.
In the United States, though, retailers are more resistant. Most stores don't have enough racks and shelf space to carry more than a handful of alternative packages.
Still, the glass industry is taking these threats seriously, even though plastic, aluminum and boxes make up less than 5 percent of the U.S. market, according to the Nielsen study. The Glass Packaging Institute, as part of a marketing offensive last year, released a survey reporting that 96 percent of American wine drinkers who expressed a preference preferred glass bottles to paper or plastic containers.
So how do these taste?
Preferences and prejudices aside, can wine packaged in alternative containers taste as good as that in traditional bottles? Theoretically, the type of package shouldn't make any difference.
But it's difficult to make a judgment, because relatively few wines in this country are being sold in the new types of packaging -- and, of those that are, many are the simple lower-end grocery-store-type brands.
The proof will come when and if more higher-end wines make the switch.
The box
What is it?
The wine is contained in a plastic bag, which is inside a cardboard box. The wine is dispensed via a plastic tap on the box. The most common size in the United States is 3 liters, the equivalent of four bottles.
Advantages/ disadvantages
Wine can't oxidize, so it will stay fresh for up to a month in the box. It's ideal for people who want only one or two glasses at a time, but it's bulky and cumbersome to serve from at dinner.
Who likes it?
Australians, who call it a wine cask, love the package. In that country, some brands sell half of their wine in boxes.
Will it catch on?
Boxes already have a foothold in the United States, with exceptional growth over the last couple of years. Whether it can sell beyond its current niche -- 21-to-35-year-old women -- is the key question.
Some to try:
Choices include the Target Wine Cube, the Black Box brand and Aussie labels such as Hardys.
The Tetra Pak
What is it?
An airtight paper carton of the type used for milk and juice. Common sizes are 1 liter (about six glasses) and 250 milliliters (about two glasses).
Advantages/ disadvantages
It's more convenient than bottles and more environmentally friendly. It's also quicker to chill. But you have to drink it when you open it, because the wine will oxidize.
Who likes it?
Wine producers, because a Tetra Pak is much less expensive than glass (though no one wants to say exactly how much less).
Will it catch on?
This is still a novelty product in the United States, aimed at a smaller market than wine boxes.
Some to try:
French Rabbit, Vendange and Three Thieves are available in Tetra Paks.
The jug
What is it?
A 1-liter glass bottle with a twist-off top -- even more basic than a screw top.
Advantages/ disadvantages
Jugs wines cost 20 to 40 percent less than similar wines in traditional glass bottles. And, while it's easier to use at the dinner table than a box, it is more awkward than a 750-milliliter bottle.
Who likes it?
Young men and women.
Will it catch on?
It already has -- sales of 1-liter bottles were up 15 percent in dollar terms in 2006, according to the Nielsen Co.
Some to try:
Some Austrian and German wines, such as Hofer Gruner Veltliner, are being sold in jugs. And note that there's a big difference between the better-quality Three Thieves and traditional jug wines like Carlo Rossi, which are less well made and sold in 11/2- and 3-liter bottles. Personal pick: The Three Thieves jug pinot noir ($11 for 1 liter) is surprisingly good, fruity and quite drinkable.
The aluminum bottle and can
What is it?
A traditionally sized and shaped wine bottle made of aluminum with a screw top, or a single-serve can with a pull top.
Advantages/ disadvantages
Much quicker to chill than glass, as well as more portable. Depending on whom you talk to, it may or may not be more environmentally friendly than glass.
Who likes it?
Airlines, which are testing the concept. Employees can crush the empty bottles and cans, reducing the space it takes to store waste -- an important point in an airplane galley.
Will it catch on?
It's probably nothing more than a niche product.
Some to try:
Sofia sparkling wine has been on the market in pink single-serve cans for several years. Personal pick: Sofia in the can is nice sparkling wine.
The single- serve bottle
What is it?
A 187-milliliter bottle of wine, the same size served by airlines.
Advantages/ disadvantages
It's portable, and it's sold in four-packs, six-packs and even 12-packs. But single-serve bottles are 20 to 30 percent more expensive by volume than the same wine in a traditional bottle.
Who likes it?
Single-serves are being marketed to younger wine drinkers who want just a glass and not a bottle.
Will it catch on?
Results so far have been mixed. Sales of the new Woodbridge 12-pack single-serves should be a good indicator.
Some to try:
Woodbridge, Cavit and Black Dress come in single-serve bottles.
The plastic bottle
What is it?
A traditionally shaped and sized wine bottle made of plastic, with a twist-off cap.
Advantages/ disadvantages
More environmentally friendly and less expensive to produce than glass. Also chills quicker.
Who likes it?
Retailers in Europe, where more companies want to become more green.
Will it catch on?
This may be the future of the wine bottle, if retailers can persuade consumers to try it. No one knows what to expect -- even in Britain, according to a poll by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, two-thirds of respondents said wine should come in glass bottles.
Some to try:
Sutter Home single-serve bottles come in plastic.
The pouch
What is it?
This is the bag-in-box packaging, without the box and sold in 1.5-liter packages. It has the same kind of tap to pour the wine.
Advantages/ disadvantages
Lightweight, easy to chill and portable.
Who likes it?
South Africans, where the Company of Wine People has released a red, a rosť and a white under the Versus label.
Will it catch on?
It has had some success in South Africa and has been introduced in Britain but is almost untried elsewhere.
Some to try:
Not until next spring, when the Company of Wine People says it will introduce red, white and rosť Arniston Bay wine in a pouch to this country.
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