You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but can you discern the quality of a wine by its bottle presentation?
For centuries, wine producers and their design agencies have thought you could. Like attracting butterflies to bright flowers, producers have tempted buyers with such sexy packaging come-ons as eye-stopping labels, heavy bottle weights, corks covered in red wax, decorative foils, colorful and frilly paper wrappings and expensive-looking boxes.
Now, these wine producers are having second thoughts, and the past holiday proved that changes are already underway.
Lanson junked all packaging for its Le Green label Champagne. Instead of a box, Ruinart wrapped its Champagne in a recyclable “second skin”. Gamble Family of Napa Valley dumped all packaging for its Mill Keeper wines, and, during the Christmas holidays, Feudi di San Gregorio offered its customers a choice of recyclable packaging sourced from forests with FSC-certification. Valdemar, a Spanish-owned Washington state winery, says it’s using 100% recyclable packaging for shipping, as well as less-polluting inks for labels.
What’s driving this new approach to packaging?
Both consumers and wine and spirits producers seem to have come to mutual agreement that reduced carbon footprints and less material going to landfills, or even to recycling depots, was good for everyone.
According to a report by Boston-based Lux Research, 56m Americans say they pay attention to packaging of goods in general, and “within this portion of the population that pays attention to packaging, 35m are interested in finding more sustainable solutions when it comes to wine packaging”. It is a concern of not just consumers of wine and other beverage alcohols, or the people who produce wine and spirits, but also design agencies, PR firms, distributors, shippers and even governments.
35m Americans say they are interested in finding more sustainable solutions when it comes to wine packaging.
For most major wine-producing companies, reconsideration of their packaging materials is simply the latest of a laundry list of sustainability measures they have been addressing in recent years, led by water and energy reduction in their vineyards, wineries and shipping and distribution operations, all grouped under the heading of “reducing the carbon footprint.” For example, the Spanish conglomerate González Byass in 2016 obtained its “Wineries for Climate Protection” certificate, and one of its promises was “commitment to suppliers and commitment to eco-design” when it comes to packaging.
“We’re seeing this trend of reduced packaging across so many producers we work with, from Macari, Laurent-Perrier Champagne, Uncle Nearest and Gail Wines to our own Altrosero Zinfandel,” says Alexandra Schrecengost of Culture with Us, a gifting and corporate wine events service with clients in 77 countries. “With every passing year, we as a society become more aware of the urgent need to actively reduce our material consumption and choose the greenest options whenever possible.”
Changes throughout the production chain
Heather Fritzsche, founder of The Spearhead Group, a global packaging and sustainability innovation company with $40 million in revenues, says that some “companies will ask us to keep their sustainability goals in mind when they give us their briefs for packaging products, or else refer us to public sustainability statements on their websites.”
Fritzsche says there are a number of ways to reduce packaging waste and still have a bottle that has shelf appeal. Generally, these fall into two categories. The first is using materials that are more easily recyclable. The second is eliminating elements that need recycling. Obviously, the latter is more challenging, limiting the designer to such measures as coating, embossing, engraving, skin printing or using more colorful labels using less toxic inks.
“People have been using recycled materials for a long time – that’s not a new thing,” Fritzsche says. “But so much of it is limited, because it’s often handmade, generally having variations while major brands need consistency. Additionally, handmade is labour intensive and very expensive.” She says Spearhead is now in trials with one of the world’s largest beverage alcohol companies using her firm’s patented bottle bag, “Bottle2Bag”, a luxury textile package made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
Other measures include replacing or eliminating cardboard boxes and using only wood cartons sourced from sustainable forests.
Transparency about bottles
But, of course, the glass elephant in the sustainability room is the bottle itself. Journalists and wine industry critics have for years faulted wine producers for using heavier material-and-energy-intensive bottles while touting how sustainable they are in the vineyards and wineries.
Now, much of the effort to reduce bottle weight is being led by Champagne producers, whose bottles have historically been larger and stronger to keep their gaseous wine from exploding.
Bollinger, for example, says it is committed to a 7% reduction in bottle weight, while the Comité Champagne shaved off 50 grams of bottle weight in 2010. Table wine producers also are competing to see who can lose the most bottle weight. Alois Lageder says it reduced standard bottle weight by 200 grams to 450 grams, while Domaine Bousquet reports it now has bottles weighing only 420 grams.
“The level of noise is getting higher on lighter bottles,” says Stephane Stanton-Brand, a sales director for French-based bottle producer, Saverglass. “Europe is leading the charge – they are 10 years ahead,” he says. “Customer interest in environmentally friendly packaging is relatively new in the U.S., although not in Canada,” which has bottle-weight regulations.
Even some American importers are onboard with bottle weight and packaging reduction. Terlato says it told one prominent Provence rosé producer they would be happy to add the brand to its portfolio, but not with the gift box then being used in France. One PR executive tells the story about a Barossa producer with a heavy bottle who keeps getting rejected by U.S. importers because of bottle weight.
Pushback at the premium level
Not that there isn’t producer pushback. “Our business is focused on the upper end of the market,” says Stanton-Brand, “and some of the customers for premium wines are still looking for weight and bottling design as signs of quality. So these producers are not yet pushing to use lighter weights.”
It is quite possible that there will never be a total resolution to heavy bottles versus. light bottles. After all, cork taint drove many producers to adopt screw-cap bottle closures 20 years ago, causing many to predict the death of cork closures. It hasn’t happened, partly because change comes more slowly at the higher-price end of the spectrum, where wealthier buyers appear less concerned with environment and sustainability than younger people purchasing $20 wines.
It's not all about good deeds
Neither are all the changes in packaging, including the bottle, being driven by altruism or sustainability reasons. “We point out that sustainability is often not a cost, but a cost-saving, such as reducing the weight of glass resulting in less shipping costs,” Fritzsche says. “They may be coming around, but, sadly it may be for budget reasons.”
But corporate events and gifting concierge Schrecengost believes there may be another step to be taken at the wine consumer level – inspire buyers not only to reject commercial packaging of wine on the shelf, but to create their own environment-friendly gift wrapping the way spirits producers instruct drinkers in making their own cocktails.
"We point out that sustainability is often not a cost, but a cost-saving, such as reducing the weight of glass resulting in less shipping costs."
“I myself am unlikely to purchase a branded wine gift box with lots of packaging and embellishments,” she says. “I’d much rather present a gift of wine decorated with something understated and nature-inspired that evokes the natural beauty of the wine itself, like raffia ribbon, cotton twine, cloth (like Japanese furoshiki), burlap fabric, gift bags made with unbleached recycled paper, festive paper washi tape or a tote bag with a personal touch.”
That, she says, is the ultimate recycling – a consumer-to-consumer gift package that “the gift’s recipient can use again and again.”