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When seeing is not believing

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In my business I see a lot of spin, not only from the usual suspects — wineries and their P.R. reps — but from other parts of the industry. The cork producers send me material showing how green their forests are and accusing alternative closures of all sorts of nastiness. The screwtop people send out press releases saying you’ll never get TCA from a Stelvin. Now, the bottle industry has crashed the spin-control party.

The bottlers heretofore have been quiet, but I suppose it was only to be expected they’d speak up now, what with the Recession forcing so many people to buy their wines in boxes, PET containers and so on. It’s the A.B.G. movement — Anything But Glass — and it’s freaking out the bottle manufacturers.

Yesterday, I got an e-blast informing me how much wine consumers prefer glass over everything else. The email had a link to the Glass Packaging Institute’s website, which reported on a brand new survey headlined

98% of American wine consumers with a preference prefer wine packaged in traditional glass bottles… reaching nearly 100% for younger wine consumers, ages 21 to 35.

According to the poll, when consumers were asked “Which type of container do you prefer when you drink or purchase wine?” 97.6% replied glass bottles. When asked “Which container do you consider best for recyling?” 73.2% answered glass. And when asked “Which container do you think does the best job of keeping the original flavor of the product” fully 95.3% replied glass.

The problem with these questions and answers is that they don’t tell the whole truth. If the 97.6% who prefer glass were asked if they preferred to spend $10 for a 750-ml. bottle as opposed to $18 for a 3-liter bag-in-a-box, which is the equivalent of $4.50 per 750-ml., what do you think their answer would have been? If the 73.2% who think glass is more recyclable than a box or PET container had the truth explained to them, their answer would have been quite different. (Is glass more recyclable than cardboard or aluminum? I don’t think so.) As for the 95.3% who think glass keeps the flavor of wine better than a box, they’re not only wrong, they’ve never had a bottled wine finished with a moldy cork.

Years ago there was a best-selling book called “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics.” Its basic premise was that you can prove anything you want to in a poll. Here’s the money quote: “For any given issue, there is a whole range of possible opinions, not just two. The more complex the issue is, the greater the range. Nevertheless, most pollsters try to fit all opinion into the neat categories of agree/disagree, favor/oppose. These simple categories…make for powerful headlines, but they mask the color and depth of public opinion as it truly exists.”

That’s what I think is happening in this bottle survey. The pollsters asked the people simplistic questions — questions whose answers they knew they’d get — and the public replied exactly the way the pollsters knew they would. Then the pollsters present the “findings” as evidence of glass’s superiority, and of the public’s “strong” preference for it. I don’t think the public has a powerful feeling against boxes and such — especially younger ones — which is why boxed wine sells in far greater quantities than bottled wine.

By the way, I’m not saying I don’t like bottles. I do. Nor am I saying the best wines don’t come in bottles. They do. I wouldn’t want to see bottles go away. All I’m saying is that it’s awfully easy to bamboozle the American public with polls, be they about politicans or packaging.

Shameless self-promotion

I came across this blog that calls steveheimoff.com one of the 5 best wine blogs. The others: Vinography, Wine Library TV, Asimov’s The Pour, and Dr. Vino. Quite a prestigious list! Thank you very much, Clinton Stark. I’m honored.

  1. Steve you have hit on a couple of my personal bugbears, from the general (polling questions can be crafted to “prove” overwhelming public support, or rejection, of ANYTHING) to the specific (what is the “best” way for me to package my wine?). As for the former, when I see a poll result I do my best to identify whose interests are being served and move on – as you have done here.

    The second question is more difficult to answer, but the point is largely moot – as a small producer my access to packaging options other than glass is essentially zero. But I’m not too heartbroken over this – my analysis suggests that glass IS more recyclable than other options. Plastics are recyclable, but so far as I can tell, only into secondary uses – not back into plastic bottles. Aluminum is the most recyclable, but Sofia Minis excluded I suspect the public might have trouble accepting wine from a can at this time.

    Regarding the recyclability of the box packaging that is gaining acceptance, here’s a quote from one of many recycling info sites: “The square boxes used for liquids are called “Aseptics”, the most common brand of which is “Tetra Pak”. Aseptics are made from complex layers of plastic, metal and paper. The aseptic industry has spent millions in public education on the issue of aseptic recycling, including distribution of classroom guides and posters like “Drink Boxes are as Good on the Outside as They are on the Inside” and “A Day in the Life of a Drink Box”. The actual recycling process, unfortunately, is very expensive and awkward, and is therefore only available in a very few places… Because of the difficulties, only an insignificant fraction of aseptic packages are currently recycled.”

    Glass at least can be recycled into glass bottles, though not as readily as aluminum ; glass coloring is problematic. Unlike any other wine packaging (except stainless steel) glass is REUSABLE in theory at least. Encore used to sell washed and repackaged wine bottles for re-use, but couldn’t do it profitably. Two things that would go a long way toward making wine bottle re-use more likely: srandardized bottle shapes and a CRV fee.

  2. Um… that would be “standardized.”

  3. Intersting post Steve.

    The other angle here is that the glass industry is being impacted by the trade down from glass bottles to aluminum cans–in addition to other cyclical and secular factors. This is mostly occuring in the beer market here in the US, but adds to the pressure on glass volumes for the industry as a whole.

    Just this morning the latest shipping figures were released for April by the Glass Packaging Insititute. This excerpt is from a research note that hit my inbox:

    “The April 2009 glass shipments declined 3.5% YoY, better than our expectations for a decline of 8.8%. Within the beer category, the largest category within glass containers, shipments declined 1.5% YoY in April.”

    “In the latest data release, GPI re-stated 1Q09 figures as well, due to the addition of one additional company within the industry sampling. The re-stated 1Q09 glass shipments now show a decline of 4.7% (versus a decline of 4.6% previously reported). The re-stated beer category declined 5.8% YoY (versus a 5.6% decline previously reported).”

    I guess it’s not too surprising that the PR folks are in high gear.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    Wine should be in glass, the way God intended it!

    When I was in college my roomate and I used to buy jugs of Zin from Frank Cadenasso for a couple bucks a gallon. We’d buy as many as would fit in the bed of the old green International and distribute them among other poor, wine loving Davis households. Frank gave us 50 cents refund on the empty bottles, so we ALWAYS returned the empties. It was like a 25% discount. He also gave us a taste of his rather conservative political views which always added a little levity to the drive home.

    The round trip from Davis to Fairfield probably ate up any environmental benefit from bottle reuse, but then Al Gore was in high school at the time inventing the internet and still learning about the environment, so who knew?

  5. I agree with your issues against the polls, Steve, but there is one thing to consider. You said these answer don’t tell the whole truth, but, in fact, they tell a very real truth. There’s a lack of education regarding the topics questioned in the poll. As you said, “if the truth had been explained to them, their answer would have been quite different.” That’s the telling part of it. Regardless of the actual truth, the public perception is what is evinced from this poll. And, perception oft times becoming reality, is a useful statistic for the bottling industry to have. They get to say with their poll, “the perception is on our side.”

  6. I would tend to agree with the majority. I feel glass bottles are very versatile, they provide a good container for wine keeping it fresh and very tasteful. Additionally, they are very easy to reuse around the house as vases, etc. I think glass bottles will remain the main container for most respectable wineries in the future.

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