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Screwtops come of age


I’ve written about and praised Boisset’s PET bottle and so has my magazine, Wine Enthusiast, which earlier this year awarded Jean-Charles Boisset the “Innovator of the Year” prize at our annual Wine Star Awards.

Now Boisset has won yet another prize, the coveted AmeriStar Award for Beverage Packaging.

“The Boisset Family Estates’ Beaujolais Nouveau PET bottles are shatterproof and include a convenient screw cap for anytime, anywhere consumption,” the presenters said, also praising the package’s green, recyclable qualities.

Screwtops have come a long way in a short period of time. I also read today in Decanter that screwtops now make up 15% of all the wine sold in the world.

When California wineries widely started bottling in screwtops, about 5-6 years ago, I used to note that fact in my reviews. Generally, I conceptualized these into two categories:

1. If the wine was inexpensive and good, I’d say something like “Good value in a screwtop.”

2. If the wine was expensive and good, I’d say, “Don’t be put off by the screwtop; this is really a good wine.” I  felt the need to reassure readers, because I knew that consumers were freaked out by screwtops. They thought they reflected a cheap, nasty wine.

It was a couple years ago when I finally stopped referring at all to screwtops in my reviews, because so many people were using them, on so many different kinds of wines, that it no longer mattered.  Screwtops had entered into the realm of normality; it didn’t seem relevant anymore to even point it out.


How far will the screwtop revolution go? This seems to be the situation: Any unoaked white wine is as likely to be in a screwtop as not, whether it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or whatever. Pinot Noir is quite likely to be in a screwtop these days, and not just cheap ones. When it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, I’m hard pressed to think of any that are in screwtops, beyond Plump Jack. Randall Grahm is one of the few who’ve moved to put all their reds in screwtops, and his Bonny Doon wines really set a pace for style. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if everything was in screwtops, because at least you’d be guaranteed never to have a corked bottle.

I’ve asked a lot of owners of cult wineries if they would ever consider using screwtops, and usually they look at me as if I’d suggested they take off all their clothes and run naked through downtown San Francisco. Like, “Are you crazy?” Those who are in touch with their customer base must get feedback suggesting consumers don’t want a $100 Cab in a bottle that resembles Boone’s Farm. I’ve also been told by distributors that they hear from restaurateurs and merchants that screwtops are a no-no for expensive wine. This just shows it’s the job of us wine writers to educate the public.

I don’t know why people are so resistant to change. When you think of it, the wine industry is a very conservative place. People talk about change all the time, but there’s really very little change at all. Somebody will use a new clone, or a new technique, but the same old varieties dominate the market, bottled with the same old corks, which, as a technology, are 18th century anachronisms.

Do Millennials care about corks vs. screwtops? Probably not, and they’re the future. It’s not hard to imagine corks going the way of linotype machines within the next decade. Screwtops are greener than corks, imposing less of a carbon footprint on the world. One of these days, people will wonder what took the wine industry so long to get with the program.

On provenance, shipping and harmful temperatures


I don’t usually recommend or even mention specific for-profit schemes in the wine industry (and Lord knows, everyone’s trying to figure out how to create a viable company these days). But I got a press release the other day for something called eProvenance, a French-based company that claims to have discovered significant problems in wine shipping, wherein as much as 7 percent of wines (which would exceed the percentage of cork-tainted bottles) moved around the world suffer from being exposed to temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) for long enough periods of time to effectively ruin the wine.

eProvenance says their business goals “are to improve the distribution channels and share best practices, as well as provide the ability to verify and communicate the high-quality provenance to consumers.” To all of which I say, amen.

The truth is that poor shipping is the dirty little secret of the wine industry. This is something that all people who deal with a high volume of wine understand all too well. And I don’t think the average, or even the above-average, consumer has the slightest idea of how damaging temperature extremes, particularly heat, can be to that expensive bottle of wine.

I myself used to not understand it, until one day when I was talking with a noted collector, T., who lived in Southern California but had a vacation condo in Hawaii.  (This was back when I wrote the Collecting Page for Wine Spectator and the nation’s leading collectors returned my phone calls in exchange for the ego trip of seeing their names, and sometimes pictures, published in that magazine.) T. flew out to his condo, opened a few bottles, and found something wrong. He checked, and, sure enough, the power had briefly failed — it was just a matter of hours — but it was long enough, he told me, to kill his wines.

Of course, you and I might not have detected anything wrong with wines that had experienced a few hours of temperatures above 70 degrees, but T. was known for the sensitivity of his palate. On the other hand, there is little doubt that a wine that has been in the back of a UPS truck all day long during a summer heat wave (when the temperature inside that metal oven can soar above 130 degrees) will be effectively baked. (When this happens, I ask the winery to re-send me new wine to review.)

The eProvenance people drew up this chart of a shipment that went from Bordeaux to Brazil.


Basically, you want the line to be near the green zone. Anything above the green zone is too hot; as you can see, there’s a lot of line above the green zone.

I’m not sure that there’s ever going to be a solution to this problem. Even if wineries the world over stopped shipping their wine during their warm season — which is obviously not going to happen — they might be shipping it into someone else’s warm season. Even with companies like eProvenance, it’s likely that tens of millions of heat-damaged bottles will continue to be bought and sold around the globe. And with hot places like India, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Emirates now developing a taste for expensive French and California wines, imagine how much more extreme heat those Lafites, Harlans and Crystals are going to be exposed to.

The funny thing about all this is to imagine a rich “collector” who shows off his latest trophy wine at a dinner party. Nobody likes it, and for good reason: it’s baked. But no one is secure enough to admit it, so they all ooh and aah about how fabulous it is. The lesson? Res ipsa loquiter: the thing speaks for itself.

A top designer’s advice on wine labels


The San Francisco Business Journal last week had an article on a topic that’s long interested me: the importance of label design in marketing wine. The article talked about “people in grocery or wine stores looking perplexed” when confronted with the Wall of Wine. (Last June, I blogged on this topic.) So when I ran into my buddy Thomas Reiss, who owns one of the Central Coast’s top wine label design firms, Kraftwerk, I asked him seven questions concerning the ins and outs of label design. Here they are, with his answers.

Thomas Reiss

How do you come up with a label for a start-up brand?
TR: Three things. Research the target market. Then develop the best possible creative solution, which is often directed by the market. For example, we sometimes want to do something super-creative, but a lot of our clients are mainstream, so that would be a mistake. Finally, customer service. I wouldn’t mind having most of our clients over to my house, and a lot of people forget about that.

How does a winery know when it needs a label redesign?
TR: Sometimes, distributors will give them negative feedback that the brand is stale and they need to do something about it. But unfortunately, most brands don’t notice until it’s really hurting them, which makes it harder. The more ground you’re losing, the further behind you are. If you wait until your biggest distributor drops you, it’s too late, whereas if you do some research earlier, you have not as much to catch up.

What’s the worst idea you ever heard from an owner?
Oh, they’ll want to add more junk [like] bad colors. Or they’ll come in with a design and it’s just awful! But I always tell them. It’s one of the things I’m famous for, keeping it real.

What are the main target markets?
TR: There are three. Snobby high-end wine collectors where price doesn’t matter: “I have to have it.” The 25-35 age group, which is the fastest growing segment. Some designers think a label aimed at them has to be cool, hip, funky and crazy, but a lot of those people want to seem more grown-up and conservative. Finally, there’s the price shopper who wants a decent wine for a decent value.

If you gear to one demographic, how do you avoid turning off the other ones?
TR: That’s where you have to take into consideration other things. If you have a small production, you can afford to turn some people off. It gets harder as you get bigger. Then you have to make sure you don’t alienate people too much by putting all your eggs in one basket. The bigger you get, the more safe you have to get.

What’s your advice to wineries in these hard economic times?
TR: The most important thing is your price-value relation. A few years back, lots of wineries with a $20 bottle sold it for $30. Now, consumers are smarter. So you have to have the right price and keep it fair. The label is only a door-opener.

Napa Vintners: Wineries in “information-gathering” mode re: Amazon’s bid to sell wine


Yesterday’s Reuters announcement that, the world’s biggest online retailer, will be selling wine starting next month hit the industry by storm. I got through to Terry Hall, the communications director for Napa Valley Vintners, late in the day.
SH: What role is NVV playing?
TH: We held a workshop for 29 wineries on Sept. 4 for them to meet the Amazon folks, and we’ll have another one on Sept. 12, with 50 wineries signed up.
Has Amazon been meeting with wineries in other parts of the state?
Well, 26 states are part of the program, based on reciprocity or on in-market pass-through distribution. Amazon’s been talking to wineries up and down the West Coast. They were in San Luis Obispo and were able to go door-to-door, but because of the number of wineries in Napa Valley, we did the workshops as a member service.
Can you tell me which wineries signed up for the workshops?
That’s not for the public record, but it ranges from small family wineries to large wineries.
Have people been expressing skepticism, or excitement, or what?
It’s information-gathering now.
How will the logistics work?
It’s a traditional Amazon direct-to-consumer model. They’ll use New Vine Logistics, the former, in American Canyon, which has an incredible fulfillment facility. Amazon will store the wine in a temperature-secured location, and then sell it, through orders from the Amazon hub. Amazon makes money because they buy the wine FOB and sell at retail.
Why would a winery sell to Amazon instead of through their own direct-to-consumer program?
They don’t have to worry about staff or packaging. And Amazon’s staff will be able to make recommendations.
Amazon has a wine staff?
They have a group of wine buyers. The head is a guy named Nate Glissmeyer, based in Seattle. He contacted us for the program.
How much quantity is Amazon expected to handle?
It’s sort of infinite. They’re trying to get as many American wines online as possible.

Boisset’s “green” packaging


I am not generally a fan of words such as “new,” “improved” and “revolutionary” when it comes to consumer products. When something is described as “bold” I wince, and see mental images of advertisers trying to manipulate shoppers into buying something they don’t need. But in the case of the Boisset family’s approach to alternative packaging, all these terms are entirely justified.

(Disclosure: I know and like Jean-Charles Boisset, who runs the family’s California ventures, including DeLoach.)

Boisset yesterday announced the debut of Fog Mountain, an organic Sonoma County line of wines that will come in 750 ml. PET bottles. The company also stated that from now on, all Boisset Beaujolais Nouveau (including Mommessin) shipped to the U.S. — some 25,000 cases — will be in PET. The letters stand for “polyethylene terephthalate,” a thermoplastic polymer resin packaging that reduces solid waste by 90%, and is estimated to have a 50% smaller carbon footprint than a traditional glass bottle. Where a standard case of glass bottles can weigh 40 pounds or more (consider some of those steroidal bottles of Cabernet), a case of PET containers clocks in at 22 pounds, representing a potential saving in transport fuel costs and a resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. PET bottles also are 100% recyclable.

Two years ago, Boisset introduced yet another new form of wine packaging with their French Rabbit line of varietals that come in “Tetra Paks” — octagonal-shaped, 1-liter polyethlene pods, sealed with screwtops, that reduce packaging waste by 90% compared to the standard wine bottle. A container of French Rabbit (which is biodynamically grown) weighs only 3% of an ordinary bottle.

Everybody in the wine business these days seems to be talking green this and green that, but Boisset is putting their money where their mouth is (so to speak). Good for them.

P.S. Please read my other blog at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

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