Chris Keel remembers what happened in 2008, when French wine giant Boisset shipped its Beaujolais Nouveau to the United States in PET bottles (a form of lightweight plastic that can be fitted with a screw cap or cork): Nothing.
“It fell flat on its face,” says Keel, who owns Put a Cork in It, a boutique wine shop in Fort Worth, Texas. “To be honest, I don’t think much has changed with wine consumers since then. I know most of my customers don’t think wine should come in a can, and a lot of them are still holding out against screw caps.”
By contrast, green packaging is widely accepted in beer, where cans—usually considered the most ecologically sound container of all—dominate both mainstream and craft products. Eco-friendly packaging has also made inroads with spirits, where larger sizes use plastic, and pouches are common among ready-to-drink products (also know as RTDs).
Meanwhile, in the wine business, green packaging has never been more than a niche, as 750 mL glass bottles and cork-like enclosures still account for three-quarters of the market, according to the Vinostat consultancy. The previously mentioned PET containers, aka polyethylene terephthalate, were supposed to break through a decade ago, but have mostly failed to live up to that prediction.
Wine, for better or worse, faces three packaging challenges. First, continuing consumer resistance to change. Second, inertia from retailers and distributors who don’t see a reason to fix something that isn’t broken. And third, the idea that wine is special in a way beer and spirits aren’t—and alternative packaging, therefore, isn’t good enough.
“I don’t know if it’s tradition or an old-fashioned way of looking at packaging,” says Randy Austin, North American director of product line at Scholle IPN, which manufactures bag-in-box and pouch containers. “It’s the perception of quality, the challenge of quality. Do consumers think wine that comes in something that isn’t a glass bottle is of the same quality as wine in a glass bottle?”
Glass isn’t green enough
Though recyclable, glass isn’t an especially green container choice. Empty bottles aren’t recycled as often as plastic or cans (on the order of as much as 10:1), according to the Container Recycling Institute. Between 2010 and 2015, CRI estimates, the ratio was three PET bottles wasted for every aluminum can, and 10 glass bottles wasted for every can. In addition, it says, “commingling”—where colored and clear glass are collected together—contaminates the collection, meaning the bottles can’t be used for new glass. And though glass is among the greenest containers in manufacturing, its weight makes it less efficient to transport. By one measure, glass’ carbon footprint is as much as seven times that of a paper carton (which has the lowest carbon footprint).
Hence, the consensus about beer’s lead in ecofriendly packaging.
“I find it exciting that beer has been an industry leader in eco-friendly packaging,” says Scott Kerkmans, who leads the beer industry program at Metropolitain State University of Denver in Colorado. “There’s been an agreement, especially on the craft side, that cans can do the job for freshness and quality that other industries think only bottles can provide. You also see this acceptance among retailers and consumers, which is a part of the equation that’s easy to miss. So, since cans are recycled more, weigh less, and incur less in shipping costs, they’re a greener option.”
In addition, says Kerkmans, beer industry initiatives such as the growler and traditional containers like kegs show a commitment to green packaging. Plus, he says, beer seems to focus more on innovation with advances such as Carlsberg’s Snap Pack for 4-, 6-, and 8-pack packaging. The Danish multi-national took three years to develop the Snap Pack, where a thin strip of food grade glue replaces the plastic rings that hold cans together.
More than just packaging
Calculating carbon footprints isn’t an exact science. It has to take into account product manufacturing and shipping processes, as well as how the container itself is made. By some measures, aluminum is less green to make—extracting the bauxite that it’s made from and turning it into a can—than the similar process for glass and silica. If true, of course, this turns the can discussion upside down.
That’s one reason Puerto Rican-based spirits giant Bacardi refocused its green packaging efforts from reducing the weight of its rum, vodka, gin, and tequila bottles to a more comprehensive greenhouse gas effort that takes in the entire manufacturing process. The company wanted to cut its packaging carbon footprint by 10 percent between 2008 and 2017, but managed only a 4 percent reduction. Hence, a decision to look at things such as plant emissions, increased recycling rates, and supplier participation as well as the bottles themselves. One reason for the change? Bacardi makes luxury products, and redesigning bottles to reduce weight but still keep its high-end branding proved more difficult than expected.
Which brings us back to the wine business.
“You’re just not going to see fine wine in a can or bag-in-box,” says Thomas Houseman, winemaker for the 17,000-case Anne Amie Vineyards in Carlton, Ore. “Those just don’t go together.”
Wine packaging faces green challenges that beer and spirits don’t, said several people interviewed for this article. Can a can, bag-in-box, or PET container properly age wine? Will they be able to deal with oxidation issues? Beer and some spirits—particularly RTDs—are built around portability and convenience, so they can take advantage of cans and pouches (see “Sippin’ Singles”). But these alternatives don’t necessarily appeal to drinkers who see wine as more formal. So products with that packaging remain niche products.
It’s what Kerkmans calls wine’s conundrum: “It’s the chicken and the egg,” he says. “No one is willing to take the first step to see if consumers will accept alternative packaging. People don’t see the sex appeal of a can or a box of wine.”
This quality perception can be viewed two ways. The first is that there’s an actual difference, in which picnic-style wines come is cans and bag-in-box, while “serious wines” come in bottles, as Houseman describes. Or, as Keel suggests, is there merely a perceived difference, where no wine of quality can ever come in anything but a bottle? Also playing into this debate is the growing trend toward premiumization, where higher prices imply higher quality, which would seem to require glass bottles.
“PET makes sense from an operational standpoint, since it’s lighter,” says Austin. “But consumers perceive a difference in quality when wine isn’t in glass. Some of it is that they don’t like the lighter weight [of most alternative packaging], so they hesitate about buying it.”
In other words, there’s been tremendous growth in cans and bag-in-box over the past several years, but each remains a niche product—and PET’s share of the industry remains almost nonexistent.
“There’s the myth of the wine connoisseur and the 750 mL bottle with a cork closure, and that’s embellished and played on by the current generation of executives,” says Alfonso Cevola, a long-time wholesale executive and now a wine marketing consultant in Dallas. “That’s their comfort zone, and that’s where they operate from.”
Cevola also points out the importance of the second tier in packaging decisions (referring to the three-tier distribution system for alcohol beverages in the United States). If the packaging isn’t going to fit in the distributor’s warehouse, he says, there’s less chance of it going mainstream. So any packaging decision must take into account the distributor’s portion of the supply chain.
“Wholesalers are gatekeepers,” he says. “There [isn’t any data] for new packaging; there’s no history of this kind of packaging [to look to for understanding]. In some ways, changing packaging and formats could be a logistical nightmare for both big and small distributors, given the way warehouses are set up for 750 mL glass bottles.”
Another key hurdle green packaging has failed to overcome in wine is the notion that glass is green enough. Houseman, who wears his environmental credentials proudly, talks about the effort Anne Amie makes to recycle and to buy glass from nearby manufacturers. The latter is especially important, since it lowers the carbon footprint for the entire bottling process.
But that’s where alternative packaging has made several mistakes, says Cevola. Most attempts to sell eco-friendly packaging (like PET bottles) have relied on the packaging’s green credentials. When Boisset used PET for its Beaujolias Nouveau, it emphasized that the packaging could “reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by more than half.” Which is all well and good, he says, but misses the point that most impresses retailers and distributors: How much money will more green packaging mean to the bottom line?
“They tried to sell alternative packaging with emotion, and no one wanted emotion. They wanted metrics,” says Cevola. “They didn’t sell it to the executives the right way: How much lighter was it going to be? How much would that save on equipment wear and tear? How much would that reduce employee liability? How much would that reduce breakage? Until they can do that, there’s no incentive to change on the gatekeeper’s end.”
It also matters that most U.S. wineries aren’t very big; 9,000 wineries account for about 80 percent of the wine made in the United States. Producers that small can’t afford to change packaging, especially given the obstacles on the wholesale and retail ends. The difference makers would be the largest wineries, says Austin, but they’ve shown little enthusiasm to transition established brands into alternative packaging.
Finding a niche
Having said all that, maybe wine has made inroads that no one notices. That bag-in-box is half the market in Australia, for example, shows green can succeed where there’s a demand for it.
“Alternative packaging probably won’t ever replace glass completely, but it doesn’t have to,” says Dave Moynihan, who owns AstraPouch, which specializes in alternative wine and spirits packaging. “People like glass bottles for certain occasions and some people like alternative packaging, like pouches, for beaches, pools, and other outdoor activities where glass can’t go.”
Moynihan’s point: Billion dollar companies don’t change packaging just because they should. Twenty-five percent of wine sold to consumers doesn’t come in a glass bottle—and this should be seen as tremendous change in a very traditional business.
Most wineries and distilleries are heavily invested in filling glass bottles, after all. And with billions and billions of dollars invested in glass bottles, these corporations can’t turn on a dime just because it may be the right thing to do.