Walk into a retailer and you’ll find beer sold in bottles, cans, and even plastic. Hard seltzers, the 2019 darling, is packaged in several can sizes. There are assorted ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails in a variety of packages. Even some high-end spirits are closed with screwcaps. All of which describes the state of alcohol packaging at the end of the second decade of the 21st century—save for one thing: wine.
Perhaps as much as three-quarters of the wine sold in the world still comes in a 750 mL glass bottle with a cork-style closure, according to data from several surveys conducted over the past couple years.
Yes, cans are trendy and quickly gaining in popularity. Yes, boxes have established a solid place in the market. But wine still mostly comes in a bottle with some kind of cork, just like it did in the second decade of the 20th century. And the second decade of the 19th century, for that matter.
“It’s always been the chicken-or-egg thing, where historically there hasn’t been a demand for any other container than glass bottles and corks, so wineries don’t do anything else,” says Paul Tincknell of Sonoma County, Calif.-based strategic wine marketing consulting firm Tincknell & Tincknell, Inc. “But since there wasn’t anything else being done, how could consumers demand any sort of alternative packaging if they didn’t know it existed?”
In this, the 750 mL bottle with cork-style closure is both icon and white elephant—a testament to wine’s romance and history. But it’s also something that, analysts say, may well be an obstacle to the category’s growth in an era when consumers are less enamored of romance and tradition and more concerned about convenience and sustainability.
“There are some bold moves to be made with the category,” says Daniel Tripolitano, director strategy, innovation and insights, global marketing for Treasury Wine Estates (TWE brands come in cans, bottles with screwcaps, and bottles with real and artificial corks). “There’s a huge opportunity, but also a huge challenge.”
It just works
The glass bottle with cork-style closure was once cutting-edge technology. When it replaced amphorae and large wooden barrels in the 17th century, wine suddenly became something that could be stored and aged (that “advancement” even helped wine drinkers discover just how much better some wine got with age). In addition, bottles and corks made wine easier to transport, more or less inventing the global wine trade. No less than the noted critic Hugh Johnson has said the change to bottle-and-cork fueled the rise of civilization.
“One thing that’s sometimes overlooked is that corks and bottles just work,” says Ana Cristina Lopes Cardoso, the research and development director at Portugal’s Cork Supply. “Both producers and consumers know [corks and glass bottles] go hand-in-hand and perform perfectly to preserve a wine’s quality over time. Bottling lines are designed to use corks in glass bottles, and corks fit any bottle, any time. Plus, glass bottles are perfect to protect wine from contaminants—biological, physical and chemical—they’re inert, resistant, and easily transportable. The cork itself stoppers the bottle efficiently and is the best option to contact wine as it’s sourced from nature, just like the grapes.”
And that, perhaps more than anything else, underpins the longevity of the 750 mL bottle-and-cork-style closure: The two have worked together so well, for so long, that there’s been little reason to change. Randall Grahm’s funeral for the cork in 2002 didn’t change anything. The cork taint epidemic a decade ago didn’t change anything. The 21st-century understanding of how a product’s carbon footprint affects the environment hasn’t changed anything—yet. (For more on this matter, see “Tiny Footprints.”)
The numbers concerning corks and bottles can be confusing, given the paucity of reliable wine sales data and the number of groups that publish statistics, but the best estimates are that about three-quarters of the bottled wine sold in the world is closed with either a natural cork (64 percent) or a synthetic one (11 percent). That percentage varies widely; screwcaps are much more popular in the United States and the United Kingdom than they are in Spain and Italy, for example.
In addition, sales data from the past several years shows the 750 mL bottle remains the most popular wine packaging in the world—especially in the United States, where it commands as much as 75 percent of the market. A VinoStat study earlier this decade expected the 750 mL bottle to remain the most common wine packaging at least through the year 2025.
So yes, it just works. And because of that, an entire supply chain has grown up around the duo, further insulating the bottle and cork from change. In this respect, say several analysts, it almost doesn’t matter if there’s something better, given the system that exists. Because even if there was incentive to change, there’s probably more incentive in the short term not to change, including:
Retailing and wholesaling. Since the end of Prohibition, tens of thousands of stores and warehouses have been built to accommodate 750 mL bottles in the United States. How do you put a can or a box on a shelf built for a bottle? How do you convince a retailer to change their shelving?
Production. Plain and simple, putting wine in a bottle with a cork-style closure is the easiest thing to do, says Papillon Erreca, vice president of sales and operations for Brick Packaging in Traverse City, Mich., which sells bottles, corks, and capsules. Using screwcaps requires a different bottling line; cans and boxes require finding a new packaging supplier. And doing either means added costs most wineries (and especially those that don’t make hundreds of thousands of cases) don’t want to think about.
Regulation. Wine, unlike beer and spirits, is limited to certain package sizes, thanks to post-Prohibition laws. The 750 mL bottle fits those package sizes.
Consolidation. There’s even less incentive to change as the wine business consolidates. For one thing, say analysts, bigger producers mean even more economies of scale. For another, so many of the world’s biggest wineries have so much money invested in corks and bottles, it becomes that much more costly to change. E&J Gallo, for one, manufactures its own bottles.
Adapting to the situation. The best example of this was cork taint—today, the cork industry says it’s solved the problem and offers a money-back guarantee. It’s also worth noting that most of the leading closure companies sell every kind of cork as well as screwcaps. Even Cork Supply’s Greg Hirson, the company’s U.S. technical services director, says there’s a place for synthetic corks in closing everyday wines.
No matter whom you talk to about wine, the idea of romance isn’t far away—and the bottle-and-cork is at the center of that love affair.
David Kuhlken, president and winemaker for the 15,000-case Pedernales Cellars in the Texas Hill Country, says the cork and bottle is one key to wine’s enduring popularity. He even posits it may be just as important as the quality of the wine. “[This packaging style has] a value deriving less from utility than from form,” he explains. “Because the ritual experience [of opening a bottle] simply isn’t the same if we fundamentally change some or all of those packaging components.
“Of course, if you decide to consume wine while innertubing on a river, or setup a self-serve bar at a college party, the ritual is impractical or irrelevant to the value of the wine. But even today, most people incorporate some or all of that opening and serving ritual into their experience of a wine. It can be a key part in setting the social and emotional rewards of a wine in motion.”
On the other hand, there’s what TWE’s Tripolitano calls the occasion dilemma. Traditionally, most people drink wine with a meal, and a bottle works with a sit-down dinner. Even if a corkscrew is needed, it’s in the drawer next to the knives and forks. Cans and boxes aren’t nearly so dinner-friendly: Pouring a can into a glass seems silly, and wrangling the box’s spout every time you need a refill gets old quickly.
But, as baby boomers give way to younger wine drinkers, dinner becomes less important as an occasion. The bottle-and-cork isn’t as well suited to a picnic, boating, or day at the beach as is a can, box, or PET bottle. And what happens if you forget the corkscrew?
“That’s where the disruption is going to come,” predicts Tripolitano. “That’s the compelling proposition that’s going to drive [a change in packaging].”
He isn’t quite sure what will change in packaging (or how it will change or when it will change), but he expects it will change—and maybe sooner rather than later.
Until then, keep the corkscrew handy.