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Wine Packaging Lightens Up: Eco-Friendly Containers Offer Good Value and Lower Carbon Footprints

7 Mar

By Sharon Kapnick

Heavy glass bottles served well for centuries, ever since commercially produced bottles and corks were united in the 1600s. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that plastic bottles, aluminum cans and cartons became popular for most non-alcoholic beverages. Today, spurred on by environmental issues and the current frugality-is-in mentality, more and more enterprising wine producers are discovering these practical containers–and creating new ones.

No one has embraced the innovative-packaging trend more than Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates. He cleverly puts the situation into perspective when he cites what has come to be known as Boisset’s 70% Rule: More than 31.2 billion bottles of wine are consumed worldwide each year; 70% of them retail for under $12 a bottle, 70% are consumed within 28 minutes to 3 hours of purchase, and 70% of the cost goes to packaging, shipping and related expenses. Conclusion: It’s ridiculous to use 17th century technology for most 21st century wines

The new containers have many advantages. They take less energy to produce, ship and recycle than conventional bottles, thus lowering their carbon footprint, and they cost less to package, store and ship. They’re lightweight, easing the burden on the people who transport the wines, and convenient. Some chill quickly. Several are shatterproof and impermeable to UV rays. Some eliminate the tainted-cork nuisance, the corkscrew hassle and the spoiled-leftover-wine quandary. Box wines, for example, stay fresh up to six weeks after they’re opened thanks to the vacuum-sealed bag inside that collapses as the wine is consumed, preventing oxygen from reaching and spoiling what’s left.

Innovative packaging has created a win-win situation: It makes wine greener and it makes wine cheaper. Here’s a survey of some pioneering producers and current noteworthy options:

BAG-in-BOXES: The thinking behind alternative packaging is, in part, “Give them options and they will come.” And they have been. According to market researcher Nielsen, sales of 3-liter premium boxed wines have been growing in the double digits and gaining share within the table category over the past two years.

Australian Thomas Angove invented the box wine concept in the 1960s, and boxes are very common there. In the U.S., while a number of good box wines have been on the market for years, they’ve been joined more recently by a new generation of boxes, some more attractively packaged, some with better wine and some with both.

In 2010 Underdog Wine Merchants launched the Octavin Home Wine Bar, an artisanal, international collection of 10 wines in cleverly designed octagonal cylinders. Wineberry America’s Berry Boxes, with wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Rhône, are made using wood–from sustainable forests, of course–that can be turned into lunch boxes and bird feeders. California’s popular Red Truck sold its Chardonnay and its highly regarded red blend in adorable mini-barrels made of recyclable plastic. (See my story “Tacky No More: Making Boxed Wine Look Chic” at Time.com for more about these boxes.)

For its first two box wines, Cantina di Soave cleverly paired two of the Veneto’s most important grapes with grapes much more familiar to Americans in boxes called Duca del Frassino. Garganega (think Soave) is paired with Pinot Grigio, and Corvina (think Valpolicella and Bardolino) is paired with Cabernet Sauvignon. Their next two boxes blend Durello (generally found in sparkling wines) with Chardonnay and Merlot with Pinot Noir.

Jenny & Francois Selections, known for its natural wines, imports From the Tank boxes, currently a Languedoc white and a Côtes du Rhône red. The white Domaine de la Patience, 100% Chardonnay, hails from the Costières de Nimes. The red blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan is made by the Vignerons d’Estezargues, a relatively small cooperative dedicated to winemaking without additives.

Last year California’s McManis Family Vineyards added a red blend and a white blend in nonvintage box-wine formats to their portfolio. The Jack Tone Vineyards Red (see my February McManis post) features Syrah and Petite Sirah. The white is a mix of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Muscat.

CARTONS: In 2005, California’s Three Thieves were the first to market domestic wine in lightweight, recyclable fruit-juice-like TetraPak containers they call Bandits. The cartons are made up of three layers–plastic, aluminum foil and paper. The Thieves claim it would take 26 trucks filled with empty wine bottles to equal just 1 truck filled with empty Tetra Pak cartons.

Boisset Family Estate’s French Rabbit, from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, arrived on U.S. shores the same year. The Rabbits offer vintage-dated, appellation-specific French wine in colorful cartons with screw-top closures. According to Boisset, its cartons are just 3% of the total weight of the product; an eggshell, by comparison, is 7% of the weight of an egg.

Following the success of the French Rabbits, Boisset’s California Rabbits, Hopping White and Hopping Red, debuted in 2010. California Rabbit aims to be a leader in innovation and eco-friendly products, and the wines are currently also available in lightweight glass. Although Boisset has tried many different containers for wine, he considers TetraPaks to be the “most convenient, eco-friendly package available.”

Yellow + Blue (= green) cartons came to market in 2008. Matthew Soif, founder and president, worked with renowned importer Kermit Lynch before marketing his own high-quality, certified-organic wines in TetraPaks. Soif was attracted to them because they lack all the typical environmental and dollar costs. “I’m just trying to deliver great, good-value wines without environmental drawbacks,” he says. “Glass is expensive to make, ship and recycle. We take that out of the equation.” Soif adds that the same wines in standard glass bottles would have double the carbon footprint. And, he notes, while wine in these bottles is 50% wine and 50% packaging, Yellow + Blue is 93% wine and 7% packaging.

LIGHTWEIGHT GLASS: Glass bottles too are becoming eco-friendlier. Joseph Cattaneo of the Glass Packaging Institute says that reducing glass usage by 15% can lead to cost savings of up to 10%. So traditional glass wine bottles have been down-weighting. According to a survey done by Wine Business Monthly last year, almost half of participating wineries have been using lightweight glass for at least some of their wines. While the most commonly used 750-ml bottles weigh 17 oz. to 20.3 oz., the lightweight bottles weigh in at 10.5 oz. to 16.5 oz.

After California Rabbit was launched in TetraPaks, lightweight glass bottles soon followed. Their bottles reduce conventional packaging by 30% and its carbon footprint by 25%.

Even Champagne has downsized, planning to cut its carbon footprint 25% by 2020. In 2010 the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne approved a new bottle that weighs 7% less than the standard one. (The bottles have to be strong enough to hold up under the pressure of the bubbles.) Most Champagne houses are expected to use them for their non-vintage wines, which are 85% of the region’s output. These Champagnes are just starting to arrive in the U.S.

PLASTIC BOTTLES: In 2008, Jean-Charles Boisset was named “Innovator of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Boisset has indeed tried more packaging options than anyone else. Boisset Family Estates, for example, was a leader in wines bottled in PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, a polymer resin that’s a relative of polyester. The first two 750-ml (standard bottle size) PET wines marketed in the U.S. were Boisset’s Yellow Jersey from France’s Languedoc region and Louis Bernard Bonus Passus from the Côtes du Rhône. All of Boisset’s 2008 Beaujolais Nouveau–both Mommessin and Bouchard Ainé & Fils–sent to the U.S. arrived in PET. In 2009, Boisset’s Fog Mountain introduced its organic Merlot in plastic, making it the first 1-liter California wine to be sold in PET. But while Boisset calls the technology for plastic “brilliant,” he’s now using lightweight glass for these wines after running into resistance to plastic from consumers.

Today Oregon’s Naked Winery uses plastic for its Outdoor Wino wines, which makes it convenient for consumers to take wine to the places they usually take beer. Its goal is for consumers to have quality Oregon wine anywhere, anytime, and the wines have been well received.

Because of its light weight, plastic is an obvious choice for airlines, which adopted it early on for their single-serving mini-wines. Other mini-wines have also opted for plastic.

ALUMINUM BOTTLES: Several years ago, Boisset bottled its Mommessin Beaujolais Grande Réserve in aluminum. Mommessin also employed some innovative technology: Because Beaujolais is best when slightly chilled, a Cooldot sticker on the bottle turned blue when the ideal temperature was reached. But because of their high cost, Boisset is no longer using aluminum bottles.

FLASQ, however, a new California brand, offers its Chardonnay, Merlot and Cuvée Blanc wines in aluminum half-bottles. FLASQ’s audience is primarily Gen Xers and Millennials with an active lifestyle: hikers, tailgaters, boaters, golfers, nightclubbers and so on. Their tag line: Great Wine, Any Time.

CANS: Leave it to out-of-the-box-thinking filmmaker turned winemaker Francis Ford Coppola to make the pedestrian can sexy with Coppola Winery’s Sofia Mini Blanc de Blancs. In 2004 Coppola introduced Sofia, the sparkling wine he created for his daughter’s wedding, in bold, metallic-magenta colored cans. They’ve become a cool, sophisticated fashion accessory popular with young women at nightclubs.

In 2009 the Australian wine company Barokes won a gold medal for its Cabernet Shiraz Merlot in a can at the Berlin Wine Trophy in Germany. It was the first time a canned wine ever received such recognition. In 2010 its Bubbly Chardonnay Semillon Bin 242 captured the same honor. Barokes wines in cans have gone on to win more than 100 medals at international wine competitions in the U.S. and Europe.

In 2011 Infinite Monkey Theorem, a Colorado winery, came out with a lightly effervescent black muscat in a can. This year it plans to add an Albariño, a Syrah and a Rosé to the line. The cans are a natural at stadiums, concerts and other outdoor venues–and in vending machines. A Chinese company eager to sell the wines via vending machines at Chinese nightclubs has approached the company.

POUCHES: In 2010 Glenora Wine Cellars in New York’s Finger Lakes region became the first winery in the U.S. to sell wine, its Trestle Creek Riesling, in an unbreakable, environmentally friendly 1.5-liter bag-without-box pouch. Each pouch, 7 in. x 10 in. x 2 in., is 98% wine and 2% packaging.

House Band Wines just introduced California Chardonnay and Merlot in 375-ml (half-bottle, 12.7 oz) flexible pouches that provide 2-3 glasses of wine. This handy size is geared toward concertgoers, sports fans, hikers, picnickers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

According to the Wine Spectator, eight premium wine brands, including ecoVINO and Clif Family Winery’s The Climber, currently use pouch packaging.

PAPER (the new frontier): British inventor Martin Myerscough has already placed his plastic-lined paper GreenBottles of milk in the U.K.’s Asda grocery chain. He hopes to do for wine this year what he’s already done for milk. His goal is to reach what he calls the huge “buy now, drink now” market.

Myerscough got the idea when talking with the owner of his local garbage dump, who was complaining about oodles of plastic bottles, which can last 500 years. GreenBottles, on the other hand, decompose in weeks. Myerscough hopes to eventually sell the technology to wineries that will then produce their own paper bottles. The jury’s out on this one.

BOTTOM LINE: These containers are becoming more popular as people experience their many benefits. If you don’t yet see them where you shop, ask for them.