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Market drives wine bottle revolution

Market drives wine bottle revolution – includes related articles

Larry Walker

The half-billion dollar U.S. wine bottle business is undergoing a “revolution,” according to suppliers trying to ride the crest of a changing bottle market and stay one jump ahead of the power curve.

Changes in bottle shape, color, texture and other fine points of glass tuning have become hush-hush trade secrets, as wineries struggle to make their product stand out on crowded retail shelves.

The changes are clearly market driven, with the major effort directed at younger consumers who appear to be abandoning wine in favor of hand-crafted beer and spirits and a flood of new-age soft drinks.

Most producers and suppliers credit the Robert Mondavi flange-top bottle with kicking off the revolution. There were signs of it coming even before that with various custom bottle molds and other design changes. Most of these were imported bottles, largely from Italy where bottle design always has been important, at least for a few super-premium brands.

Bill Preston at APM, Inc. said that Italy has a artisan tradition of hand blown glass that has carried over into packaging glass. Preston imports Italian bottles from 40+ different producers.

But whether the wine bottle revolution started in Italy or California, California wineries are quickly joining the rush for shelf recognition. Larry Challacombe, vice-president of marketing for Charles Krug in Napa, admitted that the Krug line “got a little dusty” over the years and a thorough repackaging is going forward, beginning with the bottle.

“We have repackaged the CK Mondavi line, putting it in punted glass with a bartop rim, although it still will take a regular cork finish. The capsule is clear plastic, but it doesn’t have the wax on top,” Challacombe said. The new bottles also will be used on the CK Mondavi line of 1.5 liter wines, although they will not be punted.

The decision for a new look was made after Krug ended its marketing agreement with Seagram Classics. “We are looking for a lot of eye appeal to go with the substance we have in the bottle,” he said. The new bottles cost about 25% more than the old bottles, at about 50 cents a bottle, according to Challacombe.

Coming next is a high-shoulder, punted bottle for a new Charles Krug Bordeaux blend and a Sangiovese. The bottles are in antique green and from a French glass company, Saver.

“These are intended for upscale wines that will retail from $15 to $25. We felt we needed a new package to market these innovative wines,” he said.

The new wines will be released in January, along with an estate olive oil, part of the Krug plan to emphasize the family’s Italian heritage.

Rob Belke, marketing manager for liquor, wine and food for Anchor Glass in Tampa, Fla., commented that the wine business had “been sleeping for quite some time. There has been a very traditional outlook on packaging for a number of years.” Belke said one of the landmarks in the new look of bottles was the Nicole Miller-designed bottle for Korbel sparkling wine. “Then came Mondavi’s flange bottle – and we were involved in both of those,” he added.

Belke and Anchor vice president Brad Tucker (recently relocated to Florida after his stint in Napa) said the boost in Mondavi sales following the introduction of the flange had led to a proliferation of flange finishes. Some are step flanges, some are finished rings. The Mondavi design is a private mold, but other producers such as Ball Madera Glass are offering non-proprietary molds for flange bottles that a winery can buy from stock, without the expenses of a private mold, which can run to $60,000 or more, depending on needs and bottle runs.

“We really find the wine area like a flower about to blossom,” Belke said. Anchor, owned by Vitro, a Mexican company which did $4.1 billion in sales in 1994, is now flooded with requests for unique molds, various embossing techniques and other bottle designs that would have been unthinkable a few years or even a few months ago, Belke said.

“I think the sales growth that Mondavi experienced supported the fact that the market was willing to tolerate something different in the wine package,” he said.

Anchor has several “radical” projects developed, but the wine won’t be released until after the first of the year and the company was not at liberty to reveal the exact design.

“They may not be as radical as the shapes that have driven soft drink and beer packages,” Belke said. He cited Berry Aid, Arizona Ice Tea, Clearly Canadian, and Zima among beverage producers who have clearly shaken up the traditional packaging market.

Belke and Tucker agreed that the new bottles and the total wine package was important in reaching younger drinkers in their 20s and 30s, who now are drinking beer or spirits.

“The 20-somethings group is not into wine at all,” Belke said. “They are intimidated and afraid of making the wrong choice, and the packaging is not appealing. Yet, they can buy a beer and not be concerned,” he said.

Belke believes that packaging is one approach to expand the consumer base and could represent a better payback than money spent on advertising.

Tucker said that Anchor is the first U.S. producer to offer an estate green bottle. “We solved several technical problems, including concern over blistering and other things.”

The new technique allows Anchor to do smaller runs of the estate green, known in Europe as antique green. The runs were made in Anchor’s Hayward plant.

Pressure-sensitive labeling is a key part of many of the new wine packages, and Anchor can supply bottles with those labels already applied if a winery lacks the equipment to do its own.

Tucker said that people are looking far beyond the flange. “We are in the process of seeing something that was done three or four months ago already being bypassed. New designs are leap-frogging over those that seemed radical only a short time ago.”

Looking ahead, Belke believes that growth in the premium market will accelerate with the proliferation of “new look” packaging. He expects jug wines and discount price items to continue to decline as the bag-in-box market grows and wineries seek new ways to market low price-range products, such as flavored blends and other items to attract new consumers.

David Schwandt, the Napa-based sales representative for Anchor, does not expect anyone to do a yearly “new model” bottle, that would be expensive for even the most radical designers, but he does believe that wineries are beginning to believe that non wine drinkers can be attracted to the product because of the package.

“A lot of people expect it to go full circle,” he said, “and we’ll end up right back with the traditional bottle.”

Preston at APM has a catalog and a “wish shop” library of unusual Italian bottles on display at his plant, to make it easier for the wineries to choose a particular shape or size.

“About a year ago we made arrangements with an Italian company. We put together a kind of partnership. They source bottles from three large factories and at least 40 smaller producers in Italy and we have a catalog that enables wineries to be able to select a specialty bottle for small runs,” Preston said.

He said that APM’s involvement with the Italian bottles has taken them outside the traditional wine business. “We find ourselves now in gourmet food shows, places we would never have been a few years ago.”

Preston is working on projects for the spirits industry as well. “We’ve given seminars in Kentucky, talking to people like Brown-Forman and people who make the new small batch bourbons. They are looking for new bottles and packages to express the changes in their industry, too.

“But our main interest is still centered in the wine business,” Preston said. He pointed out, for example, that by shopping his catalog or checking out his sample room, a winery could put together an attractive, custom package for a run as low as 10,000 cases.

To illustrate how things have changed in a short time, Preston recalled that a few years ago he was contacted by a French wax manufacturer about distributing the wax in the California wine market (wax as used as a topper for cork in non-capsule bottles). Preston told him he would be glad to, but there was no market for it. “Now, I’m selling hundreds of pounds of wax every month,” Preston laughed.

Preston said that it isn’t only bottle shapes and textures that are changing but there are more and more colors available, including several off-smoke colors and some darker greens. “Those relate to the Italian tradition of hand-blown glass. There are still people using hand blown glass for packaging purposes in Italy. It’s amazing.”

Preston added that it was hard to know where it was all leading. “Some of the changes are probably here to stay, but some may be a little faddy. I can’t see much future of cobalt blue, for example, but who knows?”

One change that seems to be on its way to becoming a permanent part of the package are the clear plastic heat-shrink capsules. “We did the 500ml bottle for R.H. Phillips a few years ago that featured that clear capsule. Now we have more and more customers turning to it. You can do more with logos and printing on the cork. Also, because of that, we have people who didn’t used to care what a cork looked like – they’d buy the cheapest they could get – stepping up to better corks because now the customer can see it,” said Preston.

Cindy Silvani, who handles the import glass side for California Glass Co., (a family partnership) said that almost all of the innovations in wine bottles began in Europe, including the flange-top bottle. “The primary difference between the domestic and the import market is the much larger number of shapes, sizes and colors available from European manufacturers,” she said. “And I don’t see any evidence of that changing. If anything, I’m seeing even more distinct packages,” she added. “Packaging here is at least 10 years behind Europe.”

Silvani said it was possible for wine producers to do much smaller runs, as low as 30,000 units, compared to a standard domestic run in the millions of bottles. Silvani agreed that some European bottles can cost more than $1 at the top end. “Some import prices are very close to domestic prices, but the rule of thumb is that the more distinctive the package, the more it will cost,” Silvani said.

Cathy Chamberlain, purchasing manager for domestic bottles at California Glass, said one major advance by domestic producers – California Glass has Owens-Brockway and Ball Madera bottles – has been the development of lighter bottles. “Ball Madera has gone from a 20-ounce punted bottle to a 17-ounce and from 15.5 ounces down to 14 ounces or 13.5 ounces on a flat bottle,” she said.

She said that could save up to 10[cents] a case on shipping charges, which could make a difference at some price points.

Cindy Silvani and her brother, Mark Silvani, own Pacific Coast Container in Vancouver, Wash., which she described as a clone of CalGlass in Oakland. “There is more emphasis there on beer bottles because the boutique beer thing is so enormous up there,” Cindy Silvani said. They also own a company in Vancouver, B.C., called Columbia Packaging.

Sutter Home, for many years an innovator in wines – white Zinfandel, and Soleo chillable red and the no-ethanol Fre – also has been a pioneer in the bottle/package revolution. First, there was its VinLoc closures and then a year ago, the new Soleo package featured a blue applied “ceramic” label with the wine’s vivid red color shown off in a flint bordeaux bottle.

In May of this year, Sutter Home introduced a new bottle for its white Zinfandel, which will be standard on all Sutter Home varietals. The total package, designed by Landor Associates of San Francisco, features a custom-molded, punted bottle; a clear, pressure-sensitive label; a distinctive ridged neck finish with a clear plastic capsule and corks decorated with stylish woodcut motifs.

Research conducted by Landor found that both current and potential Sutter Home customers preferred the new package by more than a six-to-one margin and that it stimulated a 45% increase in purchase interest.

Sutter Home President Roger Trinchero said he believed the new package will enhance brand loyalty among existing Sutter Home customers as well as attracting many new customers. “Our new package, by heightening the visual appeal of Sutter Home, will also build incremental business for our retail and on-premise accounts,” Trinchero said.

The new package is featured in Sutter Home’s advertising print campaign, now underway.

Jim Huntsinger, vice president of production at Sutter Home, said that because of the new package the winery had to buy a new labeling machine from Krones for the pressure-sensitive labels. The clear plastic PVC heat-shrink capsules are made by Sofacap in Toulouse, France and sold locally through fp Packaging.

“But we needed to do it,” he said. “If you don’t have a new package out there, nobody will look at you.”

Huntsinger said that they had been careful in the flange design to make sure that it was compatible with corkers and with opening devices at the bar level. “We felt that was important,” he said.

There have been complaints from wine service staff that the new flange tops are difficult to open with high speed, mounted bar openers. Apparently the problem is not so much the flange as the wax topping on the cork. If the wax is too hard, when a bar-mounted opener hits the wax it doesn’t pierce the cork, but shoves it through into the bottle.

Paul Frommelt, sales representative for Demptos Glass, agreed that the flange top could be a problem but if the bottle can operate in a normal corking machine, it should work fine. He said the biggest change coming was the use of pressure-sensitive labels and the clear heat-shrink capsule. “We are going to see a lot of those,” he said.

Demptos, which gets glass from several European sources and from Vitro, is the West Coast Representative for Spear, Inc., an Ohio firm that makes the see-through plastic caps. “We need to work very closely with the wineries on the pressure-sensitive labels and the clear capsules because many wineries don’t have the equipment to handle them.”

The new look in label and caps will lead to changes in bottle color, according to Frommelt. “Wineries are going to do everything they can to make their bottles stand out on the shelves,” he said. “They don’t want to get lost in a sea of dead-leaf green.”

Asked if there was any difference in bottles used for plastic stoppers or for corks, Frommelt said it didn’t matter at all.

One major issue that the industry is grappling with is bottle weight. A case of inexpensive, flat bottom bottles weighs in at about 35 pounds while a heavy, deeply punted bottle could go as high as 55 or 60 pounds, according to Frommelt.

That search for a unique image, a standout image on shelf, is foremost on everyone’s wish list, according to Bryan Wesselmann, a spokesperson at Owens-Brockway at the Toledo, Ohio headquarters.

“We are trying to be as responsive as we can, but there are certain parameters. Sometimes we have to steer them back into what is possible,” he said.

He said that what Owens-Brockway was seeing was not so much radical changes in the shape of the bottle, but a move toward unusual colors and variations on the new flange finishes.

“Basically, we are trying to get out ahead of the market and still offer designs from our stock, although, of course, we will do special molds, unique tapers and the like,” he said.

Wesselmann said that Owens-Brockway helped developed the Sutter Home package. “We don’t just supply bottles anymore, we work with wineries to help develop the entire package,” he said.

He believes the days of a producer using the same bottle, the same package year after year are gone. “The new market-driven packages are here to stay. It’s a way of adding value through the package as well as through product quality.” Owens-Brockway, which has 20 U.S. manufacturing plants, was one of the pioneers in developing bottles and packaging for the “new age” beverages.

He agreed that for much of the wine market, an annual new model based on the Detroit automobile concept may be looming. “I don’t imagine anyone would change the bottle every year, but the package could easily change for all the smallest producers,” he said.

Caliber Packaging is offering a series of in-stock molds that would make a new yearly model a little simpler. According to Pam Blanchard, the new flange molds will be offered in several shapes, sizes and colors which will give smaller producers the potential for putting premiums into that kind of package.

“Also, our bottles are designed to be the exact height of standard bottles, so a winery could use existing pre-printed cases and not have to have new case stock made up,” Blanchard said.

The Caliber flange is a bit different from most of the others, according to Blanchard. “It’s a step flange, designed for a little extra strength.”

She also said that the company will have a new Ball antique green bottle on the market in December. The new step flange and the antique green bottle will be available in 750ml, both flat-bottom and punt, and some of the 1.5 liter bottles.

Darrel Mazenko, vice president of sales for the western division of Ball Madera, struck a slightly more cautious note than some.

“The industry is certainly changing and we do see people considering takeoffs on the traditional bottle, but while a lot of people are talking, we haven’t seen that many people actually make the change,” Mazenko said.

“It does seem that a lot of people are trying to differentiate their package, but I know there are a certain group of wineries that will stay in traditional packaging,” he added.

Mazenko said the traditional bottle shapes would probably stay about the same, with a certain amount of tweaking to make the package stand out. “It gets expensive to change the shape of the bottle and our concern as a company is to offer the bottles at a reasonable price.”

Resources: APM, Inc., 441 Industrial Way, Benicia, Calif. 94510; Tel: (707) 745-8060; (800) 487-7555; fax: (707) 745-0371; contact: Bill Preston

Anchor Glass, 4343 Anchor Plaza Parkway, Tampa, Fl. 33634; (813) 882-7756; contact: Brad Tucker, Rob Belke; Anchor Glass/Napa Sales, 1804 Soscol Avenue, Suite 204, Napa, Calif. 94558; Tel: (707) 258-6190; contact: David Schwandt.

Ball Madera Glass, 1509 South Macedonia, Muncie, Ind. 47302. Western Region representative, Darrel Mazenko, (510) 946-1220.

California Glass Co. 155 98th Avenue, Oakland, Calif. 94603; Tel: (510) 635-7700; fax: (510) 638-7624; contacts: Ken Camporeale, Guy Gianino, Kim Murphy, Karen Stanley.

Demptos Glass of California, Inc. 840D Latour Court, Napa, Calif. 94558 Tel: (707) 252-7688; fax: (707) 252-3437. Contact: Erica Hiller Levy, Paul Frommelt.

Pacific Coast Container, 11010 NE 37th Circle, Unit 110, Vancouver, Wash. 98682; Tel: (206) 892-3451, fax: (206) 892

RELATED ARTICLE: GETTING CONSUMER ATTENTION

When the Smith-Anderson Wine Group decided to come on market with its new Stonehedge brand, they knew they would have to do something special to attract attention, according to David Sayre, winemaker for the group. He knew the wine in the bottle was good – the red wines are all sourced from Napa grapes and the Chardonnay is barrel fermented – but these days it takes more than good wine to attract consumer attention.

For the first step, all the bottles are flange, but the capsule, developed by RwH Packaging (see resources) is unique. The capsule is removed as the cork is extracted as the whole top portion of the capsule disengages from the remaining portion. The neat part is that it comes off with a loud pop when it disengages. A friendly sound, indeed.

The capsule is a single unit cap that can be applied with standard equipment. The capsule can be customized and can be printed in four colors and graphics can be applied directly to the capsule, rather than on the cork. The capsule also can be modified for non-flange bottles.

A second Smith-Anderson brand is Songmeadow, which will be packaged to attract the younger consumer, according to Sayre.

“We’re aiming at Generation-X with Songmeadow, while the Stonehedge design is a little more traditional,” Sayre said.

The wines, including a Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec and a Zinfandel coming next spring are priced at $10 (full retail) for the Cabernet and Chardonnay and around $15 for the Merlot and Malbec.

The Smith-Anderson group has worked with a brokerage company, contracting for grapes five years out. “We have contracts for close to a million gallons of wine,” Sayre said.

Sayre puts together the final blend at two different facilities. The first release is small, only 6,000 cases but the long range plan is to be at 200,000 cases in four years.

“We will build our own winery when we get the volume to justify it,” Sayre said. And he expects the new packaging will help grow that volume.

RELATED ARTICLE: WINE BOTTLES AT A GLANCE

The total U.S. wine bottle market for 1994 was almost two billion bottles, according to industry sources. In terms of dollars, estimates ranged between $450 and $500 million. But the leading domestic bottle maker supplies only one winery: Gallo. Here’s how the percentage of production shakes out:

E&J Gallo 35% Ball Madera Glass 30% Owens-Brockway 24% Anchor Glass 10% All Imported Glass 1%

RELATED ARTICLE: BOTTLE HISTORY

We tend to think of glass bottles as fairly modern. And there is some truth in that. It wasn’t until the 17th century that technology reached the point that the glass bottle could be produced with a fairly uniform neck size, thus making the marriage of bottle and cork possible and opening the way to the development of the modern wine trade.

But glass itself goes back at least 5,000 or 6,000 years and probably earlier when glass beads were used as jewelry. Glass bottles were made in Egypt at least 1,400 years before the Christian era. A glass-producing furnace from the reign of Amenhotep IV and dated 1370 B.C. was discovered in 1891.

For several thousand years, bottles were made by spinning molten glass around a solid metal rod the desired diameter of the inside of the bottle, or by pouring molten glass into a pre-formed mold. It wasn’t until about 50 B.C. that the art of blown glass was discovered. Some authorities say it was developed in the Mideast, in Syria; others credit the invention to the Romans.

Certainly, the use of glass was common during the peak of the Roman empire. Glass making, like many other things, fell into a decline during the centuries following the fall of Rome. A revival of artisan glass came with the Renaissance in the 12th century and by the 19th century, the traditional shapes of wine bottles, that we still know today, had developed.

(Information on the history of glass and the glass bottle is taken from the Spring/Summer, 1995 issue of the “Simi News”. In limited space, a great deal of information about wine bottles is presented. “Simi News” is edited by Nancy Gilbert at Simi Winery.)

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