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Calif. wineries go outside the bottle

When it comes to packaging, Northern California wineries are thinking outside the box — and beyond the cork, and even the bottle.
Napa's Three Thieves is using the Tetra Pak carton for its imported Bandit Bianco brand.
Napa's Three Thieves is using the Tetra Pak carton for its imported Bandit Bianco brand.
/ Source: San Francisco Business Times

When it comes to packaging, Northern California wineries are thinking outside the box — and beyond the cork, and even the bottle.

Following the lead of counterparts in far-flung wine-producing and wine-consuming countries such as Australia, Great Britain, Italy and New Zealand, a number of winemakers in the greater Bay Area are moving into production with wines packaged a host of new ways. On the list: aluminum cans, screwtop bottles and Tetra Pak cartons like those used for milk.

In many cases, the changes are meant to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd with fewer preconceptions about traditional wine presentation.

"We're out there with a great response," said George Rose, a vice president and spokesman for Jackson Wine Estates and its Santa Rosa-based Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates unit, which last month began bottling its Pepi label varietals — a total of seven varietals and 100,000 cases — in screw-top bottles. "Consumers are finding these wines on the shelves, and they 'get it.'

"At some point," he said, "the idea that you need a piece of bark to close your wine bottle is sort of outdated."

Can-do attitude
Portability, ease of use, quality issues relating to cork-based contamination, and efforts by Northern California wineries to move excess inventories all help explain the sudden burst of interest in new packaging methods, according to Rose and other observers.

Niebaum-Coppola Winery this spring launched a "limited distribution" of its 2003 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in a petite, 187ml pink aluminum can, christened the 'Sofia Mini' after owner Francis Ford Coppola's writer-director daughter, Sofia Coppola. The winery originally did a test run of 5,000 cases, targeting young night-clubbers and the like in seven elite markets.

But Sofia's reception in the market has far exceeded expectations, according to Erle Martin, Niebaum-Coppola's president. In a May 4 telephone interview from Texas, where he was meeting with one of the state's largest retailers about increased distribution of the Sofia Mini, Martin said Niebaum-Coppola is drastically expanding its marketing efforts for the aluminum can-clad wine.

"(The response) has been so overwhelming that we've gone back to the well," Martin said of the Sofia Mini, which sells for $5 a can or $20 for a four-pack. At the moment, it's Niebaum-Coppola's only wine in a can, but "at the moment would be the correct phraseology," he said.

Committed to caps
It's probably too early to call it a revolution, but crowds are definitely mustering in the streets. Ironically, since the tradition-bound U.S. wine industry has long eschewed packaging innovations, citing quality and perception concerns, there's now a clamoring of voices making just the opposite argument.

"(Our) wines are estate grown, handled with care in our estate winery and beautifully packaged as our seal of quality. And then we compromise it with cork taint. That doesn't make sense," said John Giguiere, co-founder and president of the R.H. Phillips Winery, explaining the Esparto, Calif., winemaker's switch from cork to screw caps.

Starting this month, the winery, located in northwestern Yolo County, will begin bottling its entire 300,000-case R.H. Phillips line using screw caps. Its Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc offerings will be available for purchase in June in dramatically redesigned bottles, meant to accommodate and highlight the change. Other brands, such as EXP and Kempton Clark, aren't yet affected.

Officials at R.H. Phillips describe the June bottling, involving an estimated $18 million in sales revenue, as the biggest commitment to screw caps by a U.S. winery thus far. But Giguiere claims he isn't taking a risk by making the commitment to a new closure, despite hundreds of years of cork-based tradition. "We can see the groundswell now," he said. "Five years from now, everybody will be doing it. And two years from now, it won't be an issue."

Winning converts
Others are joining the parade all over the region.

Santa Cruz's Bonny Doon Vineyards, an early adopter of screw-tops in 2002, plans to use the new closures on 98 percent of its wines — or roughly 440,000 cases — by year-end. That includes 2002, 2003 and 2004 vintages of almost everything except sparkling wines.

Officials said average monthly sales have increased significantly from year-earlier totals on Boony Doon's screwtop varieties, ranging from 40 percent to 131 percent upticks, but only modestly for the few remaining wines it seals with corks. "Evangelizing the merits of screwcaps to our customers has been rewarded," David Amadia, vice president for sales and marketing, said in late March.

Meanwhile, Three Thieves, a "virtual company" owned by Charles Bieler, director of U.S. sales for Provence, France-based Chateau Routas, Joel Gott of St. Helena-based Joel Gott Wines, and Roger Scommegna, founder of Boonville-based Signal Ridge Vineyard, plans to release Pinot Grigio imported from Italy in one-liter Tetra Brik packages in July.

Last summer, Three Thieves, which makes its home-grown wines at Oakville's Napa Wine Company winery, released three wines in one-liter screwtop jugs. Now, it's planning to unleash another non-traditional wine package, the Tetra Pak carton used worldwide for a number of beverages, including wine, milk and fruit juice, for its imported Bandit Bianco brand.

The entire package costs about 15 cents — or about what many wineries now pay per cork. "And," adds Bieler, "it sits in the fridge, goes to the beach, goes on a boat."

The trend isn't entirely new, of course. Napa Valley's PlumpJack Winery released half of its 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with twist-off closures. But what was once a trickle is becoming a stream, and threatens to turn into a torrent.

Even smaller, more conservative producers are beginning to take the leap.

Whitehall Lane Winery, a small family-owned winery in St. Helena best known for producing high-end Cabernets, is releasing 1,800 screwtop half-bottles of its 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon this month. The half-bottles sell for $22 each.

Michael McLoughlin, Whitehall's general manager, said the small-scale release is a test to see how the market will respond to the screwtop 375ml bottles — and how well the new closures will perform.

"We felt that the public's not quite ready for (750 ml screwtop bottles), for wine aged for longer periods," said McLoughlin. But Whitehall believes that concern is fading fast, and expects to roll out its 2004 Sauvignon Blanc next year in the new-style container, as well as its second-label 2002 Bommarito Cabernet Sauvignon.

Whitehall hasn't entered the new-fangled fray lightly. It purchased a Gai capper from Italy, a machine that prominently sits between the corker and spinner (which applies foil wrapping to the tops of traditional wine bottles) on the winery's assembly line. So it's clearly gearing up for a future that includes the screwtop bottle.

And Niebaum-Coppola's Martin said winery owner Coppola is convinced that the wine industry can learn a lot from studying other types of consumer products when it comes to packaging. "Francis' name is on every bottle, and he takes it seriously — and so does Sofia," said Martin. "She loves the stuff."