- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

NAPA, Calif. - The pop of the cork, the elegant bottle and the sophisticated labels are the elements that have defined the wine industry for years — until now.

Winemakers are twisting tradition and altering the age-old ritual of opening a bottle of wine.

They are taking risks with innovative packaging to improve their wine and grab the attention of more wine drinkers, turning to screw caps, boxes with spouts and even aluminum cans, as well as creating funky labels and off-the-wall names.

“You won’t find a winemaker that says packaging doesn’t matter,” said Sheldon Parker, general manager of Napa Wine Co., which produces 80 brands for various wineries at its facility in Oakville, Calif. “It’s all about image. Winemakers are fighting for shelf space and brand awareness.”

The taste, of course, is what gets drinkers refilling their glasses. But getting them to try a wine is no easy task.

Consumers have to sift through thousands of brands on store shelves or peruse a heavy-hitting list of wines on a menu in an upscale restaurant. It’s a daunting task to most people, who have little or no knowledge of wine.

“Wine can be way too intimidating,” said Scott Turnnidge, a wine consultant who works in the wine-tasting room at the Napa Wine Co. “It’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable.”

There are 12,000 to 15,000 brands sold in the U.S., according to John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, a group that is trying to encourage people to drink more wine.

All of those brands are vying for the customer’s attention.

The good news for wineries is that there are more wine drinkers in the U.S. than ever before, and they are drinking more of it.

Last year, U.S. adults drank an average of 2.77 gallons of wine, compared with 2.46 gallons in 2000 and 2.13 gallons in 1995, according to Adams Beverage Group, a market research group and trade publisher.

That pales in comparison to how much wine is drunk in other countries. In France, seven or eight times more wine is consumed per person than in the U.S., Mr. Gillespie said. In Australia, they drink twice as much, he said.

The number of Americans drinking wine is increasing, for a myriad of reasons ranging from social- and health-related to the popularity of movies such as “Sideways,” in which wine figured prominently.

According to the Wine Market Council, the number of U.S. adults who drink wine weekly or more increased 32 percent from 2000 to 2003.

While wine consumption is growing, many Americans still perceive wine as a “special occasion” drink or consider a wine with a screw cap or in a box as cheap, wine industry officials say.

Now it’s up to the wineries to try to squash those notions, educate consumers and open their minds to new ideas.

Uncork the truth

One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is the acceptance of screw caps.

With a quick twist of the wrist — rather than screwing in the corkscrew and carefully pulling the cork out of the bottle — wine drinkers are enjoying the same sophisticated and premium-level wines.

“Screw caps are never going to replace cork, but they have their place,” Mr. Parker said. “They make the product more approachable.”

It’s no secret that wines with screw caps have left a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. Those were the wines college students drank when they couldn’t afford to spend more than a couple of bucks on alcohol.

“We like cork because it feels like we are drinking a nicer bottle,” said Jason Vogel of Brooklyn Park, Md., who was shopping at Corridor Fine Wines in Laurel earlier this month. “Screw caps feel like you’re drinking soda.”

Mr. Vogel isn’t alone.

“I don’t like screw caps,” said RoseAnn Lawrence of Ocean Pines, Md., whose husband was shopping for some Australian wine in Laurel. “I’m too much into tradition.”

But there’s a twist on the screw-cap phenomenon that’s much more important than perception.

The screw-cap closure is actually better for the wine than a cork, wine industry officials say.

Corks can ruin between 5 percent and 8 percent of all wine, if not more, reports show. The cork taint is usually caused by a fungus that gets into cork and reacts with the wine, causing it to smell and taste bad.

“Corks are beautiful and organic and have tradition, but are tragically flawed,” said John Locke, senior creative director of Bonny Doon Vineyard, which has 99 percent of its wine under screw caps.

Screw caps aren’t new in other countries, nor do they have the same negative connotation. Australia and New Zealand have been in the forefront of the movement.

U.S. wineries are behind the curve, but many of them are taking steps to improve their wine, despite the screw-cap perception.

Hogue Cellars, based in Prosser, Wash., undertook a 2 year study on the effects of two types of screw caps, natural cork and synthetic cork, which is a plastic alternative.

The result: Screw caps maintained freshness more effectively than natural or synthetic corks. That was the proof the winery needed to make the switch to screw caps.

“You’re either a leader or a follower,” said David Forsyth, director of winemaking for Hogue Cellars, which sells about 450,000 cases a year. “You don’t want to be a follower on something like this.”

About 70 percent of its wine is now under screw caps. They became available in January.

“It’s a huge risk,” Mr. Forsyth said. “But our wines are going to be better. We’re going to sell more, and our customers will be happy.”

Bonny Doon, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has made quite a splash with the conversion of 99 percent of its wine to screw caps.

The quirky winery masterminded a funeral to honor the death of the cork in New York in 2002. The purpose was to get the word out about screw caps and the winery’s decision to convert.

Two more funerals were held in San Francisco and Belgium.

“It’s a perception issue,” said Randall Grahm, Bonny Doon’s president-for-life. “But if you do something on a big-enough scale and beat the drum so loud, you get attention for the product and educate people.”

The wineries must educate consumers, retailers, distributors and restaurateurs on the changes in the industry and the differences between cork and screw cap.

Bonny Doon, which sold about 335,000 cases last year, has created a nine-minute educational DVD explaining the benefits of the screw cap compared with the cork. It will be given to restaurants and distributors.

While many wines ranging from $10 to $25 a bottle are in screw caps, even the more expensive brands have converted.

PlumpJack Winery, a luxury wine brand in Napa Valley, was the first high-end U.S. wine to turn to screw caps in 1999. The winery’s 2001 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $165.

Cost of business

The screw caps cost less than corks, but wineries have to spend more on the glass bottles because screw caps require different bottles than cork.

Wineries also have to update their bottling lines to accommodate the screw-cap closure. Initial investments can vary, depending on the size of the line.

Hogue, for instance, invested $135,000 to transform its bottling line, which was sealing its bottles with synthetic corks.

Napa Wine Co. spent $65,000 to upgrade one of its bottling lines to screw caps two years ago. The investment paid for itself within six months, Mr. Parker said.

The wine-making facility produced about 1 million cases last year for 80 brands. Many wineries such as Downing Family Vineyards and Mason Cellars use Napa Wine Co.’s facility to make or bottle their wine. About 170,000 cases from six wineries were under screw caps last year.

But Napa Wine Co.’s screw-cap business is actually dwindling.

Some larger, well-known wineries have hired Napa Wine Co. to try out the screw caps. The experiments have been so successful that the wineries now are investing in their own screw-cap bottling lines.

Despite their negative perception, screw caps are continuing to grow in popularity.

Twin Fin, which debuted in January, already has doubled its initial goal for its first year.

The brand, which is made by Pacific Wine Partners, is expecting to sell between 350,000 and 400,000 cases, said David Wright, director of production at Constellation Wines U.S., which owns Pacific Wine Partners.

Several brands fall under the large Constellation umbrella, including Robert Mondavi, Vendange, Ravenswood and Arbor Mist.

The bottling line — at Constellation Wines’ Blackstone Winery in Gonzales, Calif. — was busy spitting out 170 bottles per minute one day last month. About 5,000 cases, or 60,000 bottles, were expected to be filled that day.

Inside the box

Screw caps are helping with the acceptance of another packaging alternative: the bag-in-a-box.

More premium wines are turning to the airtight bag housed in a box to keep the wine fresher longer and allow for more portability.

“The vast majority of people don’t realize they can get good wine in a box,” said Ryan Sproule, founder of Black Box Wines, a premium wine brand in a 3-liter box. “But we have a huge opportunity to grow and to develop consumer awareness.

“People need to be told it’s OK to drink wine out of a box,” Mr. Sproule said.

The boxes, which cost about $20, are the size of milk cartons with spouts and hold about 20 5-ounce glasses. The airtight bag helps keep the wine fresh up to four weeks after being opened.

“We want to target people who drink wine every day,” Mr. Sproule said. “They are over the ceremony. The cork doesn’t matter to them.”

Black Box, which was started in January 2003 with a Napa Valley chardonnay, already has grown substantially. Mr. Sproule’s original goal was to sell 8,000 cases during the first year. Instead, the company sold 50,000 cases.

Last year, that volume increased to 265,000 cases.

Black Box, which is now owned by Pacific Wine Partners, can hardly keep up with demand, Mr. Wright said.

The assembly line was cranking out more than 4,800 bag-in-a-boxes of the 2003 Sonoma County merlot during a busy day last month at the Blackstone Winery, a sister brand of Black Box.

Workers assemble the boxes, gluing one end and putting them in an assembly line to be filled. Empty bags are automatically fed into a machine that pumps the wine into the bag and seals it, letting in little air.

The bag is dropped into a box, and workers seal the other end.

It costs about 80 percent less to make boxed wines than those bottled in glass, with cork and labels, Mr. Sproule said.

They’ve got the look

The packaging is an important aspect of the wine business. And more wineries are taking risks and breaking away from the traditional glass bottles.

Niebaum-Coppola introduced its Sofia Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in a can in June 2004. The wine is named after film director and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia.

The petite pink cans with straws hold about one-fourth of a regular bottle. The Sofia Mini is packaged in a metallic pink, hexagon-shaped box, which holds four cans for about $20.

The look of the package is not something wineries take lightly.

Black Box’s five varietals are housed in a simple, yet elegant black box. Mr. Sproule wanted the box to exude quality but not be pretentious.

The look of a package can make or break a brand.

“We know consumers buy partially based on what a label looks like,” said Bonny Doon’s Mr. Locke. “If you can get people to put it in their hands and look at it, you are at a great advantage.”

Bonny Doon has created different labels for dozens of its wines.

“Packaging is really important,” said Charles Miller, store manager at the Wine Specialist in Northwest. “They are concentrating on the labels and getting name recognition.”

Many wineries tend to target younger buyers with their brands and labels because of their discretionary income and the entertaining they do, Mr. Miller added.

“It is fashionable to drink wine and pick a label or brand to show off even though they know nothing about the product,” Mr. Miller said.

Twin Fin, priced at $10 a bottle, was created with the younger drinker in mind. The label features a vintage convertible with a surfboard hanging out the back.

“I think the Twin Fin bottle captures the eye and imagination of consumers,” said Hugh Reimers, Twin Fin’s winemaker. “It’s a wine that reflects who they are and how they live or just how they want to live.”

Some wineries are getting attention with their names.

Don Sebastiani & Sons, based in Sonoma, Calif., started a screw-cap division called 3 Loose Screws. One of its three brands is Screw Kappa Napa.

“We’ve created an identity,” said Donny Sebastiani, director of marketing.

Screw Kappa Napa, which is about a year old, will come out with a new label in July that features a corkscrew with wings and a halo, which represents the death of the cork.

Toasting to the future

The U.S. wine industry has a unique opportunity to grab new customers, said Mr. Gillespie of the Wine Market Council.

With more Americans starting to drink wine for social or health reasons, the industry can steer consumers to different brands, experimenting with packaging, closures and labeling.

“Consumers don’t know what they want until it’s put in their hands,” Mr. Gillespie said. “More [wineries] are willing to take risks because it’s a way to differentiate themselves from the other wines.”

But despite all the movement forward with innovative ideas and funky packaging, wine officials don’t think mass-market change will happen anytime soon.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to try new things, but this [cork and bottle] ritual is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of wine drinkers around the world,” said Richard Halstead, managing director of Wine Intelligence, a market research and brand consulting firm in London.

“It will take another generation before we get wine drinkers to see wine with a cork as interesting and not a prerequisite,” he said.

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