Alternative Wine Packaging Picks Up

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When it comes to wine, consumers today are looking beyond the standard 750-ml. bottle and opting for vino in more eco-friendly, portable and single-serve packaging. A number of factors have been driving interest in alternative wine packaging.

For one thing, many of the places people go to for fun—parks, beaches, pools—do not always allow glass packaging. Lighter-weight cans and boxes are also easier to pack and transport.

And as many consumers are drinking less, they prefer the convenience of a single-serve wine package vs. opening an entire 750-ml. bottle. Single-glass portions make it easier to control wine consumption and also reduce waste.

Environment concerns pay a role as well, as consumers become more aware of carbon footprints created by full-size wine bottles, especially when adding in their transportation from producer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. As people look for wine from organic and biodynamic vineyards, they also seek wines with eco-friendly packaging. This means lighter-weight options like cans that are also easier to recycle.

Which has all led to the current wave of wines now available in boxes, cans and other formats that challenge long-established packaging norms. A younger consumer base looks at their products differently.

“With a new generation of consumers, winemakers have been able to shed some of the negative stereotypes that had plagued canned and boxed wine for years and prevented canned wine from really taking off, and boxed wine from growing into premium categories,” says Terry Lozoff, vice president of marketing for Latitude Beverage. The Boston-based company’s portfolio includes the canned line Lila Wines.

Here’s a closer look at some of the alternative wine packaging trends.

Canned Craze

Union Wine Co. of Oregon launched its first canned wine with the Underwood brand in 2013. Since then, the winemaker and the category have both enjoyed growth.

“Canned wine became the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. in 2016, seeing triple-digit growth year after year,” says Union Wine founder/owner Ryan Harms. Nielsen estimates the canned wine industry has surpassed $50 million.

“When you look at what organizations like Whole Foods and Gallo are saying about cans and the investment they are making in canned wine, I feel like that is a strong indication that we have really just begun,” Harms adds.

Consumer trends play into the benefit of canned wine. One is the desire to make wine more fun and less pretentious.

“As people today drink less beer and more wine, they desire more playful packaging,” says Erica Blumenthal, cofounder of Yes Way Rosé. The brand, launched in 2013, recently released four-pack cans of rosé, available for $16.99 per pack. 

“People have already been drinking beer and soda, so they’re used to cans, which are less intimidating than a wine bottle,” she says.

Union Wine Co. of Oregon launched its first canned wine with the Underwood brand in 2013. 

The canned wine segment is all about accessibility and portability. It’s much easier to bring a four-pack of canned wine on a hike, or to the pool or beach, than a 750-ml. glass bottle. 

“Cans are easy to throw in a bag and they’re not too heavy,” says Yes Way Rosé cofounder Nikki Huganir.

Canned wines come in all sizes. So what is the ideal size for a can of wine?

“Researchers from Texas Tech University surveyed nearly 1,000 respondents ages 21 to 88, and found 250-ml. cans are the most popular size for consumers,” says Lozoff of Latitude Beverage. For one thing, consumers enjoy the portability of the single-serve cans.

They also like the option of cracking open a single can at a time when at home, he adds. “Aluminum cans are also easier to recycle than bottles, which appeals to a younger, more eco-minded generation.”

But some believe the 375-ml. size works better for the U.S. market. 

“We had wanted to put our wine in 250-ml. cans, but our distributor suggested otherwise,” says Joan Kautz of Ironstone Vineyards, which is launching its Obsession Symphony wine brand in cans. “They said that buyers are pushing for 375-ml., because 250-ml. cans you have to sell in a four-pack, whereas 375-ml. they can sell individually.”

Kegs and boxes

Kegged wine has become more common on-premise, as well as at retail establishments that can offer by-the-glass pours. “Kegs are easy because of the whole bar phenomenon,” says Daniel Posner, proprietor of White Plains, NY-based wine retailer Grapes The Wine Co. “Bars and restaurants are already equipped to handle kegs, and they save those businesses a lot of money. And the wine tastes just as fresh, while also being better environmentally.”

For many of the same reasons, boxed wine has been taking off as well. The days of cheap product poured from bottom-shelf boxes during college dorm parties has been replaced with more-premium options. 

“Boxed wine has been around a long time,” says Posner “Certainly over the last 10 to 15 years, the quality of the wine going into the boxes has improved enough that every-day wine drinkers are happy to get a box, because now that they know they’re getting good quality.”

This change in consumer attitude has occurred thanks to pioneering boxed-wine brands such as Bota Box and Black Box, both launched in 2003. (The latter recently exchanged hands as part of the 30 or so brands that Constellation Brands sold to E & J Gallo for $1.7 billion.) 

Both products are reliably high quality, shifting how people think of the category.

BeatBox Beverages, a boxed, wine-based punch, gained fame on the reality TV series Shark Tank, where it earned a $1 million investment from Mark Cuban.

They have also created room for newer brands to experiment. For instance, products like BeatBox Beverages. This wine-based punch gained fame on the reality TV series Shark Tank, where it earned a $1 million investment from Mark Cuban—his largest at the time—in 2014.

After launching with five-liter “party-in-a-box” boom box-themed packages, the Austin, TX-based brand in 2017 expanded into 500-ml. single-serve containers priced from $2.99 to $3.49 each. Flavors include Blue Razzberry, Pink Lemonade and Fruit Punch.

Tubes and triangles

The brand’s website highlights the party lifestyle. “When we started this company, most of the marketing and flavors in boxed wine were geared towards older drinkers,” says BeatBox cofounder Aimy Steadman. “We wanted to make boxed wine for the next generation.”

The next wave of wine products has emerged as alternative packaging evolves beyond boxes and cans. For example: the wine subscription services Vinebox and Usual. Vinebox ships customers a box of nine single-serve wines, packaged in cylindrical 100-ml. glass containers, four times a year. Usual sends out 187-ml. bottles of wine in a chic triangular bottle.

“The level of quality in alternatively packaged wines has increased greatly in recent years, especially the last 12 months, but the optics are not there yet,” says Matt Dukes, CEO/cofounder of both subscription services. “You might feel bad pouring phenomenal wines out of a can during dinner, or at a party, where you’d be understandably accused of bringing cheap wine.”

While neither brand is available at retail, Dukes can imagine a future where they’re also sold in stores; perhaps there could be an on-premise application as well. “We’re bringing the experience along with the alternative wine packaging,” he adds.

Minis hit the big time

The movement towards smaller and alternative packaging has also benefitted existing formats, namely, the 187-ml. “mini” bottles. A number of sparkling wine brands, including La Marca, Mionetto and Moet, have recently reported strong sales of minis.

Cavit has offered 187-ml. glass bottles of its wines for 15 to 20 years, but in the past few years, these smaller versions have taken off, growing 15%. “It took us all by surprise,” explains Hal Cashman, Cavit’s director of brand development.

“Now that we’ve noticed it, we’re creating a bunch of tools to fuel that growth,” he notes. These include countertop racks for stores meant to be put by the register. The brand in early June released a limited edition rosé 187-ml. four packs, available nationally with a suggested retail price of $9.99.

Cavit had considered shifting its 187s from glass to plastic, since the glass keeps the mini bottles out of stadiums, golf courses and other outdoor venues. But the company wanted to maintain the image and feel of quality, Cashman explains, so it stuck with glass.

He expects that the alternative packaging category will continue to grow. “I think that retailers have also noticed this as well,” Cashman says. “They are more open now to dedicating more counter and floor space.”

Format Obstacles

With new formats come new challenges. Traditional 750-ml. wine bottles still hold several advantages over newer, trendier alternatives. For one, there’s the shelf-life issue.

“Glass bottles can be stored for many years—if not decades—because glass does not react chemically with wine. On the other hand, aluminum cans require a special lining because the acid in the wine erodes aluminum over time,” points out Brett Vankoski, Latitude Beverage’s wine director. “That’s why canned wine isn’t meant to be aged.”

And producers cannot cheat by packaging wines with less acidity in cans. “You need a good acidity in the wine you put in cans, because otherwise you cannot maintain the fresh flavors in the can,” explains Tom Merwin, co-owner of Muddy Boot Wine in Clarksburg, CA. “And if you’re not putting high-quality product into the can, then you’re really shooting yourself in the foot, because it doesn’t last as long.”

Another hurdle is finding partners to package the wine in alternative formats such as cans. Muddy Boot, which uses Bronco Wine as its national distributor, is able to package through Bronco Wine’s own canning line. It’s an area in which Bronco plans further investment.

But some formats are so new that the packaging facilities are still too few in number. “It takes a $1 million machine to pack our products,” explains Steadman of BeatBox Beverages. “We don’t own our own facility, so we’re relying on the copacking community.” At the moment, there’s only a limited number of copackers available, Steadman notes. “But the community is realizing this, so I’m hoping for a more robust copacking community moving forward, given the demand.”

Another issue that some brands face is trying to package canned wine in Europe. The standard American 375-ml. can size does not exist in Europe, so you’ll see brands instead put their wine into 250-ml. cans.

Despite the challenges, proponents feel that the alternative wine packaging trend has legs. “The single-serve market’s growth is bringing new producers and products into the category, thus giving the consumer more choice, which I think is great,” says Harms of Union Wine Co. “I believe the category will continue to mature.”

Kevin Mehra, founder/president of Latitude Beverage, agrees. “Canned wine is a hot category, and will continue to grow in 2019,” he says. “Distributors are seeing increased sales in large retail chains across the country, with retailers devoting more shelf space to canned wine.”

Early on, Mehra adds, “Canned wine shared the shelf with other alternative packaging, but has grown and established a dedicated and more prominent location on shelves.”  

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