The exciting, challenging times for wine packaging

What do you buy when you hand over the cash for an Akubra hat, a pair of RM boots or a Country Road shirt? A high quality item of clothing that’s going to keep you warm and dry? Or something more? Would you be just as happy to have precisely the same item if it came with a Target label – or as a cleanskin.

Would you be happy to carry these products home in a plain brown paper bags – or unwrapped in your own backpack?

Should Dom Perignon, Billecart Salmon rosé and Cristal all switch to lighter-weight, standard fizz bottles with crown-caps? How about Krug from a can?

Should we go back to the good old days when books came with plain covers, and none of that descriptive nonsense that clutters up modern paperbacks?

The role of packaging in wine is no different to any other product. Indeed it’s actually much more important. You can try on the Akubra, feel the cotton of the shirt, read the first few lines of the book. When you hand over $20, $30 or $50 for a bottle of Shiraz, you’re often buying a pig in a poke.

I became fascinated by wine packaging long before I was legally old enough to drink the stuff. Growing up in my parent’s hotel and restaurant in the south of England, wine labels had some of the appeal of the stamps I was collecting at the time. Why were these bottles shaped differently to those? Did the gold label on a Bordeaux mean that it tasted better? What did all these foreign words mean?

Having caught the wine bug, precociously, aged 19 I imported a pallet of sparkling wine from France with a name – Pierre Maréchal – that I think I borrowed from a survivor of the Titanic who featured in a book I was reading. For the labels I unaccountably chose a line drawing of Voltaire.

Then, in the mid 1970s, I went to live in Burgundy where I saw vignerons who’d only just begun to bottle their own wine, laboriously selecting images from the limited range in the local printer’s catalogue. ‘Should we have the bunch of grapes, or the heraldic shield? Or maybe we should go for the medieval pressoir?’ A row of different producers’ bottles looked like a photograph of a large family with unusually strong genes, and replacing a Puligny or Pommard you’d been impressed by depended on careful reading of the small print at the foot of the label. Dupont-Dumont or Dumont-Dupont?  René Machin or Raoul Machin?

A decade or so later, when I was editing a young wine magazine in London, I jumped at the chance when a publisher asked me if I’d like to write a book called the Art of the Wine Label. The time I spent researching that slim volume and meeting a new breed of designers like Barrie Tucker in Adelaide who were revolutionising the way wine looked on the shelf, was one of the most fascinating in my professional life. I had not appreciated how recent a development wine labels actually is; when wine was sold by the barrel as most of it was until the late 19th century, no one needed them, and until supermarkets invited customers to choose bottles for themselves, the way they looked was secondary. Today, of course, they need to be photogenic enough to catch viewers’ attention on Instagram

All of these experiences reinforced my belief in a simple fact of life that every human being learns when they first go out on dates or for job interviews: appearances matter.

Strangely, however, that’s also a fact that seems to be easily forgotten. Almost uniquely, the wine industry thinks it is absolutely normal to stick indistinguishable liquids with price tags of $10 and $1000 in precisely the same packaging. It’s like a 1950s socialist state where everyone has to wear identical clothing, apart from one bit of personalised jewelry: the label.

And when anyone says they find this a bit confusing, we suggest they sign up for a bit of WSET education.

It’s always their fault for not understanding us. So, Australian winemakers routinely shake their heads at the stupidity of Americans who haven’t adopted screwcaps, and  environmentally-concerned critics mock wine drinkers who are taken in by heavy bottles.

Sometimes facts contradict each other inconveniently. Screwcaps may indeed technically be a better closure than cork, but to anyone used to premium wine not being sealed with the same closure as Coca Cola, they look wrong.  And, just as chocolates and flowers have more emotional impact when extravagantly wrapped, so does fermented grape juice.

Putting a bottle of wine – heavy or otherwise – in a gift box makes no sense at all. But the same is true of the packaging used for everything produced by Apple, and the loving way in which the phones are removed from their luxury cartons in a YouTube video entitled ‘iPhone 12 Unboxing Experience’ and the nearly 12m views the clip has attracted, suggests that maybe there’s some commercial method behind this environmental madness.

It’s easy to become exercised about heavy bottles and boxes; they’re the blingy SUVs of the wine world. But what about the hatchbacks? When I first visited Australia, over half the wine was in cask. Today, I believe the figure is 32%. Is this something to celebrate: a move away from a form of packaging an AWRI 2016 study said produces around a third of the greenhouse gas per litre?

The recyclability of casks could be improved of course and maybe their role is, in any case, being taken over by cans which are easily recycled. But the point of both forms of packaging goes beyond environmentalism. They come with a clear message: “drink me with a Wednesday night pizza or a weekend barbie”. Bottles are for dinner parties, and heavier bottles for more important occasions. We may all be the same when we strip off our clothes, but there’s no denying the difference in the way we’re treated by a stranger when we’re wearing a suit and tie rather than a t-shirt and jeans.

Message on a bottle

There’s a lot to be said for messaging – as many winemakers of Provence have discovered. The introduction of slightly different bottle shapes helped them evolve from being cheap pink to drink on the beach in the summer, to a desirable US$25 beverage to serve your guests at a Saturday night mid-winter dinner party. We repackaged our le Grand Noir southern French rosé last year – moving from a clear Bordeaux bottle to a broader-bottomed version and, yes, sales shot up.

But messaging goes beyond the choice of bottle, cask, can or pouch. What about the words and pictures that are printed on the label. Here too, the introspection of the industry is all too apparent. Apart from what’s legally required, what we tend to print is what we – and people like us – think is interesting. This might include clone numbers and harvesting dates, or arcane food and wine matching suggestions or, in Europe, information about the 15th century origins of the estate. Some of these may hit the target perfectly. If you’ve only produced a couple of barrels and your customers are all other winemakers or geeks, they may be fascinated by those clones. But not if you’re looking to engage a broader audience.

And that’s the point. We need to stop talking and thinking about ‘consumers’ and start to imagine that everyone who buys our wine is a member of an audience that needs to be entertained and informed in ways that truly engage them as individuals.

If you want to learn how to do that, it’s worth taking a look at what book publishers do. Compare the way they package a thriller, a biography and a chick-lit novel, and the words they use. Compare the likelihood of anyone picking up the wrong genre of book with the chances of them getting a wine that isn’t their style.

And then think outside the box. Wine professionals laughed at the Wine Group in the US when it launched a wine called Cupcake – little understanding everything that lay behind that decision. Asked by the California-based firm to come up with fresh ideas, a young female intern from New York pointed out that young women in that city were treating themselves at the end of a long day with a sweet offering from the local bakery. Why not offer them the alternative of an off-dry glass of wine instead? Cupcake was a huge success – like Treasury’s 19 Crimes, a brand specifically devised to catch the interest of young American men who were not drinking wine.

The use of augmented reality (AR) labels for 19 Crimes in 2017 caught many people’s imagination but there was nothing really new about it. AR had been around for eight years and a few pioneering wine companies played with the technology long before Treasury but, naturally, they used it to display traditional winey imagery of cellars and barrels and vineyards. The 19 Crimes team knew that 25 year-old hip-hop fans in the mid-west wouldn’t be interested in any of that. So the criminals on their labels had precisely nothing to say about wine. And nor did Snoop Dogg, whose involvement with 19 Crimes’ first US wine reportedly helped SKUs that were projected to sell over the space of a year to fly off the shelves in under two months.

Of course that model is an outlier, but so is Embrazen, the Treasury brand whose AR talking female icons are aimed at a very different set of eyeballs. Some producers will certainly find that their audience will appreciate having a hologram walk them through the vines, pointing out variations in the soil. I’m talking to a consultancy client in Bordeaux about using the technology to allow people to watch brief video clips of the owner cooking dishes to enjoy with their meal. Different folks; different strokes.

‘But what about the wine?’ someone is bound to ask. Of course it has to taste good – at least to the people most likely to buy it – but in 2021 there’s little excuse for it not to taste good. And, as a well-known English playwright noted, a rose by any other name can smell just as sweet. The UK distributor, Paul Boutinot sold precisely the same wine as an appellation controlée Cotes du Ventoux with a traditional label, and as ‘Old Git’ with a cartoon on the label. I’ll leave it to you to guess which was the more popular.

But why stop at two names and labels? My guess is that over the next decade, just as Spotify and Netflix know what I like to listen to and watch, producers in every sector are going to become increasingly skilled at offering me what I want to buy – and the way it looks. Sometimes the products will vary according to the taste of the audience; sometimes maybe it will be the packaging. If Coca Cola can put 250 first names on its bottles and US political parties can individualise 150,000 – yes, you read that correctly – campaign ads, is it beyond a winery to direct-sell the same wine under a dozen different labels?

Maybe I’m a cynic, but I find it easy to imagine the same phone being supplied to John in a fancy box, and to Jean in recyclable cardboard. Jack may get his Sauvignon in a can, while Jackie may prefer the bottle. Which, when you come to think of it, is what the beer industry has been doing for years.

New wine styles are emerging, from cloudy natural wine on the one hand to wine aged in bourbon barrels on the other. Some of the most successful wines in the US are red blends like Orin Swift’s Machete and 8 Years in the Desert that sell for US$50-100 with eye-catching labels that reveal nothing about precisely where the grapes were grown, or the varieties that were used. I describe these as BOLIP – Bought Like Perfume; their fans like the way they look and taste, and that’s what matters. Natural wine lovers, on the other hand seem to prefer sketchy, often quite childish drawings, sometimes of female nudes that they might consider offensive in other contexts. As performers have discovered over the millennia, audiences can be quite surprising in what they choose to applaud.

And that’s why these are exciting times for anyone who takes in interest in wine packaging – and challenging ones for those in the industry who don’t. At least if they want to be able to afford to go on buying branded Akubra hats and RM Williams boots at US$500 a pair.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.


Watch Robert Joseph’s 2021 PACKWINE Forum presentation on the topic here: