Winemakers crack bottle problem
Kegs, boxes and flasks improve quality despite negative stereotypes
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
While eating dinner at an upscale pizza restaurant three years ago, winemaker Greg Paneitz noticed everybody around him was drinking beer.
He soon figured out why after ordering a glass of his own wine.
Prolonged exposure to air in the bottle -- or oxidation -- had changed the taste for the worse.
Dispensing wine straight from a keg would prevent this problem, since the empty space in such containers is filled with an inert gas instead of oxygen.
The episode prompted Paneitz, of Wooldridge Creek Vineyard & Winery in Grants Pass, Ore., to supply his restaurant clients with kegs of wine.
"Beer people have been doing this for a long time, so it's not an insurmountable challenge," he said.
Paneitz found kegs save a lot more than flavor.
It costs about half as much to produce a keg of wine as an equivalent amount bottled, labeled and corked.
"We're much more efficient than we used to be," he said.
Paneitz is not alone in thinking outside the bottle.
Winemakers are experimenting with cans, boxes, aluminum flasks and sealed single-serve plastic glasses, said Marilyn Hawkins, a public relations expert who moderated a panel about alternative wine packaging at the recent Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland.
"There's truly a revolution in how the wine makes it to the consumer's mouth," she said.
Glass bottles will always serve a purpose for people who want to age their wine, but other containers are useful for immediate consumption, said Gillian Brennen, sales representative for the TricorBraun WinePak packaging company.
"There's a lot of movement to alternative packaging for wine you want to drink today," she said.
Though glass bottles comprise nearly 90 percent of the market, alternative containers have made inroads and appear to have staying power, said Christian Miller, proprietor of the Full Glass Research market research firm.
"There's not much indication people think this is just a flash in the pan," Miller said.
Containers similar to juice boxes are the fastest growing alternative, followed by three-liter boxes, he said.
Some consumers and winemakers have reservations about such packages, primarily because they're associated with lower quality, Miller said.
To an extent, the perception of lower quality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Miller said. If more wines were offered in alternative forms, perceptions would change.
People who buy wine in boxes or other containers say they appreciate the convenience of pouring a single glass without compromising freshness, he said.
Boxed organic wines produced by Powers Winery and Badge Mountain Vineyard in Kennewick, Wash., have met a positive market response, said Mickey Dunne, its sales director and co-owner.
Though the availability of boxes has offset sales of the company's bottled wine, the net increase in revenues has justified the move, he said.
"We've found it's very good profitability," Dunne said.
While the cost advantages are appealing, companies must carefully evaluate their expenses, he said.
Filling boxes is generally slower than bottling, which inflates labor costs, Dunne said.
Similarly, labor costs are higher with kegs because the filling process runs in perpetuity as the containers are returned to the winery, Paneitz said. With bottles, the process is completed all at once.
Kegs and related equipment aren't cheap and everything the wine touches must be high-grade stainless steel or plastic -- otherwise, chemical reactions will corrupt the wine, he said.
"It was quite painful for us as far as the initial upfront cost," Paneitz said.