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Are Wine Drinkers Ready for Paper, Aluminum and Other Alternative Packaging?

My mother, a lifelong fan of fine wines from Sancerre, opened my fridge and was annoyed to see the only wine was a neon yellow box sitting between the broccoli and the chili crisp. “Do you have anything else?”

I didn’t. She settled for a glass of the boxed stuff. Thirty minutes later, she went back for a second.

A decade ago, the best and brightest examples from the alternative wine packaging category were plastic bladders of plonk, cans of fizzy, tinny wine and tetra packs best suited for binge-drinking twenty-somethings.

But over the last five years—as industry leaders, including critics Karen McNeil and Jancis Robinson, have increasingly drawn attention to the heavy carbon toll of producing and transporting glass bottles—eco-friendly packaging alternatives have seen a profound glow-up. A small but growing cadre of sustainability-focused California producers has leaned into these options, “bottling” high-quality wines in non-traditional containers made with materials like paper and aluminum.

In January of this year, Bogle Family Vineyards recently released Elemnt[al], a line of wines packaged in aluminum bottles, which weigh 80% less than standard glass bottles.

In May, Bonny Doon released a wine—Carbon-nay—packaged in FrugalPac: a recycled paper-based bottle with a food-grade PET lining. It’s fully recyclable, unbreakable and, more importantly to fans of the Central Coast brand, it contains the Bonny Doon wine they know and love.

But it’s not just big brands with big budgets jumping on the green bandwagon. Smaller labels have been embracing lighter-weight, more sustainable packaging, too.

Field Recordings offers large-format boxes. Las Jaras packages cool-kid natural wines in psychedelic cans. Sixty Vines pours glasses from dozens of kegs, produced by tapping big-name California vintners, like Ridge, Paul Hobbs and Diatom’s Greg Brewer.

With a growing slew of producers, both old and new, adopting avant-garde formats, it raises the question: Are consumers ready to forgo traditional glass bottles?

Thinking Inside the Box

Kristin Olszewski thinks so. Four years ago, she launched Nomadica, a line of sustainable California canned wines. The reception was initially bumpy.

“I was pushing a boulder up a hill advocating for canned wines,” says Olszewski. “It’s only now that people are getting it.”

These days, her repurchasing rates “are insane,” she says. So, to keep pushing the innovation needle forward, she’s planning to launch boxes next.

That format has been incredibly successful for Tablas Creek. In 2022, when proprietor Jason Haas redirected 100 cases of rosé into three-liter, bag-in-boxes, he was less interested in pursuing a mission than feeding his own curiosity. Would people purchase high-end boxed wine? “We just wanted to see if there was interest out there,” he shrugs.

The run—offered to email subscribers—sold out within four hours. “I spent that week responding to frustrated wine club members who had missed out,” he says.

In 2023, he doubled production. It sold out within a week. This year, he’s doubling up again.

Writer, educator and Wine Enthusiast Writer-at-Large Elaine Chukan Brown has poured Tablas Creek’s boxes blind at tastings. Consumers were pleasantly surprised. “No one suspected anything but glass from the wine’s quality,” she says.

Haas has found the same. “I think the wine community has consistently underestimated consumers’ willingness to try new stuff,” he says. “Especially if you give them a good explanation as to why.”

His newsletters and blogs outline the benefits: Boxes are space-efficient, less prone to oxygenation, far more sustainable and cost less to produce. Since Tablas Creek switched to lightweight glass in 2010, Haas estimates he’s saved more than two billion pounds of glass and millions of dollars in supply and shipping costs. Boxes are continuing this momentum.

“After releasing, we fielded 50 calls from other wineries,” says Haas. “They were interested in doing the same, but they just didn’t want to be the first.”

Jody Bogle has seen similar interest. “When we launched Element[al], I got calls and emails from around the world,” she says. At Prowein, she was cornered. “How did we do it? How is it going? We’re working on something similar—can we share notes?”

When Woody Hambrecht closed Haus Aperitif in 2022, he and winemaker Ross Dawkins redirected their attention to launching Ami Ami. The Healdsburg-based brand focuses on 1.5-liter boxes succinctly labeled white, orange, rosé and red.

There have been hurdles. “We’re a new brand in a historic industry that is currently in a double dip downturn,” says Dawkins. Still, all things considered, the obstacles are fewer than they expected. Consumers are game, as are restaurants.

Ami Ami Vin Orange
Image Courtesy of Ami Ami

Benefits of Boxes, Bags and More

At Healdsburg’s Little Saint, beverage director Laurel Livezey stocks Ami Ami boxes and Maker cans on their by-the-glass menu. From a business perspective, it actually makes more sense than bottles. Cans are single-serve and boxed wines stay fresh for up to six weeks.

“If it’s 8 p.m. on a Monday night and we’re closed till Wednesday, we’re not going to open a new bottle for a customer: it wouldn’t last,” says Livezey. “A box would. These products are beneficial to our cost of goods.”

At Bar Vendetta in Toronto, local wines are kegged and served via draft tap. “I don’t think the consumer really cares when it comes to by-the-glass packaging in restaurants—they don’t ever see it,” says partner and wine director Jake Skakun. “There’s no real difference from the consumer standpoint.”

As industry sales slump and producers are left scrambling for new solutions, these formats offer similar benefits to at-home consumers. For the sober-curious (as much of the country now is), boxed wine and cans are highly stable, meaning they can sit in the fridge for weeks without worry or waste—thereby decreasing the pressure to drink an entire bottle within days.

Bottles and cans made from aluminum and paper are portable, enabling drinkers to bring them to parks, hiking trails, pools and other places they’re unlikely to bring a heavy bottle, which also potentially features a hard-to-remove cork.

Monthly blind trials and focus group tastings by the Bogle camp have shown that the majority of drinkers are unable to tell the difference between wines in glass and wines in aluminum. Even more significantly, these tests have found that these formats are incredibly appealing to women between the ages of 21 to 39. “That’s the holy grail demographic the industry is trying to capture right now,” says Bogle.

Dawkins finds these young drinkers love the nostalgia of alternative formats—the college hangovers of boxed wine have had time to dissipate. “Everyone drank it in college, but that’s no longer a bad thing,” he says. “People haven’t seen boxed wine in 15 years. It’s nostalgic, and they’re excited!”

Bogle Element Al Wine bottles
Image Courtesy of Bogle

New Guard, New Problems

If consumers are down with alt packages, why has the category been slow to grow?

The issue is, while the alternative packaging space isn’t new, innovation within the category is. “There’s no infrastructure for small- to medium-sized producers,” says Haas. “There aren’t even mobile bottling lines that can drive up with the equipment.”

Tablas Creek had to rent a very slow, semi-automated filler that required the team to build the boxes, then fill the bags one at a time.

When Bogle Family Vineyards first dreamt up the aluminum bottle in 2020, they called every engineering facility available. No one could produce it. “So, we walked away,” says Bogle. “Three months later, one of the engineers called us back.” They had invested in new equipment. It was time.

“There’s so many questions you need to ask yourself in this process,” says Andrew Nelson, partner of Bonny Doon Vineyard. “It’s not just about making good wine. Will the wine oxidize in transport? Will it leak? Can it be moved around with a forklift? Can it be stacked in a truck without getting crushed? Our entire industry’s supply chain is really built around the glass bottle.”

Like manufacturers, retailers are prickly to forward-thinkers. “The biggest challenge we face is that retailers are still skeptical, even though buyers are not,” says Olszewski.

Not all retailers are resistant to change. Bonny Doon’s FrugalPac was actually pitched to them by Doug Bell, who handles adult beverages at Whole Foods. Bonny Doon founder Randall Grahm has always been known for nonconformity—who better to test drive cardboard bottles?

A month or so in, the response has been overwhelmingly positive—despite growing pains.

Boony Doon Carbon...nay
Image Courtesy of Boony Doon

I recently popped Bonny Doon’s paper bottle in an ice bucket to chill. It was a mistake: the bottle began to disintegrate in my hands. (To their credit, the bottle says it should be chilled in the fridge, but instincts kicked in. “We might have to make that more clear,” says Nelson.)

The canned sector is still haunted by tinny specters. According to the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, higher levels of hydrogen sulfide are found in cans, which can cause cans to turn quickly. “Not every wine can or should go into cans,” says Olszewski.

Because the category was long dominated by utility, value-driven canned wines, today’s producers need to be extremely careful about which wines they can—making a good wine doesn’t mean it will can well. "We can’t cut corners,” says Olszewski. “You can’t risk losing more consumers.”

Other naysayers will argue that boxes, cans and aluminum bottles aren’t built to age.

Ageability, however, is a moot point for most wine drinkers. A Sonoma State University study found 90% of consumers open and consume a bottle of wine within two weeks of purchase.

Despite shifts in drinking habits and values, the larger wine industry continues to be resistant to change. Even so, sustainability leaders like Haas are heartened that more wineries are experimenting with these new formats.

“I’m a big believer in not letting perfect be the enemy of the good,” says Haas. “Based on the technology we have right now, these are good environmental solutions, particularly for wines people are going to be drinking in the next six to twelve months.”

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