Milk in a glass bottle -- once the beverage's primary vessel -- is a nostalgic throwback these days, and glass containers for soda and bottled water have given way to lighter, cheaper and more practical plastic. Is wine next?
Winemakers have already experimented with alternative packaging; boxed wines have been around for many years, and more recently, producers have tried out aluminum cans and plastic bottles. But two U.S. wine producers -- Three Thieves and Canandaigua Wine Co. -- are taking a new step away from American tradition by releasing inexpensive wines in cartons made by Tetra Pak, one of the world's largest beverage-packaging manufacturers.
Tetra Pak cartons are made of layers of paper and aluminum foil sandwiched between layers of polyethylene. The cartons are already popular wine containers in Europe and South America, and are used globally as packaging for a variety of beverages, such as milk, fruit juice and soup.
Three Thieves -- a partnership between winemakers Charles Bieler, director of U.S. sales for Château Routas in France, Joel Gott of Joel Gott Wines in California and Roger Scommegna, founder of the Signal Ridge brand in California -- already has experience with nonconformist wine vessels. Last summer, the trio released their first three wines -- a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a California Cabernet and a California Zinfandel, all of which retail for around $12 -- in 1-liter bottles topped with screw caps.
"The wine industry has done such a poor job designing wines that fit with American lives," said Bieler. "Everybody spits out the same 750ml bottle, and our jug wine taught us that the industry hasn't given enough credit to the average wine drinker and their ability to try out new formats."
After selling the entire 29,500-case release of their first jug wines, the three partners wanted to branch out into new kinds of packaging for a new white wine. Then Scommegna visited a supermarket in Italy and was inspired by what he witnessed. "He saw this giant pyramid made from cartons of wine, and watched it for a couple of hours," Bieler said. "He was absolutely blown away by the volume of wine that disappeared from this display; everybody, young and old, were grabbing these cartons of wine and tossing it in their carts."
The partners decided to "carton" their new wine in Tetra Pak's 1-liter Tetra Brik container. The Tetra Pak can dramatically reduce the cost of packaging and shipping, Bieler said, and the savings can be passed on to the customer. "It only costs about 15 cents for each carton -- label and all," he said. "That's the cost of a cork for most wineries."
Bandit Bianco, a Trebbiano from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, will cost around $6 and be released in June, initially only in the United States. Three Thieves plans on producing about 20,000 cases of 15 cartons each.
Canadaigua Wine Co., a subsidiary of wine giant Constellation Brands, will release its Almaden Red Sangria, a wine with added fruit flavors, later this month in major chains and convenience stores such as Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven. The wine, which retails for $3.50, will be packaged in Tetra Pak's new 500ml Prisma carton, an octagonal box about the size of a can of soda. The Prisma has a peel-off top, and Almaden's Sangria is the first wine to be packaged in the new design. Wine from a carton might not be a huge transition for Almaden customers, as the company has long been selling its wines in cardboard boxes with plastic bladders.
Bieler hopes the new cartons will make wine more accessible to U.S. consumers. "The average American still doesn't own a corkscrew," he said. "Like the jug, the Tetra Pak is a challenging format. But it has its advantages, and I hope it will get more Americans drinking wine."