Plastic set to take a slice of the glass wine bottle market

About half of the wine consumed in Australia reaches our dinner tables via a plastic container – the flexible bladder crammed inside chateau cardboard. But will we embrace the polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic bottle so readily?

Not since the cask appeared more than thirty years ago have we embraced any non-glass packaging so enthusiastically.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the four-litre cask (known more aptly in other markets as bag-in-box) drove the humble two-litre glass flagon from our shelves. Today only cheap fortified wines come in flagons, although the diminutive ‘goon’ lives on as the twenty-something’s jargon for cheap wine.

Various cheap, strong, light and appealing alternatives to glass and casks have enjoyed niche but not mainstream success.

In the eighties we saw wine coolers packed in lunchbox-sized tetra packs boycotted by sections of the trade. Some retailers feared that the fruit-juice-like appearance might appeal to underage drinkers, or that children might even confuse it for juice.

We’ve since seen some attempts at packing wine in one-litre tetra packs. And several makers have enjoyed success with wine in cans – most notably Italy’s Rich Prosecco, touted by Paris Hilton.

But the successes are isolated and to date haven’t appealed to mainstream wine drinkers. However, environmental concerns about glass – particularly regarding its weight, high handling and transport costs and safety – mean that alternatives have to found.

As environmental concerns, backed by public policy, now dovetail with commercial cost-cutting needs, the number of alternatives is sure to grow. And PET plastic looks to be a strong favourite.

Like glass it’s strong, can be moulded into bottle shape, enjoys a long history as a drink container and is recyclable.

Unlike glass it’s comparatively light and won’t break into dangerous shards – which is good – but it’s not completely airtight, which is not so good.

Lightness is it’s overwhelming advantage over glass. Troy Hey of Foster’s says that a 750ml PET bottle weighs around 54 grams, compared to a glass bottle’s 400–700 grams.

That means a significant energy saving for every inch of a wine’s journey. The forklift carries 266–496 kilograms less in every pallet; each 1000-case shipping container weighs 4.1–7.7 tonnes less; and your car carries 4.1–7.7 kilograms less weight for every case taken home.

And the bottle even looks less bulky. On a visit to Foster’s Wolf Blass Barossa Winery in April, PET bottles on display looked small – 500ml I wondered? But no, said winemaker Chris Hatcher, these were 750ml bottles currently being exported to Canada.

At this stage, he said, they were being used for early-drinking wines only as slight air permeability meant a shorter shelf life than for the same wine in glass. Since most wine is drunk shortly after purchase, this perhaps makes the majority of wine a candidate for a PET bottle.

And will we wine drinkers accept the new packaging? A fair bit of evidence says that we will.

Indirectly, we’ve seen the dramatic take up of screw caps in the past decade. This can be viewed largely as a triumph of convenience over tradition – even if winemakers originally drove the change on quality grounds. The screw cap acceptance suggests that wine drinkers are not all that conservative.

More directly this decade PET bottles have rapidly replaced glass in the fast-growing single-serve market, dominated by those little 187ml bottles we drink on aircraft.

These have been particularly successful in the US where they were introduced under Fetzer’s Valley Oaks brand early in 2005 and followed in August the same year by Foster’s California based Stone Cellars by Beringer brand.

At the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference early this month, Jamie O’Dell, Foster’s Managing Director Australia, Asia and Pacific, announced plans to launch the Wolf Blass Green Label wine range in PET bottles in the UK this month.

O’Dell said that the launch follows development work in Canada and that the key advantages of the bottles were lightness and quietness in transport, reduced potential to break and their safety for outside events.

Consumer research, he reported, suggests that people find the environmental message relevant (provided it’s backed by useful facts) and that they like the look of the packaging.

On a more practical level, Foster’s offered its popular Seppelt Fleur de Lys bubbly in PET bottles at Flemington during last year’s spring carnival. Its success means that punters at this year’s carnival will be offered Wolf Blass reds and whites from PET bottles.

While it’s a long shot to project retail success from crowd behaviour at the races, the forces driving the move to lighter, stronger packaging won’t go away. If anything, they’ll intensify.

If the PET bottle’s not much in our minds at present – nor even on retail shelves – my bet is that it’s poised to take a good slice of the market from glass bottles.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007