Will wine in plastic bottles succeed in Australia?

There’s a saying going around the industry that you can always tell a Foster’s wine executive – but you can’t tell them much. It shows in every part of their faltering wine empire, and even in a recent press release announcing the launch in Australia of wine in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles.

It’s an admirable, environmentally friendly initiative. But did anyone check the facts? And where’s the corporate memory?

The press release claims, “In an Australian first, Wolf Blass has released its latest range of wines producing 29% less greenhouse gas emissions. The new Wolf Blass Green Label wines come in a lightweight recyclable plastic bottle”.

It seems the attention-getting headline outranked truth, as Queensland’s Sirromet winery released its First Step range in PET plastic several months ahead of the Wolf Blass launch.

And what about corporate memory? Has Foster’s forgotten that it served Seppelt Fleur de Lys bubbly from PET bottles during Flemington’s spring carnival in 2006 – and added Wolf Blass table wine in PET bottles to the carnival menu in 2007?

These probably were the wine industry’s first use of 750ml PET bottles in Australia. And Foster’s had been an early mover in other markets, too, having launched PET-bottled Wolf Blass wine Canada in 2007 and the UK shortly afterwards.

And even before that, because of its lightness and safety, PET bottles rapidly replaced glass in the fast-growing single-serve market, dominated by those little 187ml bottles served on aircraft.

This seems to have sparked their successful uptake by consumers in the US – led by 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.

Both Foster’s and Sirromet push the environmental credentials of PET. Foster’s attributes much of the reduced carbon footprint to a “90% weight reduction of the 51gm PET bottle used for [Wolf Blass] Green Label compared to the industry standard glass bottle”. The lighter bottle contributes to a 36% reduction in the overall weight of the product, they claim.

But will this be enough to win wine drinkers over? In an online survey by Choice in 2007 those calling wine in PET bottles “sacrilegious” slightly outnumbered those saying they’d embrace it – but are outnumbered by those who don’t care.

We should remember, too, that almost half of the wine consumed in Australia reaches our dinner tables via the flexible bladder crammed inside chateau cardboard.

But not since the cask appeared some 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 sections of the trade boycott wine coolers packed in lunchbox-sized tetra packs. 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 enjoying a modicum of success. And several makers have succeeded with wine in cans – most notably Italy’s Rich Prosecco, spruiked in Europe’s fashionable ski resorts 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. Two years back, as they launched PET in Canada, Foster’s said that a 750ml PET bottle weighed 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. By my reckoning the forklift carries 266–496 kilograms less in every pallet; each 1000-case shipping container weighs 4.1–7.7 tonnes less; and the case you lug to your car weighs 4.1–7.7 kilograms less.

And the bottle even looks less bulky. The 750ml Sirromet sample in front of me, for example, looks like it might be 500ml.

At this stage, though, PET’s use will be limited to early-drinking wines as slight air permeability means 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 and that the power of convenience and good sense should not be underestimated.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009