Would You Drink Fine Wine From a Paper Bottle?

Wine packaging has gone through a wild transition over the past two decades. Prior to this relatively fresh movement, consumer desires had been affixed to a glass-or-nothing mentality for so long that an upheaval of the current level was nearly unthinkable.

Glass in all its permutations and assorted clever designs still confidently reigns with few challengers in the segments ranging from super-premium (about $20-plus) on up, but the diversity and growing market strength of alternatives is nonetheless noteworthy at this juncture — and would be outright shocking to any DeLorean-driving visitors from the past.

The now-normalized staple, boxed wine, has found a home with college bag-slappers, casual restaurant BTG programs, and garage refrigerators worldwide. Single-serve cans strut their stuff as the cool kids in the picnic day-drinking scene. Kegged wine, TetraPaks, plastic bottles, and even aluminum 750-milliliter renditions all now compete for retail shelf and bar space.

The newest contender? An adorably designed 750-milliliter bottle in paper-based form.

The When, Where, and Who of Paper Wine Bottles

About 50 wine drinkers — pros, amateur aficionados, and newbies — responded to a VinePair survey asking if they’d be down with service from what is essentially reimagined boxed wine. While this sample size isn’t remotely comprehensive, the results nonetheless offer a surprising glimpse into the current wine-consumer psyche.

The cultural image of alternative packaging has clearly come a long way, with almost 85 percent of the respondents declaring their willingness to drink wine packaged in a paper-based bottle — despite only one-third of them having drunk boxed wine in the past five years. This telling disparity shows that the product is definitely on to something.

“The brands using our Frugal Bottles are seeing strong, repeat sales,” says Paula Kendall, the commercial manager for the novel configuration at U.K. packaging manufacturer Frugalpac. “From our own research, we knew that demand for the bottles existed before its launch in 2020.”

The underlying concept of Frugalpac’s paper-based bottle isn’t exactly groundbreaking. The basic premise has been in use for decades in the form of trusty supermarket standby bag-in-box. In essence, it’s more or less the same thing: a recyclable plastic bladder in a paper-based container.

But what a difference the shape can make.

One is a practical and utilitarian basic brick. The other? Still just as practical, but also an attractive beauty. It’s oppressive brutalism versus neoclassical charm. The simple sleight of hand in appearance seems to radically alter the consumer perception.

“As a veteran of the wine industry, I do find it inspiring to see R&D going further down this path to finding creative and productive ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint.”

Boxed wine — undoubtedly a very similar package in a technical sense — just feels, well, cheap. Like something that belongs crammed into a dorm room mini-fridge or on the line in a restaurant kitchen. Sure, it earns high marks for getting the job done, but there’s something about the aesthetic psychology of that bottle silhouette.

“Our bottles are designed in the shape of a Bordeaux bottle,” Kendall explains. “So they’re familiar to consumers.” It’s that affinity that seems to make up for at least part of the gulf in perception between the multifarious family of alternatives and classic, gloriously timeless glass.

Notably, about half of the survey respondents claim they’d bring the new alternative bottle to a special-event party, dinner party, or, astoundingly, even buy one as a gift — all situations in which a traditional boxed wine would likely be perceived as gauche.

Most wine consumers in the European market are already acclimated to this sort of packaging style, making the heavy lifting of converting the masses on that continent rather easier. “Living in Europe, I’m used to purchasing liquid products in Tetra-Brik formats as well as bag-in-box wine and olive oil, and therefore the packaging concept is familiar,” says April Cullom, Spain-based president of international wine and food marketing outfit Global Bridges. “As a veteran of the wine industry, I do find it inspiring to see R&D going further down this path to finding creative and productive ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint.” Everything from juice to unrefrigerated UHT milk frequently gets the alt-packaging treatment. So for Europeans, it’s a relatively breezy sell.

“If the ‘natural wine’ world could get behind it, I think that would normalize the packaging for Gen Z and most millennials, too.”

In the U.S. though, the push to adopt likely requires a bit more force. It’s a country which, to some degree, still bows before the altar of heavy glass as a sign of intrinsic quality. And for many, especially within older generations, the alternative bottle will remain a hard pass for life.

Despite an outright “no” from some hardliners, the global army of wine professionals clearly have a mutually beneficial role to play in winning more alt-packaging converts, especially when catering to the younger generations.

That is, if it can just get out of its own way.

“Don’t be a wine snob, to start,” Cullom adds. “As wine professionals it’s in our benefit to endorse sustainable packaging initiatives that also help introduce wine to a new generation in a way that is environmentally responsible without incurring more costs.” The global wine market is already in crisis mode, and sustainable creativity and aesthetic adorableness will certainly aid the ongoing rescue mission.

Billy Duplain, beverage consultant and former beverage director at San Francisco institution Gus’s Market, thinks there’s an even easier way to worm into the hearts and minds of youthful adults: “natural wine.” And whether one drinks the Kool-Aid or despises the movement’s arguably flawed dogma, he makes a pragmatic point regarding wine adoption on the whole. “If the ‘natural wine’ world could get behind it, I think that would normalize the packaging for Gen Z and most millennials, too,” Duplain says. “With the popularity and mainstream inklings in that scene, it could really take off.”

On board or not with the concept, virtuous and charming packaging like the paper-based bottle could present a powerful defense for a global industry and cultural touchstone under siege.

The Glass Wine Bottle Mystique Endures

But back to that survey. When it comes to glass versus alternative packaging, two lines in the sand sharply define overall acceptance: price and setting.

Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible” and digital newsletter WineSpeed, is a vocal supporter of sustainable innovation. Yet even she was a bit taken aback by her own answers to the survey. “I see how illogical my responses are and sometimes even contradictory,” MacNeil says. She just didn’t feel it appropriate to use the new design at dinner parties or special events, nor at higher-end restaurants and bars. “It goes to show that our reactions to alternative packaging are emotional and based on perception, as much as they are based on fact and intellect.”

Few respondents felt willing to shell out anything over $30 for Frugalpac’s design. And despite the product winning about half of them for a special-event setting, dinner party, or as a gift, that still leaves the other half outright rejecting the notion.

And then there’s the aging issue. Frugalpac itself readily admits that the innovative idea doesn’t really translate to wines that can or should be tucked away for a couple years or more. “Glass bottles will always have their place for laying down wines to age,” says Kendall. Yet she counters with a cold and frequently misunderstood truth: “Ninety percent of the world’s wine is produced to be consumed within a year, so there’s no need to put it in heavy, carbon-intensive glass bottles.”

So while the design will likely never feel the embrace of serious Burgundy, Napa, or Brunello, it can readily adapt to the needs of wines such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Beaujolais Nouveau.

Paper wine bottles are the newest contender in the sustainable wine packaging space.
Credit: Frugalpac

Production and shipping weight of glass bottles remains a vexing issue for an industry seeking to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint. As a result, the alt-packaging wars are raging, with each division waging its own campaign for the ultimate prize: a large slice of the $400 billion global wine market. While they’ll all play some kind of role — unless some are ultimately axed by regulations — only the fortunate few will consolidate their advances into a commanding market position alongside glass.

The paper-based bottle has a fighting chance to dominate the conversation and pick up even more market share and eco street cred as new innovations in materials are folded into the overall concept.

Is there still recyclable plastic involved? Yes. And isn’t it basically just an aesthetic reworking of an existing format? Sure. The product isn’t perfect, but it’s a clever step in the right direction — while also being just a damn cute party trick.

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