Beyond the cork mystic

December 3, 2009

 

altEver want to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the people who design packages?

Like the guy who designed cereal boxes, for instance. He obviously doesn’t eat cereal or he would know that you can’t open the box without tearing the flaps needed to re-close the box.

How about the person who invented that hard plastic shrink wrap that requires a reciprocating saw to open?

This is a wine column, so naturally I’m aiming at something here. A few years ago, in a moment of candor, I heard the CEO of a large winery say that wine bottles are among the most consumer-hostile packages around.

The industry asks customers to go out and buy a special tool just to open the package. Then the customer has to cut around a tin foil, wrestle that special tool through a plug and lever it out. If the bottle is not consumed in a single sitting, you must force the cork back into the bottle or buy another special device to take the cork’s place.

Now, I understand many of you consider this ritual to be a part of the romance of drinking wine. But it excludes an entire segment of potential customers. I had a friend who was in her ninth decade when she confessed to me that she had switched to cheap, screw-top wines because she no longer could open corked bottles.

The irony is that the screw top is superior to corks. It eliminates “cork taint” a fungi and chemical contamination that can ruin wine. The incidence of cork taint or “corked” wine is a matter of dispute – mainly between cork producers and screw top manufacturers. Claims range from less than one percent to as high as seven percent.

So, why aren’t more expensive wines using screw tops?

Some are, but many wineries seem afraid of the stereotype that screw tops are a sure sign of cheap “plonk.” Perception triumphs over reality. So, the industry continues to work on ways to eliminate cork taint while retaining the cork.

Here’s the real kicker: the only package that rates lower in the wine fan’s mind than screw tops is boxed wine. And of course, the wine box is the best container of all for wine.

The box, with a collapsing bag of wine inside, eliminates the mortal enemy of all wines: oxidation. Wines oxidize when left in contact with air over time. That’s why a week-old opened bottle of wine becomes undrinkable. The collapsing bag prevents air from contacting the wine. That means boxed wine will remain fresh for several weeks.

But American wine consumers associate boxed wine with those five-liter boxes found in grocery stores, filled with what used to be called “jug wine.” While the quality of that wine has improved over the years, it still is lower end stuff.

Wine boxes are popular and used for more expensive wines in other countries, notably Australia and France, where consumers are apparently less hung up on stereotypes.

In addition to the oxidation issue, boxes are more convenient for parties and picnics, beaches or pools where glass is unwelcome.

Some U.S. producers have introduced higher quality wines in smaller, three-liter boxes with some success. Delicato with the Bota Box, and Corbett Canyon have put “fighting varietal” wines in boxes, a step up from traditional boxed wines, but still in the lower price range. Black Box wines are higher quality yet, they’re in an, um, black box.

A quick survey of grocery store and wine shop shelves, however, makes it clear they have not caught on in any significant way.

Price may be an issue. A shopper is OK with shelling out $15 or $20 for a nice bottle of cabernet, but a three-liter box is going to be $60 to $80, though there probably will be a discount for the cheaper, lighter packaging. It’s likely less expensive in the long run, but it may not fit into the weekly grocery budget.

But the bigger stumbling block, again, is perception. In the minds of many consumers, boxed wines and screw tops equal cheap, inferior wine. Until we get beyond that, cork taint, oxidation and cork screws will be with us.

Hmmm. I wonder if they could put a screw top on a cereal box.

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