Even as the sommellerie loves to honor tradition, working sommeliers spend their days (and nights!) addressing and accommodating an endless stream of new technologies. Winemaking methods, inventory and commercial tracking systems, even the very stemware used to serve wine continue to evolve and expand.
One technology, however, has proven extremely resistant to change. We’re talking here about glass under a natural cork closure. These have persisted precisely because it is hard to imagine a simpler and more effective piece of technology. A piece of glass and a bit of bark serve as guardians to the divinest delights of the grape. It is both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional, and as noted by Nina Jensen, sommelier at the two-star Restaurant Alchemist in Copenhagen: “Nothing gives quite the same aging as natural cork.”
The turmoil of the COVID pandemic has presented an unparalleled opportunity to reassess all elements of the sommelier’s trade. Glass-and-natural-cork bottles are no exception. Yet what are the alternatives? And are they compatible with the mission of the modern sommelier?
Understanding the appeal of glass and natural cork
Sometimes old technologies die hard. It’s not enough that newer technology exists with the same functionality. It’s a question of trust. Faxes and paper ballot voting machines are considered safe and un-hackable; vinyl records provide a crackly sound that many audiophiles consider warmer and less sterile.
With this in mind, it is easy to see glass-and-cork as the symbol of an entire industry. As Vicki Denig wrote on Vinepair: “Cork’s pros are pretty obvious: history, sound, ritual, aesthetic, and aging capacity.” That is the spectacle that many diners evoke when they want to impress or be impressed at the tableside.
From the sommelier side, glass-and-cork represents the training bedrock upon which everything else is built. Experience is predicated upon the presentation of wine bottles new and old, as well as in smooth handling of potential challenges from decanting old wines to quick identification of TCA. Furthermore, there is a detailed collective knowledge within the sommelier community on the development curve of wines under glass-and-natural-cork, lending a sense of certainty to planning.
Yet nobody would deny that this tradition is also beset with flaws. For starters, while recyclable, glass is not particularly beneficial for the environment, at least by comparison. It is heavy, breakable, and because of its rounded shape does not stack well. Each of these factors enlarges its carbon footprint significantly.
Cork is also problematic. Like those crackly vinyl records, it is the favorite of a great many aficionados, who feel that its breathability gives something to the wine found nowhere else. Yet it is also susceptible to breakage and bacterial infestations that lead to massive losses — as much as two to eight percent by some reckonings. Were it not for the massive inertia of tradition, it seems unlikely any industry would willingly absorb such losses.
The question is not how to replace glass-and-natural-cork, but rather where can it reasonably be supplemented to provide a better experience for all involved?
Global demand for wine packaging — including containers, closures, and accessories — is expected to rise 2.3% per year reaching USD 22.8 billion in 2020, a recent study from The Freedonia Group found. In 2015, 85% of those revenues went to glass.
Yet change is very clearly on the horizon in the retail world. The ‘Millennial’ generation, one of the largest in history, has proven a dedicated consumer of wine, yet much less beholden than its Boomer counterpart to the established vinuous traditions. A recent Italian study of consumers’ attitudes toward sustainable packaging found that Millennials (ages 21 – 39) do tend to start from a default position of preferring glass packaging. However, once made aware of the environmental friendliness of the alternative options, their willingness to re-assess climbs to 62 percent.
Initial polling of Gen-Z, the generation behind the Millennials, shows even greater openness. Victoria Hayson, a New Zealand-based somm, reports seeing this anecdotally as well: “Wine in a can hasn’t taken off yet,
but there is potential for Generation Z to move to this due to the current trend of ‘Seltzers’ that is doing well, some of these are wine with soda which has lower calories as a selling point. These ‘Seltzers’ also do well due to ease of recycling and therefore concern for the environment.”
The interest of potential consumers, and hence the market of the future, are clearly there.
Alternative Packaging Options
The options for replacing cork have been debated and reviewed many times in the sommelier community, to mixed results. (See interview with Stéphane Vidal [link TBA] from Vinventions.) We will instead focus on the major alternative packaging options currently on the market: non-glass containers, boxed (bag-in-box) wines, differently formed bottles and cask wine.
Each of these technologies addresses some aspect of the sustainability issues raised by wine. Non-glass containers, for example, share a bottle’s shape, but are available in a variety of materials to match different scenarios. Perhaps the most prevalent are plastic bottles, often in a small format and sold in multi-packs, typically for use in scenarios where glass is either impermissible — sports stadiums, for example — or impractical, such as on a long hike.
Plastic, even recyclable plastic, is not without its own environmental concerns, however, which has given rise to “alternatives to the alternative.” One growing candidate is wine-in-cans, which offer almost unbeatable practicality and, in the opinion of their proponents, complete taste neutrality.
Yet aluminium, as a mined product, has environmental concerns of its own. A number of green niche products have arisen to fill the gap; it remains to be seen which will prove most viable. The biggest candidates: bottles made from paper, with a plastic liner, and bottles made from wood or plant matter, such as rattan.
Moving away from the bottle shape, we immediately encounter an alternative that is not new at all. Bag-in-box technology has existed for decades with several major selling points. First is its durability. BIB, as it is informally known, is robust and stackable with a long shelf life. Beyond this, the interior of the bag remains in vacuum even as the wine is poured, meaning the remaining wine does not oxidize. Furthermore, recent years have seen improvements in all aspects of this system, from the quality of the plastics used in the liner to the reliability of the tap. Among consumers, this format has been a winner in many countries over the last twelve months.
Small casks of wine are also increasingly in vogue. These reusable containers are similar to the mini-kegs that have been available around the world for many years, and as such are already familiar to consumers.
Finally, some producers have begun releasing their wines in glass or plastic bottles with alternative shapes for greater environmental sustainability. The most prominent example of this are flat bottles, with the look and tactile feel of glass, but can be packed and stacked more efficiently to cut production and transport emissions.
Just as glass-and-natural-cork has flaws, so do each of these systems.
Perhaps the biggest issue is also the most counterintuitive: familiarity with a given format or technology seems to breed contempt more than sympathy. Regardless of what the science says, there is a sense among some consumers that these familiar technologies are simply inferior to glass-and-natural-cork. That cans and tetra paks are far better suited for supermarket shelves than wine racks. This has proven a major hurdle to older consumers in particular. A study by Wine Intelligence, Vintrac Global found that “Mature wine drinkers aged 55+ are less likely to purchase wine in alternative packaging than younger drinkers, with the exception of bag-in-box in most markets.”
Accepting that emotional associations won’t be won with rational arguments; many producers have opted to focus instead on younger markets. Unfortunately, it seems their ham-handed attempts to communicate youthfulness and fun have time and time again conveyed a sense of commonplace. In a study conducted by the University of Texas entitled “Millennial Wine Consumers: Attitudes towards Alternative Wine Packaging” one of the participants admitted, “I feel like they [marketers] gear a lot of cheaper wines towards [younger Millennials], so the labels and the packaging always look really cheap.”
Even if they don’t view alternative formats as the best option from a qualitative standpoint, Millennials have at least shown some openness to new options. The key is not the marketing aspect of the packaging per se, but rather how the formats fit situational needs, including concerns for the environment. If a can means less weight on a hike or a bag-in-box can provide 4 bottles of wine in one package for a party, then they are at least willing to give it a try.
The other options discussed so far — flat bottles, paper or rattan bottles — suffer from a different problem. As newer or niche technologies, they lack the uniform standards to make them attractive to wholesalers and restaurants. It is entirely unclear that investments in any given technology — such as shelving to hold the flat bottles — will not prove wasted in a few year’s time.
Lessons for the sommelier
The musings above largely reflect consumer preferences in retail scenarios. The underlying concerns of floor sommeliers are, of course, somewhat different. First and foremost is concern about providing a superior consumer experience. The baseline expectation might well be the classic presentation of the bottle with a showy cork pull and nosing, then the pouring of one glass for inspection by the person ordering the wine. This ritual has endured precisely because it is theatrical yet necessary, and thus transfers a certain halo from the sommelier’s aura of expertise onto the customer doing the ordering.
This ritual is inherently disrupted by many, if not all, of the alternative packaging options. There is no point in providing a small taste from a bag-in-box; TCA is not an issue. To do so anyway runs the risk of making the entire procedure seem pointless and staged, even kitschy.
Similarly, because of the aforementioned emotional associations with many of these formats, it seems unlikely that they will be appropriate for fine dining any time soon. To be fair, even when it comes to beer or soft drinks, cans are rarely brought to the table; as such, the public-facing benefit of the format over other by-the-glass options is largely moot. Bag-in-box seems entirely unsuited for tableside service as well, as is the cask option except perhaps in heavily niche situations such as beachside service.
Where there might be space for these alternatives is on the fringes, at least at first. As Manuel Negrete, a wine educator and sommelier at Wine Bar by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Mexico City, notes: “People react quickly how the products are shown to the market, so a new kind of packaging will always draw attention.” For example, restaurants with a focus on sustainability might well be able to sell a fine wine in a paper bottle if they hail its environmental goodness.
The changes brought by Corona might also allow for a few of these formats to creep into even fine dining establishments. Many restaurants have been forced to re-envision their to-go options, including in some cases the use of canned or small-format wine bottles. Some observers speculate that these options have actually become increasingly ingrained in the expectations of younger consumers and will endure even when Corona restrictions are lifted.
As one generation ages out and another takes the reins, creativity may well rule the day. Bruno Scavo of the Monte-Carlo SBM Resort sums it up succinctly: “These new consumers are sensitive to modern, funny and new design labels. They do not care whether the wine is closed with a cork or alternatives, these wines should only correspond to their own taste and not to the father’s or grandfather’s tradition.”
Glass and natural cork endures not because it is inherently best, but rather because it is tradition. The younger generations, who will be dictating wine consumption in and out of gastronomy in the years to come, seem open to new options, especially where they are better tailored to fit their needs. As such, each sommelier can and should assess whether alternative packaging might fit their restaurant’s context… helping preserve the environment and minimize cork taint losses, all in one fell swoop.