ON INNOVATION: A Talk about Alternative Packaging with Robert Joseph

14 Apr 2021


Robert Joseph has never been a sommelier in the real meaning of the word, but he did serve wine in his parent’s restaurant in the south of England, which is where he fell under the spell of the product and learned to respect everyone involved in it. Having imported wine from France probably one of the first shipments of Fitou into the UK in the mid-1970s for the restaurant and a few other trade customers at the age of 19, he then went to live in Burgundy. Initially in Beaune, then in the hills above Pommard. On his return to Britain five years later, he founded Wine International magazine, and began writing his column in the Sunday Telegraph. With Charles Metcalfe, he also launched the International Wine Challenge in the UK and then Asia and Russia. In 2005, after the sale of the magazine and the IWC, he together with two partners conceived of Le Grand Noir as a French New World-style brand, helped to start Meininger’s Wine Business International and established his successful consultancy to wine regions and companies.


When you received the 2018 Vinventions Innovation Award, you said: “Packaging will change. There is no reason for 90% of the world’s wine to be in 75cl glass bottles.” How has it changed, and has consumer acceptance kept pace?

We’re just at the beginning of 2021 and 2020 was… well, rather a strange year that may not be a model to use for future trends. But the 1.5l ‘bagnum’ described by Jancis Robinson as ‘the future’ has caught a lot of interest, and the Coop chain in the UK reported a 300 per cent increase in sales of this format and bag-in-box during the first phase of lockdown

Also, as the Wine Spectator reported last August,  “in less than a decade, sales of wine in cans have jumped from just $2 million in 2012 to $183.6 million over the 52-week period ending July 11″ Between 2019 and 2020 US sales rose by nearly 70 per cent which is interesting when you consider that cans are associated with consumption outside the home – and over part of this period, people weren’t going anywhere.


In your opinion, how much of an impact do alternative closures, and/or alternative packaging, have on customer perception of the quality of the wine?

That depends on ‘the customer’, both in terms of location, age and generally attitude. Older Europeans are still distrustful of screwcaps for even mid-range wine, while Australians treat them as normal for super-premium wine. Younger consumers in Anglo-Saxon countries are also less conservative than their European counterparts, but according to a survey by packagers Smurfit Kappa and Wine Intelligence of 1,049 French consumers and 1,020 in the UK, 12 million French wine drinkers now use bag in box compared to 4 million in the UK, with 40 per cent of potential buyers being under 35. But I’m encouraged by the quality of the wine that is now going into cans and boxes – and the fact that these forms of packaging are being embraced by natural wine producers, with Pet Nat going into cans, for example.


You’ve spent much of your career pondering the future of wine. What do you see as the biggest game changing innovation in wine packaging of the last decade?

You ask about a decade, which is interesting, because I see a period of 30 years. The first serious synthetic corks were launched by Supreme Corq in 1992. That company and brand have disappeared, but Nomacorc has taken its place and over the last 20 years brought in innovations like controllable oxygen ingress and biodegradability. Screwcaps really began their renaissance (after an initial flurry of interest in the 1980s) in Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the century. Their progress has slowed recently, but no one questions their use for super premium Australian and German whites and top reds from Australia and New Zealand. Then, and perhaps most importantly over the last decade, Diam and its competitor SÜBR have been quietly adopted by top producers in Burgundy in their efforts to combat premature oxidation. All of these have forced the cork industry – for so long in denial – to focus on TCA, but variability remains a problem…


As a winemaker, what has been your experience with alternative closures? Which system do you prefer and why?

I’m very conflicted. What I might prefer is not necessarily what the customers in over 50 countries are happy to have. For our whites and Pinot Noir, we use screwcaps everywhere except China (which does not buy much of our white anyway.) For the UK, we use screwcaps for reds. Elsewhere it’s DIAM, though China has tried to insist on natural corks. And I’d love to try Vinolok, but the costs make it questionable…


With Covid-19, many restaurants are now making their wine lists available “take-away/to go.” If this practice becomes standard, do you think we will see a significant shift in alternative packaging and closures available on even fine dining wine lists?

I hope so. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of changes in wine. 20 or 30 years ago, no one would have imagined paying more for a New Zealand Pinot Noir than for a Burgundy — or for an Argentine Malbec than for a Cahors. Today, we acknowledge different tastes and philosophies in food and wine. Some at the table won’t eat meat; others may not drink red wine. In any case, we mostly don’t drink as much at a sitting as people used to. We may want to enjoy a wine — especially at the prices some now command — over several days rather than at one time. And yes, we can use Coravin — a great invention — but alternative forms of packaging will play its part too.