And now for something completely different

Revamping an old design: is it worth it?

Bottle design is constantly evolving in the wine sector. Lighter glass bottles, pouches, PET bottles, all making a positive impact on the environment. However, journalist Samuel Squire discusses the use of an older style of closure that is used on glass bottles to find out if refilling glass bottles could be the answer to energy-hungry recycling. 

 

Bottle design, closures and labels all impact the conscious consumer’s choice to purchase off the shelf. However, one wine brand, which has only recently launched its inaugural range, has undertaken an ambitious endeavour to change how consumers buy wine. 

Cowpunk Wines has launched its natural wine range that it says is sustainable and accessible. This presents an interesting idea. 

The natural wines are bottled in glass under a swinging cap closure/stopper design. What the company aims to achieve is a reusable ecosystem with hopes retailers will join its ecosystem with a bit of input in the infrastructure department.

Retailers, to make full use of the reusable, refillable bottles, would have to start implementing eco-friendly refill stations, much like some Australian supermarkets do with hygiene products like shampoo and soap – there is a Coles store in Melbourne that employs this. 

Implementing infrastructure for refillable wine bottles may not seem like a huge hill to die on, however there are some things that are worth noting. 

Firstly: method. Retailers could simply do what I have seen happen with Tawny Port at some independent bottle shops where they have a large barrel and pitch a sales promotion to get it sold. Or, would a retailer have to implement some sort of keg system? That would require considerations way back to the winery itself.

There are some bars and bottle shops in places like Melbourne that do operate on refillable bottles, but those are shops solely designed for that purpose. 

Reliability in the seal is also a concern to some. The seal is a very similar, almost uncanny, design to that of a café water bottle, which as many can attest to, have leaky seals. This may not be the case here, as these seals are tailored to the wine bottle, but it is a notable concern over the course of a bottle’s lifespan. 

Also, floor footprint is a factor to
consider. In a retailer like Dan Murphy’s, which already operates in large warehouse-style buildings, if they have to then accommodate a refill station, that takes physical space, especially if it is for more than one or a handful of brands. I look at a single aisle of wine on a shelf and I shudder at the thought of sheer scale.

The other elephant in the room with this idea is production scale. If only a handful of small producers use this type of bottle with the swinging cap closure, the difference to the environment, which is presumably the target goal here, would be minimal. It also would mean that implementing this infrastructure might not be a viable business solution in the short term. 

Serious investment on a national scale could be needed if this is to be a viable, sustainable (in both senses of the word) solution. 

More producers making use of this type of wine buying ecosystem could undoubtedly help reduce emissions in the production of fresh glass. 

However, the argument many wine buyers would argue, from newcomers to the drink category to experienced wine consumers, is that perspectives of wine sealed under swing top closures isn’t what it needs to be to survive. 

For example, it could be argued it is unlikely a wine giant like Penfolds would bottle its flagship Grange in this system, but a commercial wine like Koonunga Hill perhaps could be.

This bottle and closure design isn’t a new thing, however. Especially on the sustainability front. A Victorian company called ReWine has been operating in the refill space for around 15 years. 

Marshall Waters has been in the wine wholesale retail space for three decades, with being a wholesaler himself for 10 years. In the refill market, he started a company called Big Bottle Wine, where the main business model involved using nine litre bottles. 

That business turned out over 60,000 units per annum, but sadly, Waters said the business ran out of cash to keep going and was eventually put into administration. 

The benefits of reuse

However, his determination did not stop there. He started another business called ReWine which has the sole ambition to highlight the benefits of reuse in the wine sector. 

Making use, initially, of swing top closures on glass bottles, Waters’ business was pumping out wine that locals in Melbourne could really get behind form an ethics standpoint. The glass was reusable anyway but with the 

added benefit of a proper seal – the swing top closures. 

Waters says his business has helped re-establish the refillable bottle market in the wine sector.

“We are solely about helping to reduce the wine industry’s impact on the environment,” he said.

“In the supply chain, glass is a hungry mistress in CO₂ emissions to recycle and transport, and if we can remove that impact from the supply chain, we will.”

For the most part, swing top sealed bottled have a silicon or neoprene washer to help prevent leaks and spillage. 

Waters said that after working with swing tops for five or so years, he became dissatisfied with the closure. 

Waters said he was wanting to switch to Stelvin screwcaps, but found there was a conflicting interest with using the cap in the business: its recyclability.

Waters persevered with swing tops for five years before pulling the cork on them for a better alternative which he says is a “museum quality closure”. He added that, it was on his trip to France that he and his wife discovered the Nova Twist.

“I just wasn’t happy with the swing top because the hidden neoprene washer and plastic stopper wasn’t appealing. I just didn’t like it,” he said.

“Funnily enough, about four years after we opened using swing tops, my wife and I had gone on a trip to France and we found Nova Twist caps which you can apply by hand.

“You don’t need a machine.”

The Stelvin unit has to be applied to the bottle with a machine, and the collar of the unit can’t be removed in the recycling plant, at least in Australia, which often means the whole bottle goes to landfill. This, Waters says, conflicts with the eco-friendly ethos of his business. 

“I would really like to have gone to Stelvin screwcaps,” he said, “But they’re very difficult to reuse. You have to put a new one on each time, because the collar on the Stelvin cap stays on the bottle, it doesn’t come off”.

In the supply chain, glass is a hungry mistress in CO₂ emissions to recycle and transport, and if we can remove that impact from the supply chain, we will.

Marshall Walters

 

“There’s just so many issues for me to use a traditional screwcap,” he said.

“Whereas, with a Nova Twist closure, I can put it on the bottle by hand and it’s a nice strong plastic screwcap and they’re able to keep wine quality high through aging. It’s a museum quality closure.

“When you want to discard it, you can slice the plastic collar off the bottle with a knife and pop a new one on.”

To make sure ReWine minimises its carbon emissions, the company also sources its wine in large storage containers, which Waters says keeps the wine well-stored and of a high quality through aging and maturation.

Through one batch of wine he sourced from a winery, he said the tank-aged wine – which had been sitting in his warehouse for a few years – when compared to a museum-vaulted wine from the winery, actually tasted better.

ReWine uses its own versions of Flextanks to transport wine in large quantities directly from a winery to its warehouse facilities to then subdivide into a unique barrel system for customers to have their bottles filled and refilled.

Using these tanks also helps reduce carbon emissions in transportation, Waters says, because the heavy glass is removed from the equation. 

“I’ve got a 1500 litre transportable tank that I’ve done 100 trips to and from wineries with, with no issues of wine quality or taint of any sort, and it holds the equivalent of three pallets of wine,” he said.

“So not only are we not shipping the glass to the winery and shipping it back in multiple pallets, we’re only shipping once and bringing one tank back. We’re saving multiple freight movements, the CO₂ savings are significant.”

As for the wine when it’s stored in the tank, the lattice polyethylene plastic allows enough oxygen to permeate through to the wine for maturation. So, Waters says there is no issue to wine quality. 

He also adds that the material doesn’t allow the wine to stick to the surface like other materials, so when a tank is reused for another type of wine, there’s no issue with cross contamination post-wash.

Waters says ReWine’s three stores operate with wine stored in gassed barrels dispensed under nitrogen with 30 per cent CO₂, which means the wine doesn’t lose dissolved CO₂. 

ReWine has been in operation with the sole aim to reduce the total carbon footprint of the wine packaging sector of the industry, and so far, developments in its business are working well. 

When you want to discard it, you can slice the plastic collar off the bottle with a knife and pop a new one on.

Marshall Walters

Alternative packaging

A year ago, in the October 2020 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker, a number of alternatives to traditional glass bottles were discussed, including how these aimed to be a point of difference, potentially allowing the wine sector could reduce its carbon emissions. 

One alternative highlighted came from a company called Garçon Wines, which is a business aiming to evolve the wine bottle into a more sustainable, and less environmentally damaging, alternative.

With its very different approach to packaging, Garçon Wines, based in the UK, has been progressing substantially over the course of the pandemic.

The company’s patented, eco-friendly flat bottles save energy in all facets of the wine distribution process, save space and are made from pre-existing and recycled PET plastics, which avoids the single-use cataclysm of environmental damage that something like recycled glass can be subject to if a closure isn’t removed prior to recycling.

Last year, the company was only on the cusp of its potential, announcing an important milestone for its sustainable, flat wine bottles in the British market. 

Garçon Wines commercial director Amelia Dales says the business, over the past 12 months, has been performing on an upward trajectory.

“The business has been performing well […] increasing the channels and countries where our bottles are available, and raising a round of investment in April of close to AU$1.3 million,” she said.

“This investment allowed Garçon Wines to expedite existing business plans and growth, including local bottle production in Australia and the US, with the launch of staffed offices in these markets too.”

Since the previous discussion of this packaging format and the business behind it, the biggest changes have been made behind the scenes, Dales says.

“We’ve taken the decision to split into two business lines, one that will be a clean-tech packaging provider and the other a sustainable wine brand owner and wholesaler, and each with separate brand identities,” said Dales.

“This decision was the result of experiencing such significant interest in the packaging format itself, for a wide variety of applications, and concluding that having a dedicated packaging arm would allow us to be more specialised in what we offer and stronger in our messaging.”

A keynote part of what may hold some alternative wine packaging formats back from truly reaching their clear potential in the market is something which the COVID-19 pandemic has, in an unlikely turnout, helped change. 

“We’re emerging from COVID-19 into a very different world than at the start of 2020,” said Dales.

“Experiencing a black swan event such as the pandemic has reminded many consumers of the fragility of our health – our ‘normal’ lives – and general ecosystems.

“With immediate pandemic-crisis mode now hopefully behind us, businesses are waking up to the fact that we cannot continue business as usual.

“McKinsey has reported a reinvigoration in new product developments and packaging, where businesses need to put sustainability at the core of their packaging strategy.

“We’re certainly seeing this at Garçon Wines among our business customers who understand that the biggest change they can make to lower carbon emissions is through re-thinking base assumptions and challenging the carbon footprint hotspot of round, glass bottles – why does an entire wine portfolio need to be packed in glass for all countries, channels or occasions?

“We’ve noticed a wider trend too, which is the rise in dialogue about the climate crisis and carbon emissions.”

Coincidentally, Dales said that in a similar vein of exploring new channels, “We’re thrilled also that Accolade Wines presented our bottles for use in the travel industry at the Tax Free World Association (TFWA) World Exhibition & Conference in Cannes in October where the key focus of the event was sustainability and innovation”.

“We’ve also seen expansion of brands in our bottles into different countries, channels and retailers,” said Dales.

“In the UK, our bottles have been available on Gousto, a large UK meal-kit provider, and on Ocado, a UK online grocer.

“Through the Accolade collaboration, their brands in our bottles are now available in Denmark at Coop and were also available in South Africa.”

The business has developed substantially in the last 12 months, as it will be branching off into two separate entities: one that will be a clean-tech packaging provider and the other a sustainable wine brand owner and wholesaler, although new monikers have not been released officially yet.

Launching in Australia

“First and foremost, Garçon Wines will not be launching as ‘Garçon Wines’ in Australia but will launch under the name of the new packaging business,” said Dales.

“This new name centres our focus on the natural world and demonstrates that we take our planetary responsibilities seriously, with the company offering packaging that protects Mother Earth.

“This decision was the result of experiencing such significant interest in the packaging format itself, for a wide variety of applications, and concluding that having a dedicated packaging arm would allow us to be more specialised in what we offer and stronger in our messaging,” continued Dales.

Fortunately, Garçon Wines hasn’t been impacted too much by ongoing shipping delays, as its business model relies on local manufacturing. 

“In the UK, COVID, Brexit and global shipping delays have all caused logistics challenges. Given that they all came at once, with some being amplified by others, it’s difficult to unpick to tell specifically which obstacle is caused by what,” said Dales.

“We’re fortunate to have not been affected too greatly by global shipping delays, as our production is localised, but situations like this always remind us why what we’re doing is so beneficial.

“When facing supply chain challenges, businesses become increasingly aware of potential pain points or potential weaknesses.

“Maximising available space, for storage and transport, to secure availability, becomes a priority. Fitting more product per pallet to compensate for restricted availability, like we manage to fit up to 91% more wine, is becoming an even greater capability to capitalise on, in order to optimise logistics shipments and reduce costs.”

Garçon Wines is currently deep in R&D for its Australian launch, working with a leading Australian packaging manufacturer, which is yet to be officially announced at the time of writing, which will be producing the company’s 100% recycled PET bottles locally for the domestic market, and a reputable contract wine bottling company.

“This will present wine companies in Australia with the opportunity to easily access our sustainable packaging with a plug-and-play solution,” said Dales.

“There will be local bottle production and contract bottling availability in Q1 2022 (January-March), with much loved and respected brands in our eco, flat bottles most likely available in key retailers shortly afterwards.

“As soon as we can share which brands and retailers, we will, but what we can say is that we’re in advanced discussions with a number of well-respected wine companies, including five in the top 20 by volume in Australia. Expect big things to come from us in 2022! “

 

This post was originally featured in the December 2021 issue of the Grapegrower & Winemaker.

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