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Thinking Inside the Box

Columnist: Richard L. Thomas
May, 2012 Issue

Richard L. Thomas
All articles by columnist

Well, we finally made it back safe and somewhat sound. I’m scheduled for back surgery in the very near future so the plane ride could have been more comfortable, but what the heck.
You’ve probably noticed I’ve refrained from writing about any given wineries at length, unless I thought they were screwing up. There are enough winery articles and press around to satisfy all of their needs and, besides, if I write about one, then the rest are mad or want equal coverage. As Hugh Codding used to say, negative publicity is better than none at all, and he might be right.
More to the point is that I’ve been promoting, to the point of becoming obnoxious, alternative packaging and trying to look out for the Joe Lunchbox average consumer who can’t afford, nor appreciate, high-end, expensive wines. We’re finally moving toward screw caps—a move in the right direction and to the dismay of the cork industry that’s campaigning for its product. I’m hoping people are learning you don’t need a special glass for each wine and, hell, you don’t even need a stem. I’ve yet to figure out why we want to emulate the Europeans in everything but still think wine glasses need to be special and stemmed. I lived in Europe for six months just a few years ago, and I seldom saw a stemmed wine glass. But remember, I was with the working people and not at five-star restaurants—ever!
The next user-friendly marketing will hopefully be six-pack cases in light bottles. There are still many wineries that aren’t environmentally friendly and are using super heavy bottles that they think increase their high-end image when, in reality, it’s only showing they don’t give a damn about the environment. They’re only slightly less unfriendly than the plastic bottles that all of you clowns buy water in while you’re protesting something like the very forgettable Occupy groups that don’t really have a cause except staying out of work to carry a placard. I agree that Wall Street and big banks are greedy, but the problem can be cured with some guts in Washington, D.C., and not by camping on city lawns.
OK, one of the latest innovations is alternative packaging. Yes, chateau-la-box has been around for many years but has also held average or less-than-average wine and has sold for a reasonable price for picnic wine. It took many years to really find the right materials to make the wine box package so the wine would hold up without oxidizing and/or spoiling. The first boxes, like many things, were a disaster and got the whole concept started on the wrong foot. A few wineries have tried to upgrade the concept, but putting high-quality wine in an alternative package gets more expensive and is going to cost more. At this point, the low-quality image is holding that back. It’s thought that alternatively packaged wine cannot or should not cost $10+ for a 750 mL equivalent. Now on the scene, up pops “the pouch,” a flexible polyurethane that holds 1.5 liters (two bottles). You might think of it as a stiffer ziplock bag with a spout. Clif Family Winery has been pioneering it and so has an innovative winemaker, Michael Draxton, at his leased facility in the former Murphy-Goode winery facility  in Alexander Valley. (Jackson Family Wines owns the Murphy-Goode label, but not the facility that still belongs to the Murphy family.) Along with his own labels of Draxton, ElRoy and a few others, his Vintners Selection series has developed high-quality appellation wines including a Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and a Dry Creek Merlot.
In developing the idea and product, it was determined that oxygen contact and sanitation were the two most critical aspects of an alternatively packaged wine to maintain quality and shelf life. I tasted several different wines that had been open for varying lengths of time, up to one month, and they all held up very well compared to freshly opened ones. Thus, they’ll last at least one month after opening—but how in the devil are you going to do your homework and let it last a month? It should only need to last two to three days, since it only holds the equivalent of two bottles. The original suggested retail price is somewhere between $10 to $20 per bottle—a very fair price for high-quality wine. By the time the marketplace makes all of its adjustments, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a $15.99 retail price. Draxton states there are many hoops to go through when launching a new product, including price, margins through the chain, packaging and quality—and they’re all closely related. “Quality” grapes cost more in general, but that’s also a subjective term.
So the end product is a user-friendly package that’s great for all occasions when you want a good, sound wine. It’s great for recreational purposes. It won’t break if dropped and doesn’t sound like a grenade when you drop it on the bottom of your aluminum boat while fishing on a quiet lake. You also won’t cut your feet when you drop it around your swimming pool and you won’t have to cry about wasting good wine on the concrete.
One humorous sideline is the federal legal requirement for putting something like “produced, made, etc. and bottled by….” Each has its own legal meaning, but few in the general public know what any of it means. The fun part is that Draxton put “packaged” instead of bottled by and it was rejected. So, I guess the feds in all of their wisdom consider this polyurethane pouch a bottle, so what the hell.
A summary on the back of the pouch says it all. It has “an 80 percent smaller carbon footprint than two bottles, resealable and stays fresh for up to a month after opening, no worries about cork contamination, avoids the ‘no glass allowed rule’ and no corkscrew is required.” Could life be any better? If you’re curious (it hasn’t hit too many store shelves yet), just visit Vintners Signature tasting room at 4001 Hwy 128, Geyserville. (The Lake County Sauvignon Blanc is particularly light and refreshing—it lasted about one-half hour here so I didn’t have to worry about keeping it. Refrigeration isn’t required for it to keep, either.) This wine is in a pink—yes, pink—package and is called “La Purse du Vin.” Great fun! Let’s hope this flies, we need some new ideas so everyone can enjoy our product. Homework time and a pouch will do for the next couple of days at least.



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