I can’t resist checking out what’s new on the wine wall when I’m out and about and so a trip to the QFC supermarket in Belfair, Washington necessarily evolved into wine economics fieldwork. QFC is a Pacific Northwest component of the vast Kroger supermarket chain, which was recently named wine retailer of the year by Wine Enthusiast magazine.
It is understand why. All the Kroger empire stores that I have been to in recent years feature extensive wine departments, each tailored logically to match local shopper demographics. QFC (for Quality Food Centers) seems to me to target an upscale customer base and the last remodel of this store expanded the wine wall and introduced a climate controlled walk-in wine cave where some relatively expensive bottles reside.
It is always fun to look at the wine selection at this store and I noticed a little while ago that a special section has been carved out for “Alternative Packages.” This makes sense generally, I think, because wine has moved beyond the standard 750 ml and 1.5 l glass bottles to include many other containers. The fact that there is a separate wall of these wines suggests that the customer who comes shopping for alternatives is a bit different from the glass bottle buyer.
Probably true generally, but particularly for this store. Belfair sits on the edge of Hood Canal, a major salt water recreation destination with many hiking and biking trails in the surrounding hills. Alternative packages lend themselves to boating, backpacking and picnics. Economy is one driver in this segment, but not the only one. Convenience and the environment are also important.
I was interested to see what was classified as an alternative package. Big bag-in-box wines, of course, both domestic and import, with prices ranging from economy to premium. Tetrapacks like French Rabbit and Bandit, too, in both 1 liter and smaller sizes were also present. Four-packs of mini-bottles were classified as “alternative” as well.
I don’t think I saw any cans of wine or pouches of wine, but perhaps they were located elsewhere int he store as I think I’ve spotted them here in the past. These are also convenient delivery systems that are getting more attention from consumers.
I was interested to see the Stack wines, single serving plastic wine glasses sold in four-glass “stacks.” Just zip off the plastic wrapping, snap off the lid and you’re in business.
I don’t know anything about the Stack wines apart from what I found on their website, but I understand that this category is growing. Correspondence from the folks at Copa di Vino wine (which was not available at this particular store) reveals that their single-serving brand is selling 600,000 wine cups per month and is looking to expand.
I’m told that wine cups add to total sales for retailers rather than cannibalizing existing customers, which means it really is a different market, driven by different factors. I guess the folks at Kroger really know what they are doing in carving out a separate Alternative Packages category!
What’s red and white and green all over? Wine, naturally. And naturally Oregon wineries are in the green forefront — a fact that was reinforced at a recent Wine Wars book talk.
The Difference Between Water and Wine
Forty-eight alumni came out on a beautiful August evening to attend an event at the Boedecker Cellars winery near downtown Portland. That’s a testament to the old saying “Water keeps people apart, wine brings them together.” Urban wineries are a growing trend and Steward Boedecker and Athena Pappas have located theirs in a cool 1950s building across the street from the Pyramid Ales brewery. (Stewart is a Puget Sound alumnus, so Boedecker is on my growing list of alumni wineries.)
Because I was asked to talk about Wine Wars with particular attention to Chapter 14’s topic, wine and the environment, I titled my presentation “What’s Red and White and Green All Over.” Portland is a good place to give a talk like this because it is so close to the wine country and its citizens are so environmentally minded. Green wine is big in these parts.
Green wine is made in the vineyard, of course (the organic or biodynamic viticulture choice), and part of it is made in the cellar (especially regarding water use and re-use, which is a significant issue almost everywhere). I’ve seen estimates that it can take as much as 120 liters of water to produce a single glass of wine if you follow the product chain from start to finish. Wow! That’s a big environmental factor.
And finally there’s green wine packaging.
Weighing the packaging options: Jen, Allison, Mike and Brad.
The Weigh In
With the help of two volunteers, Jen and Brad, I demonstrated some green and no-so-green wine packaging options. The differences in size, weight and perceived quality were astonishing. Here is the tale of the scale.
Standard 750ml bottle filled 1320 grams
Standard bottle empty 578 grams
Prestige bottle empty 844 grams (46% heavier than standard bottle)
Eco bottle empty 476 grams (82% of the weight of standard bottle)
Ultra-eco bottle empty 444 grams (the blue bottle in the photo — 77% of standard bottle weight)
PET bottle empty 56 grams (the yellow bottle in the photo — less than 10% of the standard bottle weight)
Tetra-Pak 1 liter container empty 40 grams (less than 8% of standard bottle weight)
The Tetra-Pak is more efficiently produced and recycled and saves over 90 percent of shipping weight compared with the standard bottle, an amazing saving of resources all along the product chain.
I predict that much of the wine we drink every day will eventually be delivered in eco-containers. Just as many consumers seem to have gotten over their prejudice against screw caps, I think we’ll come to accept eco-packaging as an appropriate delivery system for the ordinary everyday wines that make up more than half of all wine sales.
Animated winemakers: Athena Pappas and Stewart Boedecker
Fine Wine versus Vin du Jour
But what about fine wine? Well before my visit to Boedecker my answer was that the eco packaging choices were pretty limited – lightweight glass was about all I could recommend since the most extreme eco choices (Tetra-Pak, for example), are not appropriate for medium- or long-term storage. They are for vins du jour – the wines you buy at 3pm and open at 5pm (which make up the bulk of total wine sales, of course).
But Stewart surprised me by explaining that he had found some innovative ways to cut Boedecker’s environmental footprint without sacrificing the quality of the delivered product.
How about re-using wine bottles the way we used to collect and reuse soda bottles? The idea of recycled wine bottles is very appealing, but the practical problems of collecting used bottles, cleaning, sorting and distributing them are hard to overcome. But Stewart told me about a California firm (I think he was talking about Wine Bottle Renew) that has tackled this project with success, using high tech scanners to sort the bottles (a key and previously prohibitively labor intensive process).
The money and resources saved by not having to melt down and recast the glass are considerable, Stewart said, and the delivered glass is both cheaper than new, it is also actually cleaner (an obvious concern). He’s sold on recycled bottles and it is easy to see why – a trend to follow for sure.
Riding the Keg Wine Wave
Boedecker is also riding the keg wine wave, which is another eco-packaging movement. Wineries deliver 20-25-liter kegs to restaurants and other “on-premises” establishments to fill “wine by the glass” orders with no waste. It makes a lot of sense to eliminate as much of the packaging as possible for wine that will move so quickly from barrel to glass.
But keg wine is currently mostly a local phenomenon because of the logistics of recycling and reusing the kegs, which is the key to the whole enterprise. So I was surprised to learn that Stewart was selling Boedecker wine kegs in New York City. They ship the wine in bulk to New York where a local partner handles the keg operation.
What a great idea! It opens up a distant market, is good for the environment and is good for the wine, too. Kym Anderson recently explained to me that shipping in bulk versus shipping in bottles can actually result in better wine because the liquid mass of the wine (up to 25,000 liters in the case of ocean container shipments) is more temperature stable than cases of wine in bottles. Cheaper, greener, better quality — a winemaking trifecta!
Bulk shipping and local “bottling” into kegs is kind of a return to U.S. wine market practices in the 1930s, where California winemakers would ship bulk wine across the country in railroad tank cars. Local bottlers would market the wine, usually under their own brands rather than the name of the wine producer. This practice ended in World War II when the Army commandeered the tank cars and wineries were forced to bottle (and brand) themselves and ship cases of wine in box cars.
Will keg wine take off and take us back to the future of wine? Stay tuned.
Thanks to Stewart and Athena for hosting the alumni event at their winery. Thanks as well to Brad Boyl, Rainier Aliment, Renee Kurdzos and Allison Cannady-Smith for all they did to make this event a success.