May 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Northwest Winery Goes Plastic

Painted Turtle puts wines in lightweight bottles for Ontario

by Peter Mitham
Plastic wine bottle

  • Plastic bottles can help reduce packaging volumes and distribution costs.
  • Retailers such as Ontario's government-run wine stores are demanding less packaging.
  • Consumers like the packaging but need encouragement to recycle it.
Being environmentally friendly also stands to improve distribution for one Northwest winery. Artisan Wine Co., a sister company to Mission Hill Family Estate winery of Westbank, British Columbia, is releasing two of its Painted Turtle wines--a Semillon-Chardonnay blend and a Cabernet-Shiraz blend (above)--in 750ml PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, bottles in Ontario this spring.

Both bottle styles feature aluminum screwcaps by G3 Enterprises of Modesto, Calif. Developed in partnership with Colorado-based Ball Corp., the 750ml bottles are the first in this format for Ball, which previously developed a smaller, 187ml format for California's Sutter Home Winery.

Plastic wine bottle
Artisan Wine produces approximately 75,000 cases of its Painted Turtle wines annually. The new packaging supports the brand's environmental theme, said Artisan Wine vice president Dave Fallis, noting that once freight charges are factored in, there's very little difference in the price of the PET bottles compared to standard glass bottles the company uses.

Fallis did not disclose the bottles' cost, but he did say that factory pricing on the PET bottles is 16% less than it is for glass bottles. However, freight costs increase because of the distance from the Wisconsin factory where the PET bottles are made, which pushes the cost of sourcing them to nearly the same as California-manufactured glass bottles.

The major economic argument for the new bottles stems from efficiencies in distribution of the wine, as the new bottles deliver the same volume of wine in a lighter, smaller package. The weight is approximately one-tenth that of a glass bottle, reducing freight costs per mile. Each bottle is about an inch and a half shorter than a glass bottle. This allows an extra layer of cases to be shipped on each
pallet, or 25% more cases per trip.

Artisan considered Tetra Pak packaging, but Fallis said the PET format was chosen because it required fewer changes to the company's existing bottling line, meaning a faster implementation time and less cost.

"It's shorter, but (the bottle is) the same diameter, so it works well with our equipment," he explained. "We actually designed the bottle so that we could do it on our existing line with very few changes in terms of capital expenditures."

Difficulty securing glass has prompted some wineries to investigate alternative packaging, Fallis said, but part of the impetus for his own company's adoption of new packaging came from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO)--the first retailer to carry the PET-packaged wines.

Since 2005, the LCBO has sought to reduce its environmental footprint by lessening the amount of packaging it uses. An initial commitment to reduce the volume of waste being sent to landfills by 10 million kilograms was reached in 2007, two years ahead of schedule, and the government-owned liquor retailer currently is producing 14 million kilograms less waste than it did in 2005.

The reduction comes largely through the adoption of alternative packaging, beginning with Tetra Paks of French Rabbit in 2005, followed by PET bottles containing Wolf Blass' line of Bilyara Reserve wines in 2006. The LCBO currently offers 17 wines in PET bottles at LCBO stores across Ontario, as well as 73 in Tetra Paks and nine in the bag-in-box format. Sales of wines in alternative packaging formats were up 300% in the year ended March 31, 2007, and the retailer expects that figure to double in 2008.

Plastic wine bottle
Wolf Blass, which now uses PET bottles for its Bilyara Reserve wines, is following the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's directive to cut back on packaging.
Shelf appeal

The light weight of PET bottles and the convenience of the format appeal as much to consumers as to wineries, said LCBO communications director Chris Layton. "They're lightweight, so they're easier to transport. They are unbreakable, so they befit certain types of entertaining, whether that be the backyard or picnics," he said. "One of the appeals to the consumer is definitely the convenience aspect."

Still, sales of beer, wine and spirits in alternative packaging through LCBO stores totaled just $120 million, a fraction of LCBO's overall annual sales of approximately $4 billion. Moreover, initial indications are that consumers find the packaging more disposable.

"Recycling rates for glass bottles are still higher," Layton said. "Awareness needs to be increased that these products can also be recycled, and that is simply a learning curve."

While the LCBO charges a deposit on every bottle sold, consumers seem less inclined to return alternative packaging than they have been to return bottles.

"Consumers are getting comfortable with the new packaging, but there still needs to be, obviously, more awareness that you can recycle PET and Tetra Pak," Layton said.

Still, the smaller size and lighter weight of the bottles contribute to an overall reduction in waste. Whether or not they become standard for some types of wine is another question.

Fallis hopes to see PET-packaged wines released into Alberta and British Columbia in the near future, but he doesn't see PET taking over the industry.

"I don't see a big conversion like there's been in some industries--like the pop industry, (where) everything's switched from glass to plastic," he said. "But certainly I think there's a portion of the market that could convert."

Oxygen Penetration

Plastic wine bottle
A machine at a Ball Corp. manufacturing plant in Watertown, Wis., applies a transparent coating to the insides of PET bottles to protect the contents from oxidation.
Artisan Wine Co. found a technological appeal to Ball's plastic packaging. One of the difficulties with PET bottles is that they are more permeable than glass, meaning oxygen penetrates the bottles faster, with the potential for spoilage.

Conventional PET bottles address the oxygen issue by incorporating an oxygen scavenger that effectively absorbs any oxygen that finds its way into the bottle. But once the scavenger is saturated, its ceases to do its job, and the potential for spoilage increases. Worse, the scavenger works from the time of manufacture, meaning it is being depleted even before a bottle is filled.

The barrier used in Ball's bottles is a transparent silicon oxide layer from Germany's SIG Plasmax GmbH that seals containers from the inside to protect the contents from oxidation.

"It doesn't deteriorate," said Artisan Wine vice president Dave Fallis, noting that no significant deterioration has been detected in the barrier on trial bottles even up to two years after manufacture. "You can make the bottles, and if you don't fill them for one month or two months or three months, you're not losing any of the barrier properties, whereas with the scavenger-type system, if you haven't filled the bottles you're still losing the barrier characteristics."

The coating washes off during recycling but doesn't contaminate bottle contents, added Jennifer Hoover, who handles marketing communications for Ball.

"The barrier material is not affected by the beverage that's put inside the bottle," she said. "The wine won't wash it off."

Hoover expects Ball to sign supply contracts with other wineries in the near future for both the 750ml and 187ml bottle formats.

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