Can a Great Design Make You Rich?

It coudn't hurt, say experts at Wines & Vines Packaging Conference

by Jane Firstenfeld
Joe Wagner discusses the role packaging has played in the success of brands he's created such as Meiomi and Belle Glos on Wednesday at the Wines & Vines Packaging Conference.
Napa, Calif.—After sealing the deal to sell his Meiomi brand to Constellation Wines for $315 million, Joe Wagner became the wine industry’s newest “it boy.” The fifth-generation Napa Valley winemaker opened the second annual Wines & Vines Packaging Conference in Napa on Aug. 21, giving the keynote address before an audience of 250 curious wine pros.

The 33-year-old Wagner began working with his father, Chuck, and grandparents Charlie and Lorna as a teenager. His single-vineyard Pinot Noir label Belle Glos, founded in 2002, is now the leading luxury Pinot Noir in the United States, thanks in part to a distinctive, instantly recognizable package.

Wagner recounted the evolution of the Belle Glos package for conference attendees. What started as a simple, red wax seal has grown to envelop the top half of Belle Glos’ bottle in scarlet wax. “I think we are the largest consumer of wax in the wine industry,” he said.

Applying wax dips is normally an arduous task performed by hand, but Wagner commissioned an Italian manufacturer to develop an automated system. Safety and consistency are the goals. He passed around samples of a proprietary tear tab, which simplifies removing the cork without disrupting the visual flow of wax.

Although he recalled sages telling him “You’re going to regret this decision,” he had faith in the universal appeal of the package. With the “Sideways” effect that helped propel Pinot Noir sales starting in 2004, he believes the package helped build recognition of the Belle Glos brand.

The package now has a trade-dress trademark on its wax dipping, and a patent is pending, Wagner said. “People are always trying to steal a good idea.” Every case of Belle Glos includes operating instructions, should the packaging not be sufficiently intuitive.

Wagner enumerated what he looks for in a wine package:

Exclusivity: Make it something special; Belle Glos bottles are not quite the traditional Burgundy shape.

Individuality: Make the package one of a kind.

Purpose: Remember your audience. Oddly shaped bottles don’t work.

Tradition: Wine buyers are accustomed to standard shapes. Get too far off the standard, and people lose interest.

Tell a story: Package for your purpose. Are you selling on- or off-premise? This can make a big difference in sales.

Something about Meiomi
In 2006, Belle Glos spawned Meiomi (which means “coast” in the native language of Northern California’s Wappo tribe); the name reflects the vineyard sources for the brand’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. At first, the labels emphasized the Belle Glos name, but as the market grew, the labels morphed, and now Meiomi is the exclusive identity, which now belongs to Constellation.

In 2007, Wagner consulted with Emeryville, Calif.-based designer Tony Auston for some simple changes to the label. “What seemed to be a lot of money turned out to be well spent,” Wagner said. It’s a traditional paper label with foil embellishment.

What makes the package a stand out is the closure (detailed here). Meiomi’s target market is on-premise, by-the-glass sales. Wagner surveyed buyers and learned that servers craved a premium red wine with a screwcap closure.

He opted for the WAK screwcap from Guala. Concealed under a capsule, it looks almost like a sparkling wine cork, but a tiny arrow offers direction to twist off. “I think it’s altered the perception of screwcaps for fine wines,” Wagner said.

How did he get $315 million for his “under the radar” brand? Wagner suggested the tri-appellation package and the fact that the $20-plus bottles “look more like $40.”

Wagner is not resting on his multi-million-dollar cushion. Current projects include the “Silver” Mer de Soleil bottle: Formerly glazed ceramic, it tells a story: The wine is fermented in concrete tanks. Because ceramic bottles are not recyclable, and don’t take kindly to screwcaps, new bottles will be glass-treated to resemble the ceramic.

Beran (“bear”) Zinfandel bears a screenprint of a “redundant” California coastline, giving it a sense of place, and a gold and black wax top. The screenprint, Wagner said, creates texture, inviting consumers to pick it up off the shelf.

Although Wagner employs an in-house manager of packaging, he said, “I’ve always found it entertaining to watch the changes.” He advised other wineries to keep their eyes open. “What’s old will be new again,” he said. “Control as much as possible in your packaging.”

Designers get their digs in
Moderated by Andrew Rice, creative director of Trinchero Family Estates and its 300-plus SKUs, a panel of top wine package designers followed Wagner, starting with Auston, who’d been instrumental in the Meiomi package.

How does the design process work? It starts, Auston said, with the price point of the product. For the priciest brands, cast metal labels or cartouches from Apholos in Argentina are gaining in popularity. For less expensive brands, digitally printed screwcaps are effective and delivered within days.

He also remarked on  the VinoSeal glass topper: It doesn’t require a capsule, looks elegant and reseals bottles easily once they are open.

Jim Moon said the design process begins with the wine’s story. He asks clients to fill him in with as much of the back-story as possible, adding: “I don’t care how trite it is.”

He lauded screwcaps. “They are wonderful, and now available with color-saturated foils. Bright colors and design are vital. “Typically a package has one to five seconds to get attention on a shelf.”

Jeff Hester of Cult Partners reminded the audience to mind their timelines. “It takes a long time to innovate and test” a new package, he cautioned.

Thinking inside the bottle, Auston displayed SGP/Saint Gobain’s intriguing and internally embossed bottles. Although when full they don’t look dramatically different than a standard bottle, as the wine is poured, it displays its interior, tactile “bubbles.”

Auston said he likes acid-etched glass and wood-grained labels on “marbleized” paper. Custom molds for wine bottles, though, are a difficult sell in the wine industry. “It is so traditional that changes in shape must be subtle. We see more experimentation in $10-$15 bottles,” he said.

Hester noted that custom molds require more cost and longer time lines, although manufacturers have started introducing more options that may be stored and displayed in standard formats, including a square-shouldered 750ml bottle used by Tall Dark Stranger, an Argentine Malbec.

Yet, Moon said, “Odd shapes are not well received at retail.”

Labels, on the other hand, are open for innovation. Auston mentioned a leather label for Brassas Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec from Napa’s Palmaz Vineyards. The leather “smells great,” he said, and reflects Argentine origins. The hides for the labels are hand-selected, as reflected in the limited production (200 cases), wine club exclusivity and bottle price (more than $100).

The designers also noted that they aren’t fans of QR codes. Auston said he’d never seen a consumer actually pick up a bottle at retail and scan the QR code.

Dark labels, they agreed are old and tired: “They are not anymore the way to go,” Hester said. Moon added that dark labels are wine- specific.

The Wines & Vines Packaging Conference will return for its third year in August 2016, but at a new location: the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, Calif.

Currently no comments posted for this article.