Putting Wine into Mini-bottles

How two bottlers handle the fast-growing new sample sizes

by Paul Franson
Tasting Room
TastingRoom Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., is promoting a miniature Bordeaux wine bottle.

Napa, Calif. -- The recent introduction of sample-size wine bottles for classes, wine club members and trade sampling hit a responsive chord in wineries, but many winemakers have questions about how the bottles are filled and the longevity of the wines packaged in the “nips.” We asked early adopters to explain how they get best use of the new format.

Two different formats emerged late last year, both holding 50 ml of wine (about 1.7 oz) in glass mini-bottles.

One is the miniature Bordeaux wine bottle -- similar to an airplane spirit portion -- promoted by TastingRoom Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif. The other is the cylindrical, test-tube-like TinyBottle developed in France and now being popularized by CrushPad, which recently relocated to Napa Valley from San Francisco.

Both companies are emphasizing that the bottles are for samples, and recommend that they be consumed within six months to preserve the character of the wine.

Michael Brill at CrushPad says that the company is now really focusing on younger wines with free SO2 levels greater than 20 ppm. “With this level of SO2, we find no increase in dissolved oxygen,” he says. “At lower levels, we’ve seen increases of dissolved oxygen.”

Feedback from the market has modified the focus of Crushpad's sample bottles.

He adds, “For high pH/very low SO2 wines, we don’t recommend bottling the wines in these sample bottles without adjusting SO2.” He says that CrushPad has bottled wine for around 20 wineries so far. “I’ve only seen one problem, with a 4.0 pH Syrah.”

Brill says that the filling technology is based on a Filamatic filler and a standard screwcapper. The process involves sparging the tube with CO2, then filling the tube with an argon-sheathed filling nozzle (argon flows around the stream of wine as it enters the CO2-sparged bottle, popping on the cap, and labeling the TinyBottle.

Brill says, “We use tin-lined screwcaps.” These have a much longer life than the Saranex seals used sometimes with screwcaps.

TastingRoom is guarding details of its mini-Bordeaux bottle technology pending a patent application, but explains that wines are transferred from larger format bottles to 50ml bottles in a sealed, zero-oxygen chamber using a patent-pending T.A.S.T.E. (Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment) clean room-style decanting process.

Wineries and winemakers then test the samples to ensure the integrity and representation of each wine transferred from bottle to sample. Wineries select the wines to be included in their wine tasting kits and work with TastingRoom to create and get government approval for mini-wine labels and develop collateral materials for each wine in the kit.

TastingRoom manages all production, decanting, bottling, packaging and assembly to deliver the final branded and bottled wine samples and wine tasting kits to wineries.

The yield is about 165 mini-bottles per case of wine, or approximately 14 50ml wine samplers from a 750ml bottle.

Each wine label is printed with a “best enjoyed by” date that is typically six months from the creation of the sample-sized wine, depending on the wine type.

TastingRoom claims that the wine in the 50ml bottles will still be good well beyond this “enjoy by” date, but after this date the wine could potentially deviate from that in the 750ml bottle. Wine ages faster in small containers, largely due to increased exposure to oxygen.

Putting them to use

Trefethen Family Vineyards
, Napa, is using TastingRoom mini-bottles in a number of different programs, including a “Best of the Best” Cabernet Sauvignon six pack with wines back to 1989, an estate pack of current releases and an introductory selection of its new Double T wines.

Trefethen TastingRoom
Trefethen Family Vineyards is one of the wineries already using TastingRoom bottles.

Proprietor Janet Trefethen says the sample packs are sold in the tasting room at the winery. The bottles are approved by airlines for carrying aboard, but also used for sampling the trade. “They allow us to get samples to sommeliers and wine buyers we wouldn’t normally see,” she says.

She says she’s been impressed with the process. She says her production staff has been deeply involved in the evaluation, and she likes the expiration dates on the bottles. “It assures us that the wine in the bottles is what we started with.”

For the initial bottlings, TastingRoom brought a mobile line to Trefethen, but expects to set up a dedicated line at its Santa Rosa offices. Trefethen notes that the process is evolving. “They didn’t recommend it for delicate whites like our Riesling at this point, but are working on improving the process,” she says.

Trefethen used 3-liter bottles for to fill the “Best-of” samples, but Janet Trefethen anticipates that in the future, the minibottles might just be filled simultaneously with the regular bottles, rather than going through an unneeded step.

  Other announced customers for the TastingRoom sample bottles include Grgich Hills Estate, Patz & Hall, Chateau Montelena Winery, De Loach Vineyards, Domaine Carneros (for its still wines) and Seghesio Family Vineyards. In spite of the name, TastingRoom never planned direct sales of the bottles, but only packaged wine for wineries use.

Crushpad’s initial plan was to market the sample bottles for wine companies using its Brixr marketing software and system, but Brill says feedback from the market has modified the focus. “While originally we were going to build sort of a super-marketplace, we’ve come to the realization that there are already a whole lot of people out there selling wine. Rather than provide an alternative channel, we are going to enable wineries and retailers to drop a Brixr component into their existing website, host online tastings with TinyBottles (or even TastingRoom bottles for that matter -- we don’t really care), and sell/fulfill the wine themselves.”

The wineries can then use the bottles as they want, including training distributors or even trade customers. “That way, they don’t have to give up so much revenue, they get to keep their customer list private, and get to manage the entire customer experience.”

Brill adds that he hopes to integrate Brixr into the major wine shopping carts, giving most wineries a simple way to offer this experience to their customers.

Neither bottler would specify current costs to wineries for the bottles and services. TastingRoom says cost is based on the volume of wine and includes a rate in the “near single-digits” in dollars for rebottling, glass and any needed regulatory compliance and label design. Last December, Brill at CrushPad told Wines & Vines its TinyBottles cost “About $2.50 per bottle,” but said he expected that figure to drop by half as volume builds.

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