July 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Wine Bottlers Talk Quality

How to avoid costly packaging missteps

by Jane Firstenfeld
G3 bottles
Bottlers like G3 Enterprises inspect their clients' glass prior to putting wine bottles to the test on the bottling line.

Along with the rest of the world, in this stressed economy wineries strive to reduce costs while maintaining sales. Consumers have cut back their spending, famously opting for lower priced wines, but they still want high-quality wine in the bottles they buy. It may be tempting to reduce costs by choosing cheaper packaging materials, but this strategy may not result in a net gain to the bottom line.

As we wrote in our May issue, packaging trends indicate that wineries are trying to reassure reluctant consumers by putting lower price-point wines into premium-looking packages: Products that look sharp on the shelf attract more buyers. Conversely, a sloppy-looking package does not speak well for the wine within.

Who would know more about packaging pitfalls than mobile bottlers? They handle hundreds of thousands of cases for wineries of many sizes, diverse images and multiple packaging styles. Professionals from leading Pacific Coast mobile bottlers (and one custom bottling powerhouse) shared their observations about what can—and does—go wrong on the bottling line, and how clients can eliminate those expensive missteps.

Cheap bottles can cost you more
All of our sources conceded that the most obvious trend is the move to lighter weight bottles, which cost less for materials and shipping.

“The consumer is trading down to less expensive wines, and winery margins are being cut thin. In an attempt to salvage their margins, wineries are cutting back on packaging costs through buying less-expensive glass, foils, labels, corks, etc.,” said John Davis at AT Mobile Bottling Line, Napa.

David Scholz, president of Signature Mobile Bottlers, Clackamas, Ore., put this into perspective. “We have seen a dramatic shift to lighter weight bottles in general. Unfortunately, I estimate it is mostly from a cost basis, rather than a ‘green’ issue. While the newer ‘eco-bottles’ are making a strong entrance, Chinese-made glass was available first. The eco-bottles are approximately the same cost, but quality is much higher.”

He quoted approximate prices in the $6.50 to $7.50 per-case range for both the Saint-Gobain ECO series bottles and Chinese imports for standard types.

Eric Harnett, Bravo Bottling, Healdsburg, Calif., suggested that environmental issues still factor into the decision to go lightweight. “Due to the cost and weight issues, it seems many wineries would like to move to greener packaging,” he said.

John Farley, operations manager-mobile bottling for G3 Enterprises, Modesto, Calif., concurred: “Sustainability and environmental concerns have created increased interest in lightweight glass.”

But Natasha Granoff, director of business development at Sonoma Wine Co., which bottles its own brands and those of many other wineries at bottling centers in Graton and American Canyon, Calif., insisted, “Price is the biggest factor in a purchasing decision.”

If everyone wants cheap glass, what could be so wrong? Well, for years we’ve heard complaints about Chinese imports, and these experienced bottlers confirmed that, although improvements are noticeable, the imports still can pose real quality-control issues.

“While we will bottle Chinese glass, we experience inconsistent quality, and will refuse glass out of specification for our bottling equipment,” Granoff said. 

“Most all Chinese glass that we have run has had problems both large and small, but always a problem,” Scholz said.

Castoro sparging
All's well on this Castoro line, but filling can be a problem if the bottle necks are crooked or "choked." Irregular necks can also slow closure and capsule application.

What makes a bottle terrible?
No matter where it comes from, if a bottle is “out-of-round,” or has a crooked or “choke neck,” there will be problems. A bottle neck that is crooked, too narrow or too rough-finished for filling spouts will slow down the process and add to your cost. Variances in beak diameter “may result in problems of placing and spinning of capsules. When using screwcaps, the sealing surface is of importance: no chips and a flat surface” are required for a secure seal, according to Thomas Jordan, whose Peregrine just went online in Napa this May.

Bottles that are not consistently round lead to puckered or wrinkled labels or inaccurate placement. “With cheaper glass, the seam on the bottle is much more pronounced; this can cause monumental problems with the label,” Davis warned. “It has only happened once that we could not complete a job, but it does happen. We filled the bottles but could not put the label on because the glass was so bad. If the customer has to go to someone else to label, it is a set-up fee (of) $300 plus $1.85-per case charge again. In some cases the winery should send the glass back, but getting the wine in the bottle usually outweighs the bad glass factor.

“Choke necks, where the opening is 18mm and when you look down inside the neck it might be 14mm,” are dangerous, he continued. “Our filler valves are 15mm. We can bend or break our valves, at a cost of $500 each. Usually the wavy glass and choked necks run in the same lot of glass. Bad packaging materials can add 5%-13% more to the packaging cost.”

It’s not always the bottle’s fault, though. “To be fair,” Scholz said, “Most wineries’ labels are too large, covering too much surface area, which will allow the label to find every imperfection.” He suggested that multiple smaller labels are a better choice. “Imagine gluing a piece of notebook paper on a basketball. If you cut it into smaller pieces, you can make all the pieces lie flat.”

Buying cheaper glass can also lead to compatibility problems at bottling time: “The wineries will always say, ‘The glass we used last year was not available, so we got this, and it is supposed to be the same,’” Davis reported. “Well, it never is. We might have used a 32.5mm tin foil (capsule) last year, and this year they give us the same 32.5mm foil in polylam. To look good, it should be 31.0mm. Polylam has very little tolerance. They are buying different, cheaper glass, then don’t have the labels and foils resized to fit. They all say the same thing: ‘The glass guy said it was the same size.’”

Like the other bottlers, Scholz said, “We work with all major brands of wine bottles.” He noted, too, “The wine industry is unique: Most of the suppliers work exclusively with the wineries. I do not necessarily ever recommend a supplier, but I do give my opinions on what we see on a daily basis. All glass manufacturers use the same tolerance specifications. It is simply a matter of how tightly they adhere to their own specs. In my opinion, their specs are too loose for the accuracy our customers demand. So, even when those bottles are ‘within specs,’ we still can run into a variety of problems, mostly with label application.”

Jim Collins, co-owner, said that with three mobile bottling trucks and three lines at Halsey’s custom-crush facility, “We have experience with almost every conceivable package. Some oddball packages we choose not to do, because the cost of change parting is too high to justify. Usually, there are consequences with running non-standard bottles and closures. We insist our clients give us the screwcap company’s specifications for a specific bottle, or we will not attempt to put it on the package.”

What’s in the packaging pipeline?

When we contacted the bottlers, we also asked them to report on any new packaging trends they have observed. Screwcaps, they seemed to agree, are already part of the “new normal.” Jordan at Peregrine predicted, “More and more screwcap applications.”

G3’s Farley said, “New trends in closures, labels and glass are proving their worth in the marketplace, in terms of value and appeal. We have seen more brands move to screwcap, as its perception among consumers is improving.”

Udsen at Castoro demurred, however. “Changes sometimes happen quickly. Right now, I think the screwcap has leveled a bit. We do see more and more synthetic corks.” Scholz agreed that closures are among the most volatile trends: “People are looking for a good alternative to cork for quality reasons or simply cost reduction,” he said. Davis at AT added the Zork all-in-one to the list of up-and-coming closures.

Several mentioned a trickle of demand for PET plastic bottles: Sonoma Wine has one Canadian customer using them; Bravo has bottled in PET “several times,” and, Harnett said, “we are getting more calls” for these ultra-lightweight packages. According to Jordan, “One new trend is the PET wine bottle in combination with screwcap, for wines in the $2 to $8 range.”

Jordan and Granoff also noted an uptick in bag-in-box packaging for wines in that per-bottle price range. There is some interest in kegs for wine-by-the-glass programs, Granoff said. “I think this will increase locally.”


Ensure a proper fit
“Check the bottle and the closure,” Harnett said. “Not everything fits like it’s supposed to. The problem we see most often is screwcaps that don’t properly fit the proposed bottles. Some caps are at the larger end of the size parameters; some glass is at the smaller size of the allowed parameters: This can cause a fitting problem. 

“However,” he continued, “by far the worst problem we see is when a bottle neck flares too early and the screwcap wedges itself onto the glass. The result is a screwcap that is very difficult to open.”

Bravo offers to run the package to make sure all materials are compatible. Harnett said a single bottle could serve as a sample, but, “We usually ask for six, plus a dozen or so screwcaps or foils.”

This is good advice whether you use a contract bottler or run your own bottling line. When the bottles are sub-par, do all the bottles have to be replaced? What would it do to your budget if your bottles aren’t up to snuff?

The winery makes that decision, according to Harnett. “If there is a major problem, some wineries still do their bottling, because they have deadlines to meet. They then go to suppliers and ask for refunds on some of their money, or to cover downtime on the bottling run. On occasion, we have postponed bottling due to poor packaging. Twice, we had long runs, and bottles were exchanged during our time scheduled, so there was no delay in finishing bottling.”

“We will refuse glass out of specification with our bottling equipment,” Granoff said. If your wine is ready to bottle, and your bottles just won’t work, it’s going to cost you. “We visually inspect a statistical sampling before we begin the run to avoid issues during bottling,” she said. “If a client accepts a cosmetic defect and the glass, we continue bottling. If the defect is a human hazard and will affect our machinery, it is exchanged.

“There are instances where the statistical sampling passes, but we hit defects within the bottling run. In that case, if the problem cannot be resolved within a reasonable period of time, the potential costs to the client are hourly downtime charges or canceled bottling fees. Most often the whole lot is returned, and the vendor is responsible for picking up the bad lot and replacing with new glass,” Granoff explained.

“While foreign suppliers are normally less expensive,” said G3’s Farley, “lead-times can be long, and product support may not be as readily available. Delivery time on foreign glass can take a couple of months from order date to delivery. In the event of a quality issue, local suppliers have a competitive advantage. They can offer a quick response and solutions. Replacement inventory and technical service staff are available. Minimizing downtime is always the goal: Normally (a problem) is easily remedied and assignable to a particular mold number. Simply removing a problem mold from the population is a common and effective solution.”

Trouble is more likely, he said, “when a winery outsources packaging components separately to multiple suppliers. Compatibility issues often arise, causing expensive downtime and packaging defects.” G3, it should be noted, provides integrated packaging elements.

Whether you source inexpensive bottles in Asia, high-end custom bottles from Europe or U.S.-manufactured bottles, bottlers recommend that your supplier provide stateside support. “Most of the established domestic companies are fine regardless of where the glass is produced, as they will have QC intact,” said Niels Udsen, who owns Castoro Bottling in San Miguel, Calif. “Also, if there is a problem, it can be dealt with locally.”

Whatever your packaging choices, and whether you do it yourself or farm it out, the collective wisdom of these experienced bottlers is summed up simply: Do your homework, work with reliable suppliers, don’t discount the value of quality, and allow plenty of lead-time. In other words, scouts: Be prepared.

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