New ways to get wine into consumer hands

The days of consumer wine tastings are over for the time being. What can the wine trade do instead to get consumers to sample something new? Robert Joseph has some thoughts.
 

Wine in tubes
Wine in tubes

As clothing retailers reopen their doors across France, and other countries begin to talk about how and when they will emerge from lockdown, millions of consumers are going to be asking themselves a very simple question. Do they really want to go back to spending their money in the way they used to? I’m not talking about the specific products and services they intend to buy – though this will probably change – as much as how the transactions take place. 

Plenty of people, I’m sure, will be delighted to flick through the garments hanging on the rails of their favourite boutiques for the first time in months. But how many will wonder about the hazards of touching clothes that might carry the virus? How attractive is the prospect of stripping off in a changing room with potentially deadly shiny surfaces?

Even before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus, a growing number of people had already discovered the appeal of ordering clothes online from businesses like ASOS and Net-a-Porter, trying them on at their leisure and quite possibly soliciting the opinions of the people they live with before deciding which to pay for and keep, and which to send back.

As logistics become cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally friendly, if I were looking at where to invest, I’d feel happier about putting my money into businesses like these than traditional retail bricks and mortar.

DTC wine will grow too. But there’s a big difference. Unlike the too-brightly-coloured or uncomfortably-cut shirt that can be tried on and popped back into its return to sender packaging within moments, the bottle of Chenin or Chardonnay has to be opened before anyone can discover its desirability or unpalatability. And, in the case of the latter, what is the customer to do? Bang the cork in and send the three-quarter-full bottle back? Or consume the contents through gritted teeth?

For most people, the only simple way to try before you buy a wine is to buy from a retail specialist that keeps limited numbers of reds and whites for sampling under a protective layer of gas, or to visit a winery or public tasting event. All of these options involve much more commitment than is to be found in the average wine drinker.

But what if the producers and distributors were to make the process of tasting at home easier and more fun?

One simple way of doing this is being effectively exploited by Boisset Collection in the US with their Tupperware- or Amway-style party-plan distribution model. In return for up to 30 percent commission on sales, Boisset ‘ambassadors’ host tastings of the company’s wines, glassware and jewellery. If they can persuade their friends and family to join the scheme, they can hope to make a further eight percent on whatever they manage to sell. Whatever you may think of this kind of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) model, getting roomfuls of people to discover and discuss and learn a little about a series of wines ticks a lot of fashionable ‘educational’ and ‘experiential’ boxes. 

Alternatively, we could take a fresh look at packaging. Way back in 2006, a Bordeaux-based French oenologist called Laurent de Crasto and a sommelier called Bruno Maute, in collaboration with the INRA in Montpellier and the National Superior School of Arts and Crafts in Paris, came up with something called Wit: Wine in Tube. These screwcapped 60ml test tubes can be filled using a small piece of equipment called a ‘WIT Maker’ that tops the wine up with nitrogen, giving it a shelf life of up to six months shelf life.

Since 2007, WIT claims to have filled over 10m tubes which, at an average 60ml filling, would represent around 65,000 nine-litre cases of wine – though, this volume might be reduced somewhat by the company’s expansion into the words of spirits and oils. Setting aside the savings in the cost of the wine and, in some countries, local taxes, packaging samples in this way would have an immensely beneficial effect on the environment. The full tubes weigh just 180g, compared to over 1100g for the lightest 750ml bottle. Way back in 2011, Jancis Robinson declared herself “as someone who has to almost beat a path through a forest of wine bottles with just a few centilitres taken out of each to get around my house” to have a “huge personal (if commercially uninvolved) interest in this subject.”  She also thought the tubes relevant to “any wine producer” wanting to “sell their product in small, stylish doses.”

But, despite Ms Robinson’s enthusiasm, packaging costs of around a euro a tube may have probably been something of a deterrent because 10m tubes across over a dozen years is a drop in the vinous ocean. Today, it might make more sense to consider using 100ml cans which would be even friendlier to the planet. Or perhaps someone will come up with another alternative. All I know is that the time to make it easier for people to experience a variety of wines easily and inexpensively in their own homes may have arrived. 

Robert Joseph

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