Smaller wine bottles – their time has come

Nobody thinks it strange to see or buy caviar in a wide range of sizes. Robert Joseph wonders why, in an age of wine-in-moderation and $200 bottles of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa red, half bottles and single-serves are still the underclass of the wine world.

Half bottles from the UK's Little Fine Wine Co
Half bottles from the UK's Little Fine Wine Co

One of my best friends doesn’t do moderation. Or, as he likes to say, he only does it in moderation. Meals with Al, as I’ll call him, lead to empty bowls and plates and bottles. Lots of them. And immoderate amounts of discussion and laughter.

But, thanks to the pandemic, like countless other people over the last couple of years, Al’s done a lot of dining alone. And he’s noticed that emptying plates and bottles when there’s no one to share them with can have negative consequences – both to his waistline and the state of his head in the mornings.

Which explains why he’s been scouting local wine shops and supermarkets for smaller bottles and cans of wine. Al knows all about putting the cork back in a 75cl bottle and sticking it in the fridge for the next day but, like only eating half the packet of peanuts or bar of chocolate, that’s not his way. It’s a bit easier to withstand the temptation to pull another cork or pull the tab on another can.

Now, I’m sure there will be some censorious readers who’ll simply respond that people like Al just need to develop a bit more self discipline. And all I’d say to them is that I hope their behaviour is as laudable in other ways as his.

But this column is not about trying to change human behaviour – always a larger challenge than most of us can overcome for ourselves, let alone others. I’m far more interested in the thought of how many people there are who might admit to having a love-hate relationship with the convenience of a bag-in-box that offers a near-permanent supply of tasty wine. And who are increasingly drawn to the limitations imposed by smaller packaging.

A wine industry that at least pays lip service to the concept of Wine in Moderation should welcome smaller packaging on those grounds alone, but finance directors may also have reasons to give serious thoughts to looking beyond the 75cl format.

There are interesting comparisons to be made with the food industry. Any self-respecting chocolate lover can work their way through at least half of a 90g bar, if not the whole thing. In the case of Green & Black the Kraft-owned UK brand, that would set them back £2.00 ($2.72). A 35g bar of precisely the same chocolate, however, would cost £0.85p ($1.15) – a healthy £0.06 (eight US cents) more per gram. Chocolate manufacturers also apparently now treat bags full of individually packaged ‘bite-sized’ items as a major potential growth area.

In 2018, the research organisation, Mintel published the results of a survey of 1,854 US adult chocolate eaters. While nearly all unsurprisingly said that chocolate is a legitimate occasional indulgence, over three in five acknowledged that it was important to limit consumption, and just under half said they’d like to see more small format options.

Cans in the US have already shown that consumers are prepared to pay more per litre for the convenience of small packages, and there is growing evidence that the same is true of small bottles. The blogger who pens certainly thinks $11.99 is a fair price to pay for the half bottle of La Marca Prosecco she recommends in a blog post about single serve wine.

But it’s not just about limiting alcohol or calorie intake. I have another friend. Let’s call him Rob. His problem – one he shares with many – is an inability and/or unwillingness to pay the prices commanded by the wines he used to drink. Even when, as a former wine critic, he can afford them, he still feels uncomfortable about spending over $100 on a few glasses of fermented grape juice.

Caviar, and fine Chinese tea, he points out, are available in small quantities, allowing him to indulge in these luxuries without breaking the bank. Why should 50cl and half bottle formats of wine be so rare?

The traditionalists usually respond that wine does not age as well in smaller bottles – which is true, if you use natural corks and allow standard head space. With modern closures, it is not beyond the wit of modern human beings to quite the tyranny of 75cl.

Ah, say the traditionalists, smaller bottles cost disproportionally more. And of course this is equally true (just as it is for the chocolate manufacturers’ smaller packages) and it’s certainly relevant to wine on sale for under $10, where savings of a few cents here and there can be crucial.

But the ‘costs more’ argument is totally irrelevant once you move into the premium and super-premium sectors that Rob is talking about. An extra dollar or two of packaging isn’t going to make much difference to wine selling for over a dollar per centilitre. In any case, as we’ve already seen – and as Champagne houses have proved for years, customers happily pay prices that cover those additional costs. (ScaryMommy’s recommendations include 18.75cl bottles of Moët at $18.59.)

Rob doesn’t want to pay a huge premium for his half of Pomerol or Pommard, but he would like not to have to buy twice as much of it as he might actually want. (Which, incidentally is why telling him to simply use his Coravin, is not the answer).

To an outsider, discussions of half-bottles reveal the fragmented nature of the wine industry. In the US, as Wine Enthusiast reported, in 2019 Jason Haas of the Tablas Creek winery had seen such a decline in sales of his smaller format bottles that he was about to stop producing them. During that same period, Rob McMillan, of Silicon Valley Bank who keeps track of industry trends noted in his annual report that  sales of half-bottles grew 20% in 2019 while those of standard 75cl ones  bottles shrank.

Tablas Creek’s 37.5cl bottles were saved from extinction by Covid 19 and their new-found role in online tastings. However, Haas asks “will people still want to do virtual tastings once they can visit wineries again.”

But surely sipping and tasting while staring at a screen, while occasionally fascinating, is not really what wine is, or should be about. It’s about drinking the stuff, but not necessarily two or three glasses at a time.

Rob isn’t new to this argument. Way back in the 1990s, when sherry producers were simultaneously struggling to sell their Fino and trying to ‘educate’ consumers to drink it while fresh, and not to keep bottles hanging around, he and a few other critics lobbied for smaller formats. At first, their calls hit a brick wall. Today, the UK Wine Society sells Tio Pepe En Rama for £8.95 ($12.17).

Of course, most top wine producers in most regions already offer half bottles, but they do so in much the way that Champagne houses used to view their rosé: with as much enthusiasm as a small child being told to brush their teeth.

Until those Champagne houses discovered that pink fizz could be profitable and prestigious as well as popular.

Today, sommeliers across the world are also beginning to see the point of half bottles. The tide is finally turning.

And, I’m betting that by 2030 the 75cl share of the glass bottle market will be substantially smaller.

Good news for Al, and for me. (And my alter ego).

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