What, apart from their size, is the difference between a can of olive oil (or of sardines) and a can of tomatoes?
The answer is that, like most containers of milk on retail shelves, the ones full of oil and fish have a rectangular footprint, rather than a round one.
If you look at the contents of an average shipping trolley, most of the packaging is round. One very good reason for this is that it requires around eight percent less aluminium, plastic or glass to produce each container. In the case of soft drinks, round cans and bottles handle pressure better, and they are strong enough to carry the weight when large numbers are stacked on top of each other. Take my advice: don’t even think of trying to stacking large, square plastic milk bottles.
But advantages usually walk hand-in-hand with disadvantages. Round containers are wastefully inefficient when it comes to the space they occupy: you could fit 100 square cans of tomatoes (or bottles of wine) in the space occupied by 82 round ones. And this applies to every stage of the product’s life so, potentially, that could mean a saving of 18% in warehouse space. Less plastic wrap per bottle used to wrap pallets. And so on.
A French firm called Margnat, now part of Castel, understood this principle perfectly when it packed its popular la Villageoise wine in square-based one-and-a-half litre plastic bottles over 50 years ago. Since then, however, apart from Tetrapaks and Bag in Box which are almost always oblong or square, most wine has been packed in something you can roll.
I was reminded of this the other evening when my host at a dinner party proudly pulled a square-based bottle of Les Terres de Berne Provence Rosé from his fridge and everyone present briefly stopped talking to admire its stylish angularity. After a little thought, they all agreed that while they could name at least couple of spirits brands in square bottles, no one could recall one being used for wine.
My friend, Kevin Shaw, tried to address this issue a few years ago with his design for a new brand called California Square in Safeway stores in the US, but the novelty failed to catch on.
So, this is my attempt to revive it – or at least to see if we can get a few more brands to use it than one go-ahead producer in the south of France. If the glass is properly recycled – or more ideally refilled – the extra weight will be far less of a concern than the savings in storage and transport.
When I’ve sought to discover why the wine industry has been so slow to explore alternative bottle shapes, I’ve been told that it would involve contravening appellation laws (almost never the case); it would cost too much (which would depend on the number of bottles and the retail price); and that consumers ‘just don’t want it’.
I’m sure this last assertion is true. Just as they famously didn’t ‘want’ a car before Henry Ford offered them one, or a way to carry their record collection around with them until Steve Jobs gave them the iPod. There was absolutely no consumer demand for screwcaps before 2000, and, in the US and China, that remains largely the case. However, Australian, New Zealand and subsequently Austrian and German producers, along with UK retailers all supported the idea, and millions of wine drinkers found themselves happily unscrewing Marlborough Sauvignon or Austrian Grüner to drink while listening to their digitised music. And maybe some people have already discovered that, on reflection, they really quite like square bottles. Apparently, the Chateau de Berne has a lot of boating customers who appreciate the way the Terre de Berne helpfully stays still when it falls over.
For me, at least, the parallel between square bottles and screwcaps is clear. Both seem ‘wrong’ to anyone who imagines that round bottles with natural corks are the default. Just as, until Elon Musk shook things up, few people seemed able to be able to imagine plugging in a vehicle rather than filling it with fossil fuels. I’ve had an electric car for over three happy years, but I also know how old fashioned it will soon become. My rosé-serving host is a former design engineer for McLaren cars. Today he’s working on a multi-billion-dollar project to build autonomous vehicles with no steering wheel or windscreen. These should be on the road in around 14 years, when I’m guessing that at least some of us will be sitting in the back of them banging on about the unacceptable weight of the Bordeaux bottles as they roll around the floor.