New wine packaging, including juice-style boxes, plastic bottles and aluminum cans, is creating a host of options for American consumers -- and a lot of angst for industry traditionalists.
Vintners, primarily the mass producers, want to get their goods into the hands of drinkers anywhere they can, and they're coming up with formats that will work at ball games, picnics, concerts and just about everywhere else someone might otherwise reach for a beer.
"The forces of industry are at work to appeal to anyone and everyone," said Tom Pirko, president of Santa Barbara-based consulting firm Bevmark. "The premise is that wine is checkers, not chess."
For instance, Niebaum-Coppola Winery in Rutherford last year launched the Sofia Mini, a small, pink soda-like can filled with sparkling white wine. It has a pop-top and comes with a straw. Named after the daughter of winery owner and movie director Francis Coppola, the Sofia Mini retails for $5 a can, or $20 for a four-pack.
More new designs, from a host of vintners, will appear on store shelves and at other outlets in the coming months.
Some, however, believe that this proliferation of consumer-friendly packaging is another example of the dumbing down of wine -- a trend that might lead to small increases in consumption but that could hurt the profitability of California's $15-billion wine industry by placing an emphasis on lower-quality products.
Although they have caught on in Europe, boxed wines and other alternative formats all have "a bad image with my customers," said Bill Knight, owner of the Wine House in West Los Angeles. One of the biggest independent wine retailers in Southern California, Knight's shop has annual sales of more than $10 million.
An unabashed purist, Knight has no interest in trying these newfangled containers. Cans, for one, "appeal to a younger generation than I want as customers," he said.
The changes are coming from the top down, starting with the cork.
This year, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in San Jose launched Cypress, an entire line of screw-cap bottles. Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz has replaced most of its corks with screw caps too.
For one thing, screw caps offer convenience. "What other beverage requires a special tool to open?" asked Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon.
What's more, the caps protect from TCA, or trichloroanisole, contamination. TCA is a pesky chemical byproduct of mold and chlorine that can destroy bottled wine.
Screw caps are tame, however, compared with what's coming.
Next year, Beringer Blass Wine Estates plans to introduce several varietals in clear, single-serving plastic bottles. They will be marketed to airlines, sports arenas, stadiums and entertainment venues.
"This is all about pushing products into new areas," said Patrick Field, a North Coast winegrape grower whose Torrance plastic factory is producing the bottles for Beringer.
" 'Peanuts, beer, wine!' -- that's the goal," he added. "This would be great for a place like Dodger Stadium where they pour wine from bottles and there is a lot of waste."
Meanwhile, Constellation Brands Inc., the world's largest wine company, is set to sell its Vendage wine in octagonal-shaped versions of the Tetra Pak, a larger version of the packaging used for children's juice boxes. The boxes will hold about two-thirds of what comes in a standard bottle.
Besides attracting more wine drinkers, vintners say, the unconventional packaging offers another advantage: lower costs.
Napa-based Three Thieves is importing Trebbiano, a white wine from Italy, in a 1-liter Tetra Pak. It retails for $6, although just 14 cents of that covers the packaging, says Charles Bieler, a partner in the venture. On a regular bottle, the front and back labels alone cost about 18 cents.
Not all of the wines getting a new wardrobe are low-end offerings. Brutocao Vineyards & Cellars in Hopland, Calif., is rolling out an estate-grown Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon in a 3-liter box for $36.
"There is sticker shock when people see the price," said Fred Buonanno, the winery's spokesman. "Then they realize that there are four bottles of wine in the box."