I keep an empty wine bottle from Chateau de La Rivière in my office. It says right on the front label “Mis en bouteille au chateau,” that is, that the wine was bottled at the winery. It turns out that at least in the British wine market bottling at the winery is becoming the exception, not the rule. According to the Financial Times, a large numbers of wines imported into the United Kingdom are now imported in plastic bladders (see the image above) and bottled in the UK (Crate expectations, Jan 31).
In the past few years there has been a huge structural change in how wine is delivered to those who drink it. The UK, for example, is the most important market for one of the world’s most enthusiastic wine exporters, Australia. In 2008, fewer than three in every 10 bottles of Australian wine on British shelves contained wine that had been shipped from Australia in bulk rather than in bottle. Four years later that figure was eight in every 10, and the total amount of wine shipped out of Australia in bulk overtook the volume exported in bottle.
Australia is far from the only country to ship substantial quantities of wine sloshing around in a tank inside a container rather than neatly sealed in bottles. Spain and Italy export far more wine in bulk than any non-European wine producer, and 65 per cent of all South African wine exports were bulk last year. (Chile is an enthusiastic exporter of bulk wine and earns the highest average price per litre for it.) According to the OIV, the global wine statistics-gatherer, the total volume of wine shipped around the world in bulk rose 61 per cent between 2005 and 2012 to represent more than 40 per cent of all exported wine.
So what is driving this rapid conversion from bottle to bulk?
According to the article the initial impetus came from large supermarkets which publicly committed improve their sustainability and reduce packaging waste. Ditching glass is then appealing since it adds significant weight and bulk. By some estimates, bulk shipping has reduced the carbon footprint of importing wine by 42%. Even though there are some additional handling costs in breaking bulk and bottling once the wine reaches its destination, not schlepping glass from Australia to England more than compensate for that.
What has kept the trend going is cost saving. The Brits have increased the import duties on wine and shipping savings have allowed retailers in a competitive market to absorb rather than pass on the higher taxes.
I see two interesting points in this. The first is the (not uncommon) observation that being greener can align with business goals. Here is a setting in which an attempt to make a supply chain greener has also enabled significant monetary savings.
The second point is that it calls into question of what the customer expects from a product. Does the customer actually value having the wine bottled at the winery? The FT article closes with a brief discussion of alternative wine packages. It notes that for a wine that is meant to age (like my bottle of Bordeaux), glass bottles are the only real option. However, it also notes that some studies have found that 90% of wine sold in the US is consumed within 24 hours. That suggests that there may not be any quality lost in bulk shipping.