Raising a glass to sustainability The rise of alternative wine packaging
A recent Financial Times article highlighted that alternative wine packaging such as boxes and pouches are the way forward to make the industry more sustainable, but the journalist also pointed to the fact that boxed, canned, and bagged wine remains associated with cheap, low quality product.
It’s true that little has shifted in wine packaging despite new formats long being available, partly due to this negative association. Most higher-end wine producers aren’t making much of an effort to overcome that perception either despite the environmental (and cost) benefits. The article actually highlights an interesting problem for wine – and I think the drinks category more broadly: while in many categories the use of more sustainable materials (recycled or recyclable paper, matte and textured biodegradable materials) have become cues of quality and premiumness, wine still holds fast to traditional formats (a corked glass bottle with a paper label glued on) and often cues of Aristocratic heritage to cue quality, authenticity, and craftsmanship. There hasn’t been a widespread embrace of new packaging formats among premium producers and brands yet, likely due to the perception that boxed wine is necessarily low quality. (The Michelin-starred restaurant St. John is a notable exception, offering their own branded wine in bottles and boxes, but likely due to dedicated customers’ trust in the brand.) The question is, then, how to make the sustainable option more premium and less maligned?
The rapidly growing trend of natural wine (still a loosely defined category, but distinguished from established, conventional producers) is not only shifting perceptions of taste and quality in wine itself, but also breaking down how to visually represent wine in packaging and labels. This emerging branch of the category can, it seems, provide inspiration on how to re-define perceptions of premium packaging more broadly as well. In natural wine, the traditional cues of heritage, quality, and premiumness are almost completely thrown out the door. Instead, winemakers are choosing unconventional graphic design styles or hiring artists to make unique drawings and paintings to illustrate these unconventional wines. There is in fact no unified visual code for natural wine, but quite the opposite. Instead of adhering to tried and true standards of heritage (European) premiumness, natural wine is embracing individuality and limited-edition artistry in the wine itself as well as in it its branding. Natural wine labels often incorporate graffiti-style drawing or feature hand-painted images suggesting a light, intuitive, human touch; some use highly stylized digital graphic design featuring playful cartoon representations of animals or people, or they eschew labels altogether and print minimal information directly onto the bottle. As variable as the visual style is the type of information presented, which ranges from paragraphs telling the life story of the wine, to detailed scientific explanations of fermentation processes, to nothing more than a poetic name given by the producer without elaboration. As in many other categories, unique stories and identities are the new premium, and creatively expressing these can win over traditional cues of quality.
Ultimately, as natural wine has gained in status culturally and increasingly becomes the new premium, wine and other drinks brands can look to cues of uniqueness, artistry, and exploration to communicate quality to consumers. And as this trend in winemaking takes hold among millennial consumers, these visual cues may be a key to designing premium boxed or bagged wine. Where heritage decorative borders, wax finishes, cursive fonts, establishment dates, and family crests would look incongruous on a cardboard box, a large flat surface is the perfect canvas to highlight the unique art and design that seems to be embraced by many producers in the natural wine world. Furthermore the flexibility of lightweight packaging materials allows even greater creativity and expression than the traditional wine bottle, with opportunities to design new, distinctive shapes and formats along with visual styles to amplify the uniqueness of the product within. With some imagination then, it may be possible to win over minds to the eco-friendly future of wine packaging, even if it doesn’t look quite so romantic on the dinner table as a wax-sealed glass bottle.
Isobel Grad, Semiotician