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Largest wine producer in the US adopts screw tops

11-May-2004

Corbett Canyon, the largest US wine brand, is converting all its 750ml bottles to Stelvin screw top closures in order to protect them from cork taint. But with many consumers still attached to the cork, are manufacturers too eager to adopt new forms of wine packaging, asks Anthony Fletcher.

"Thanks to the Stelvin closure, cork taint is history," said Corbett Canyon winemaker John Clark. "We are focused on our wines becoming the best tasting entry-level varietals available, and it makes sense that we are the first Top 20 wine brand to adopt this closure to guarantee wine quality each and every pour."

The naturally occurring chemical compound responsible for cork taint is TCA - or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole to give it its full name - a naturally occurring substance that results in the mouldy, musty taste and odour of corked wine. The number of wine bottles affected by cork taint is difficult to assess, with figures put at anywhere between 1 per cent (a figure cited by the cork industry) and 15 per cent (a more anecdotal figure based on winemakers' own perceptions), but no matter how high the exact figure is, the problem is one which plagues wine marketers the world over.

"I have watched with interest as more high-end wineries move to bottling all or a percentage of their wine with screw tops," said Clark. "I thought to myself it shouldn't just be the appreciators of $150 wines that enjoy the taint-free guarantees that the Stelvin closure offers."

Stelvin is one of the best-known screw tops, recognisable by its long seal that covers the bottles opening to give the appearance of a conventionally bottled wine. First developed in the 1970's for Swiss wines, which are said to be especially sensitive to Trichloranisole (TCA), its popularity has since expanded to many new world wine regions including Argentina, Chile and the United States.

Other major wine producing countries are also beginning to show acceptance of the screw top closure. Corbett Canyon estimates that 40 per cent of Australian and New Zealand wineries use screw tops and the largest wine retailer in the UK, Tesco, has over 100 screw top wines in store and expects to stock more.

Corbett Canyon is aware however that many casual wine drinkers associate screw tops with lower price wines. As a result, the brand is adopting the "Taste the Wine, Not the Cork" tagline, which will appear on all materials, including on the tops of every Stelvin closed bottle. The message is designed to communicate the new package benefit and the resulting improved wine experience.

"If consumers trust what is inside the bottle, they will be less focused on the closure," said Clark. "Experience shows that anyone who has used screw top bottles at home - or taken screw-top wines on a picnic - quickly embraces how convenient they are."

Synthetic stoppers have been seen as the most obvious way of addressing the problem of wine taint. But while this is one way of significantly reducing the problem (although evidence suggests that TCA from sources other than cork - such as wooden barrels or even the drainage system of the winery where it is made - can still contaminate wine in screw cap bottles) consumer acceptance of such closures remains mixed.

Writing in FoodandDrinkEurope.com for example, Chris Jones points out that research carried out recently in the UK shows that while British consumers are the most accepting of a wide variety of closures, most still prefer to hear the pop of a natural cork when they open a bottle of wine. He cites specialist wine industry market research group Wine Intelligence findings that show that UK consumers clearly ranked cork as their favourite, with synthetic corks in second place and screw-caps a distant third, with nearly a 60 per cent negative response.

"The distinctive 'pop' of a wine cork is still a key element of the wine drinking ritual, say consumers, and it is not one they are keen to give up," said Wine Intelligence's Richard Halstead. "Some 99 per cent of respondents to the survey said they were positive or neutral about cork. By contrast, nearly six in 10 respondents said they did not like buying wine with screw caps."

Halstead continued: "Ordinary consumers are not yet willing to abandon a key element of the wine drinking ritual, despite evidence pointing to the better sealing properties of screw caps. There is a danger here that retailers and wine producers will move too fast to embrace the new technology and in doing so alienate key segments of consumers."

But in the end it will be cost which plays the most important role, it seems. Halstead said that a new survey from Wine Intelligence, due to be published soon, showed that synthetic closures were already the stopper of choice among the UK's leading wine buyers, and suggested that this, rather than consumer demand, would drive the market in the future.

There is a great deal of innovation in wine packaging at the moment. For example, Corbett Canyon wine is also available in the Premium Wine Cask, a package that utilises a patented SmartTap spout system. This is supposed to keep wine fresh for up to six weeks after opening. The company claims that the concept has been a success, with over three million glasses-worth of wine from the Premium Cask format sold in under a year.

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