Rethinking the wine bottle: 'It's a fascinating moment of possible paradigm shift'

The wine bottle might be overdue for a redo. In "5 Ways to Package Wine," Food & Wine Magazine highlighted some innovative ideas for the wine bottle's redesign. "It's a fascinating moment of possible paradigm shift," says Ray Isle, executive wine editor of the magazine. He talks about the past, present and future of the wine bottle.

The wine bottle of the past

Ray Isle
Ray Isle


The development of glass bottles was what allowed wine to be put down and aged and developed over time. Before that, you had wine that was stored in barrels or clay pots -- these long, thin amphorae in the classical, ancient world. It wasn't something aged over time because there wasn't a way to do it. The development of the standardized glass bottle played a huge role in that.

The standardized size of the bottle, 750 milliliters, which we all take for granted, wasn't really standardized until the Industrial Revolution. It comes out of the size of a glass blower's lungful of air. That's basically how they initially came up with it. "This is what I can exhale, so that's the size of your bottle. Here you go." It works out well.

It's funny because until the 1800s, there was so much variation in bottle size. In England, for instance, it was illegal to sell wine in bottles until the 1860s. Everybody was getting ripped off because people suddenly were changing the size of the bottle. It had to be sold by the measure and then put into a bottle.

The wine bottle of today


In terms of aging high-end fine wine, glass is still the most neutral. It is the best solution they have come up with -- you want something that doesn't interact with the wine over time.

There are two basic shapes: the Bordeaux bottle and the Burgundy bottle.

The Bordeaux bottle is the one you see cabernets in; it has the more square-shouldered bottle. The Bordeaux bottle was designed to catch sediment -- you have the neck of the bottle and that little outcrop. When you pour, that catches the sediment.

The Burgundy one is what you see chardonnays in; it's a smoother bottle.

The pressure on the cork industry from the mass adoption of screw-top closures has actually caused the quality of corks to climb back up again. The problem with corks is that a certain small percentage of them taint the character of the wine to make it smell a little like cardboard -- or a lot like cardboard, if it's particularly bad. That got pretty bad for a while. The adoption of screw caps by higher-end wines -- by not your basic, bottom-of-the-basement blancs -- that was a response to wine makers saying, "I'm tired of these corks messing up my wine."

But at the same time, you've got nifty things like glass stoppers with a little gasket. They first appeared in Austria, I think. You see them especially with white wines.

You've also seen a change in screw tops. The technology of screw tops has gotten so smart: As a producer, you can buy screw tops and you can dial in the amount of oxygen transmission over time. You buy a certain level of oxygen transmission. In a sense, it mimics a cork because corks are a little transparent to oxygen; that’s how wine ages.

Another thing is that they have just refined the way screw tops look. You've got a streamlined, nice, smooth-sided design. It doesn't look like a screw top.

The wine bottle of the future: 'It's a fascinating moment of possible paradigm shift'


One interesting thing is what the Champagne region has done to the standardized bottle that is approved by the region to be used. A couple of years ago, they redesigned it and shaved off about 2.5 ounces by thinning the neck slightly, changing the slope of the shoulder. Champagne bottles are heavy to begin with so they don't blow up. Because they are full of Champagne, they are under pressure.

Just by reducing the contours of the bottle, they cut off about 2.5 ounces of weight. If you look at Champagne producing 300 million or more bottles a year, that's actually a fair amount of carbon footprint that got cut off by very subtle changes.

In terms of environmental concerns, there's no question that something like the Tetra Pak is so much lighter. Those are the boxed wines. They are little, individual, 1-liter wines, like the Bandit brand pinot grigio or Yellow+Blue malbec. Without question, they have a lighter carbon footprint. They don't cost as much to ship. You're not shipping tons and tons of glass. Even 1,000 cases of wine is about 12,000 pounds of glass. One thousand cases of Tetra Pak is about 1/12th of that.

It is something that has changed over the years. It's been pretty steady for the past couple of hundred years, but now there is all this new technology coming along and concerns about the environmental cost of the weight of bottles and things like that. It's a fascinating moment of possible paradigm shift.

We think the key thing about wine is the wine in the bottle, but actually the package that surrounds it is also fascinating in a lot of ways. Who knows what will come next? An energy field that will surround your wine and age it over time? Or a four-dimensional bottle that stores your wine in outer space somewhere?

Rethinking the wine bottle


We picked a couple of things out of the market that were interesting. We also went to a couple of design firms and said essentially, "If you were going to
rethink the wine bottle, what would you do?"

1. Wine in a recycled paper bottle, Paper Boy Wines

One of the first ones is from a winery called Truett Hurst, which is actually out in the market: Paper Boy Wines. It's a recycled paper bottle. It’s a bottle shape, but it's made out of recycled paper with a thin plastic film inside. It's 100 percent recyclable cardboard bottles. They are 85 percent lighter than glass, but they actually have a screw top and they look weirdly like a bottle.

2, 3. A wine bottle that doesn't drip, Fferrone Design and Minimalist

Then we went to a company called Fferrone Design out of Chicago. They came up with -- it's like a slope-shouldered wine bottle with an angled neck where the cork goes in.

Everybody has had this problem where you pour wine out of the bottle and it drips all over the place. Their thought was, "Why not come up with a wine bottle that actually doesn't drip?" It's a little like the cup holder in a car where you think, "How did it take us 60 years to come up with this?" I like the idea of a wine bottle that doesn't drip.

Fferrone Design
Fferrone Design's wine bottle (Photo: Jaeho Hur / Fferrone Design)

Another one we got from a design studio called Minimalist: Vin Grace. This is floating out on some of the web design sites. You've seen the standard square Tetra Pak -- this is more of a triangular plane. It's very cool and modern-looking black and white packaging, with an angular cut corner so you can again minimize drips.

4. Single-serving bottles that spell wine, Malfatti Glass

Then we also went to Malfatti Glass, which does beautiful tabletop glassware and things. They just came up with this nifty idea of having little single-serving bottles in the shape of the letters "W," "I," "N" and "E" with a little cork stuck in it where you could place them on the table. Everybody would have their own letter. It's a nifty idea that's a lot of fun.

Malfatti Glass' wine bottle
Malfatti Glass' wine bottle (Image: Jill Reynolds and Daniel Spitzer)

5. Wine in a soft, pliable, anti-microbial glass alternative, Ein-Glass

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