Between consumer (mis) conception, business logistics, and marketing techniques, wine industry pros consider the right package for classic aromatic white varieties.
For many consumers, even seasoned oenophiles, selecting a wine isn’t a straight-forward choice. “I like red, ergo, this will do,” said no one in any wine store, ever. It has become a complex process used as shorthand—by the buyers themselves and their community of fellow imbibers—to signify their lifestyle, economic status, even ideology and politics.
Even under normal circumstances, purchasing wine can be stressful. It’s so hard to know what’s inside.
“I’ve been making and drinking wine for quite a while now, so I should be comfortable purchasing wine,” says George Hodson, president and co-owner of Flying Fox Vineyard & Winery in Afton, Virginia. “But when I’m choosing between bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris, even I’m thinking to myself the entire time, ‘please don’t be sweet.’ It’s often difficult to tell just by looking at the bottle.”
During the pandemic, more and more consumers bought wine online, which made asking questions about a bottle more challenging. That trend of purchasing with a click is likely here to stay. The U.S. is on track to overtake China as the world’s biggest alcohol e-commerce market this year, IWSR predicts.
Dozens of studies have documented the consternation buyers greet difficult-to-pronounce wines (Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Kabinett or Piesporter Goldtröpfchen anyone?), and the relief they find in pared down labels, or ones with creature features.
For decades, New World winemakers have been aggressively deploying bright colors, witty graphics and simpler verbiage to snag market share. Increasingly, especially in up-and-coming wine regions and the sheer number of winemakers out there—more than 11,000 brands in the U.S. alone at last count—vintners are rethinking not just what goes on the bottle, but the shape of the vessel itself. This goes double for aromatic whites, one of the most notoriously misunderstood categories of wine, especially in the U.S.
Hock bottles are named for the German town of Hochheim, which pioneered the bottle shape; the term was popularized in England, and has come to signify—for some—sweet, cheap wine.
“Many types of dry wine use the hock-style bottle,” says John Kapon, chairman and master taster of New York City’s Acker Wines. “It’s Riesling that, unfortunately, suffers most from sweetness stereotyping.”
But many, including Acker, whose staff actively works to educate consumers on the inner contents of each bottle of aromatic white in their shop, and countless winemakers, caving to perceptual inaccuracies is a non-starter.
“We use hock-style bottles for our Riesling and Gewürtztraminer, and if we made a Pinot Gris we would too,” says Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks in Lodi, N.Y., with an annual production of 10,000 cases. “For us, it’s about respecting the history and tradition, and while I agree that only may be 10 to 15 percent of the market understands that hock-style bottles don’t automatically mean the wine is sweet, once they taste it, they get it.”
Others, like winemaker Sarah Rhodes-Troxell at Galen Glen Winery in Andreas, PA, which has annual production of 6,500 cases, and produces Rieslings, Gewürtztraminer and Grüner Veltliner, are sticking to the hock-style bottle, while also rethinking how they communicate the contents quickly and clearly to the consumer.
“A few recent conversations I’ve had make me think we have room for improvement,” Rhodes-Troxell says. “A lot of our dry Rieslings are sold out of the tasting room directly to consumers. But moving forward, I want to make it easier for people buying elsewhere to understand what’s inside, perhaps simply by making the labeling clearer.”
But others hope to eliminate confusion by eliminating the hock bottle entirely.
“We wanted to make a bone-dry Riesling, and we made a conscious choice to put it in a Burgundy [shaped bottle], instead of a hock-style bottle,” says Nova Cadamatre, MW and winemaker at Geneva, N.Y.’s Trestle 31, which produces 260 cases annually. “We wanted consumers to instantly understand it wasn’t sweet.”
UNIFORMITY & LOGISTICS
Consumer perception is a top concern for newer domestic producers, and ones in emerging markets, but it’s also a matter of cost, uniformity and logistics.
“A hock bottle is going to automatically perceived as a sweet wine,” says Jake Busching, winemaker at Hark Vineyards in Earlysville, VA. “For a producer in an up-and-coming region, that’s fatal. But for us, it was also about cost. I can get a Burgundy or Bordeaux-style bottle for half the price of a hock bottle. I also think those styles communicate that the wines can be aged.”
To drive the point home, Hark also rips a page out of craft beer’s playbook and clearly communicates tasting notes and production methods. On the Pinot Gris, potential buyers see that it’s 100% stainless-steel fermented, with “bright, melon, lychee” notes.
At Flying Fox, Hodson says they “make all decisions thinking of the consumer first. We use Burgundy bottles for all of our whites, including Pinot Gris and Viognier, and prominently display clear descriptors of the flavors inside so if they encounter our wines in a store or online, they’ll know what to expect.”
Kirsty Harmon, winemaker and general manager at Charlottesville, VA’s Blenheim Vineyards, which produces 8,000 cases annually, says the decision to put Grüner Veltliner in a Bordeaux bottle was about “achieving a consistent aesthetic across the line, and logistics. When you have a small bottling line in your production facility, having one bottle shape really helps to maintain order.”
Others think producers should be thinking outside the bottle entirely.
“Alternative packaging, especially cans, is trending way up,” says Gabe Barkley, CEO of wine importer, exporter and distributor, MHW Ltd. “Consumers associate hock-style bottles with sweet and traditional wines, and cans are a great way for producers of aromatic whites to appeal to younger consumers especially.”
Cans make sense for aromatic whites especially “because they’re often fermented in stainless steel, and cans capture the liveliness and spirit of them well,” Barkley says. “Cans are also appealing to people who want just a glass or two of wine, and for people who are drawn to the infinite recyclability of cans and their lower carbon footprint in terms of transportation.”
Miguel de Leon, general manager and wine director at New York City’s Pinch Chinese, agrees.
For consumers, cans are “about context,” says de Leon. “For hanging out at a party, or the beach, they’re great. They’re easy to carry around, a single serving and fun to drink.” For producers, it’s “about intent. For a long time, canned wine was more of grocery store phenomena, but that’s changing. Why are you putting this in a can, and does it make sense for your varietal? To me, canning favors bright and thirst-quenching wines that do well with a chill, like a Riesling or Pinot Gris. I think there’s also a good chance that it will get these wines into the hands of people who might not have tried them before.”
The broad appeal of cans hasn’t been lost on East Coast producers, says Robert L. Williams, Jr., founder and partner at WIC Research, devoted to analyzing the wine-in-a-can industry.
“Twelve East Coast states are selling at least one canned wine, and at last count, there were 81 winemakers selling 244 SKUs of canned wine,” Williams says. “More and more serious producers are getting in the game too, and that raises the bar for everyone.”
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox