Persuading consumers to drink anything other than bottled wine is an uphill climb. Glass bottles are the gold standard, so newer brands are turning to sleek, eco-friendly containers and promoting them through social media to reach younger wine drinkers.
Those in the millennial age group, between 21 and 34, are the target because they have grown up drinking from plastic and are less wedded to traditional wine rituals. And some 51 percent of them drink wine at least once a week, according to data from the Wine Market Council.
Already on some shelves is wine in boxes, in aluminum cans and in plastic. Last month, Southwest Wines in Deming, N.M., began selling wine blends in aluminum containers. Constellation Wines is offering its Black Box brand in mass market outlets like Costco.
As the industry broadens its offerings, some of the innovators are not vintners, but packaging experts who are bringing their expertise to the way wine reaches consumers.
In the spring, Stacked Wines, based in Newport Beach, Calif., introduced individually packaged, stemless plastic cups, which stack vertically and contain chardonnay, merlot and other wines. Matt Zimmer, a mechanical engineer who worked in the bottled water industry for more than six years, came up with Stacked Wines' packaging.
"We see an industry trend to more convenient packaging," said Zimmer, Stacked Wines' chief executive. He began the company, in Anaheim, with MBA classmates from UC Irvine.
Another entrant in the wine business, Eric Steigelman, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, drew on his background in flexible product packaging to design a pouch for his Bonfire Wines.
"Millennials are interested in convenience and availability, and some areas like soup and baby foods have been moving to pouches," Steigelman said in Chicago. "Wine seemed to be an area that was looking for innovation, but little had been done."
The biggest challenge to gaining consumer confidence has been overcoming the perception that wine should come only from a bottle. Wine in other packaging has long been lumped into the undrinkable or barely acceptable category, although some boxed wines are becoming more popular.
Wine drinkers tend to be explorers and frequently decide what to purchase while in the store, unlike other buyers of alcoholic beverages, who settle on their brands in advance, according to a study released this month by Nielsen North America Consumer Group.
New brands emphasize packaging for people who want lightweight, portable and easily consumed wine. Stacked Wines, which is expanding its distribution from California to 46 states starting in January, is using its national introduction as an opportunity to revamp its label to better explain its product, according to Jodi Wynn, a co-founder.
Stacked Wines' consumers simply unseal the package and drink, with no wine glasses or corkscrew required. The four sealed portions, made using the company's trademarked Vinoware, fit atop one another. Each holds the equivalent of a glass of wine, and the four combined equal a 750-milliliter bottle. There is no spoilage because the wine is packaged in individual amounts. The company charges about $15 for a stack.
For Bonfire Wines, Steigelman chose a pouch -- which prevents air from oxidizing and spoiling wine -- made from federally approved food-grade materials. The pouches are black with a broad stripe of vibrant color running horizontally, and were designed by Planet Studio, a design and marketing company in Atlanta.
To arrive at packaging that would be noticed amid the proliferation of bottles, Gene Keserica, Planet Studio's creative director, said his team chose fluorescent colors because "we saw that as a way for the packaging to be eye-catching -- if you can make someone pause, that gives you a split second to get your message over."
The label's look "can have significant influence on a purchase," said David Turner, president of Turner Duckworth, a brand identity and packaging design agency in San Francisco and London. "Beverage packaging is not purely functional, but a way of reaching your buyer."
Bonfire Wines is highlighting the portability of its pouch for those who like to share the experience of drinking wine with others. To enhance interaction, Steigelman added a quick response, or QR, code to each pouch for mobile-phone-carrying buyers to react to what they are drinking and keep in touch with the brand.
Engaging the buyer
The Bonfire wines are produced by Kevin McGuire, a California winemaker, said Steigelman, who has not yet set a price for them.
After tasting Bonfire's Ember sweet red wine blend or its Ignite sweet white wine blend, buyers can register their preferences for the next type of wine the company will offer.
Engaging the buyer is important because with such a profusion of label choices, wine buyers can be influenced by samples, promotions and advertising, according to the Nielsen study, titled "Exploring the Alcohol Beverage Consumer's Mindset."
Brands like Stacked and Bonfire (which is not yet on the shelves) have tiny marketing budgets. To generate, and keep, an audience of dedicated buyers, they are focusing on tastings at locations like local arts and music festivals, and on social media like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter.
After spending more than a year choosing his wine, packaging and design, and obtaining his liquor licensing, Steigelman is missing 2012's top alcohol sales period and will not be selling his pouches until spring.
"So few companies manufacture pouches," Steigelman sighed, "and, for now, they are all booked up."