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Considering the 375 ml Format: The Case for the Alternative Packaging Size

by W. Blake Gray
June 04, 2020

Here is a modest proposal: wineries making expensive wines should consider making more 375 ml bottles this year for sampling purposes.

Yes, there are other reasons to consider making more 375s: One high-end winery says they believe restaurants will look for more 375 mls to sell with takeout food. Industry analyst Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank says 375 mls would be more attractive to younger consumers and single consumers. But let's consider the idea of 375 ml bottles for samples for a moment.

Why is this a good idea? Because during the pandemic, wineries will need significantly more sample bottles than they did previously.

Ferrari-Carano sells about 2 percent of its Fume Blanc in 375 mls, and recently added a 375 ml version of its Sonoma County Chardonnay. Jim Boswell, Ferrari-Carano vice president of sales, said that when they first bottled the Fume Blanc in 375s, they used only those—no 750s—for sampling.

"People like it. It's an attractive package," Boswell said. "And then, we can leave it behind. Especially if the owner's not there, or the buyer. In our business you make appointments and then sometimes the buyer's not there."

And this was before the pandemic. Now, some retailers are refusing to allow salespeople in their stores, saying, "leave the bottle." This may also be true of restaurants as they reopen. The days of having one bottle for several sommeliers from different restaurants may be over, at least for now.

Moreover, the patchwork of businesses open and closed, in addition to layoffs amongst distributors, has made the salesperson’s route more spread out than before. One East Coast salesperson said he used to carry a sample box of a dozen wines and he could use it to pour small tastes for buyers at dozens of accounts. Now, he can't reach as many places in a day. He said with judicious pouring he could previously taste as many as 10 accounts on a single bottle of wine. Now, he can't find 10 open accounts in a single day to receive him, though he drives twice as far.

There's a reason the East Coast sales person requested anonymity, and why I gave it to him. He is breaking the law, and he knows it. He is pouring samples from a 750 ml bottle into 50 ml test tubes and mailing these to accounts. This is illegal on a couple of levels. He wants to sell the wine, so he is using argon to try to preserve the wine. He is as conscientious a wine salesperson as could be, without those pesky laws that prevent wine from being poured into a second container for shipping—and definitely cannot be sent through the U.S. mail.

"These poor retailers are concerned about their health," he said. "What am I gonna do, go in there and sell them wine? A 50 ml sample, I think it's enough. When I pour samples for the trade people, they're happy with 50 ml. Everyone likes to try new wines. It's what we do. The way to do it legally is a smaller bottle."

Going Small, But Not Too Small
I thought about suggesting 187 ml bottles—airline size—but I was quickly dissuaded of that by Erica Harrop, president of Global Package in Napa.

"Airplane size is very unique," Harrop said. "I've only sold 187s to very large groups. There aren't any cork-(finished) 187s. An airplane bottle is always a screwcap, but this is a different size screwcap. You need machines that can handle that screwcap. There have been companies that have tried to do it, but it's very expensive."

Harrop says an advantage of 375s is that they run on the same bottling line as 750s, and as she says, take the same cork (or screwcap) and capsule. However, a 375 ml bottle won't actually save you much  by way of cost. Depending on the shape and style of the glass, it might actually cost the same as the 750 ml, Harrop says.

"Your cork is the same. Your capsule is the same," Harrop says. "Your overall cost of packaging is about the same. It comes down to the cost of the liquid. At $15 (retail) it may not be worth making two different capacities. At $30 or $40 it starts to make sense."

P.J. Pedroncelli, owner of the Pedroncelli bottling company in Sonoma, said there's a $300 changeover charge to switch from bottling 750s to 375s (or vice versa) when his mobile bottling line arrives, but other than that, there is no extra cost. "The 375s are common for us," Pedroncelli says. "The cost per case of the bottle is the same. It's just a changeover charge."

Putting 375 Samples in Buyer’s Hands
So, let's say you make these 375s for sampling. How do you get them to retailers, restaurateurs and sommeliers?

For accounts inside California, wineries are allowed to ship bottles directly to retail accounts for sampling purposes, as long as they keep records, says beverage alcohol attorney John Hinman.  But the patchwork of U.S. wine law is complicated, as we all know.

"The bottles must go through the wholesalers, subject to whatever sample rules apply in the particular state," said Hinman, a founding partner of Hinman and Carmichael in San Francisco. "The rules are different everywhere and the system is designed to protect wholesaler exclusivity."

In many states, the wineries would have to send the 375s to wholesalers and ask them to distribute them to potential clients. It's a nuisance, but it's no different from the existing system of sampling clients on 750 ml bottles, though you would find some savings on shipping because the bottles are lighter than if you sent 750s.

The main savings is always going to be the liquid. A winery sales director I spoke to who didn't want to be named is thinking of making more 375s anyway because its wines are expensive and it is coming off of three short vintages, but doesn't want to lose placements. The sales director is definitely thinking about the cost of sampling.

"We think there's an opportunity there because of the fact that sales people are going to have to sample more restaurants to get the same number of placements," he said.

McMillan, the executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, says that 375s would also be useful to have around for selling, not just sampling. "Before the Covid-19 stop, we had really good growth rate in 375 ml. Cans are doing really well. Single serving is a discussion that has been in the background for a long time. We have to develop single servings,” McMillan says. “It's occasion-based. We don't have any occasions right now but dinner, but when we get back into the world, a single-serving can or bottle might have a place in a camping weekend. If you go to a beach community and you have a bunch of retail stores across from the beach, they always have a section for single serves. Now it's just loaded up with White Claw and spirit-type products. There's no wine. We're missing an opportunity.”

Boswell says Ferrari-Carano has sold a lot of its 375s to places it didn't expect. Its top account is Amtrak, and the fifth-largest account is a museum. Hotels and hotel groups are big buyers of 375s, for wine to go in hospitality suites. Boswell said Ferrari-Carano's sales of 375s doubled in two years, before the pandemic

Boswell likes the idea of selling them to restaurants to sell along with takeout food: "That's a great idea," Boswell says. "In the current environment we're in, I don't know if restaurants will survive without doing a lot of takeout."

For her part, glass merchant Harrop likes 375s and wishes wineries would order more.

"I know people who have held off on a big 375 order until the last minute because they're waiting to see what the big steakhouses are going to commit to," Harrop says. "But a 375 bottle is a classic."

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