When I told Bob the beer and wine guy at my local Safeway that I was doing a story on why wine and beer bottles lacked uniqueness he pulled me over to the wine section and planted me in front of the only shelf facing that was totally empty. Every other shelf spot had wine bottles five and seven deep. This one looked like the gap between two giant buck teeth.
"I guess we ran out of it" Bob said meaning the Vini Pescevino Soave Fish whose 750-mL bottle sells for $7.99. "The bottle is shaped like a fish." Apparently people are also drinking it like fish.
Of course when I went to a nearby upscale wine store the manager looked at me as if I needed a bath when I asked her whether she had a bottle of ole Vini Pescevino. "That's nasty stuff" she said. "There is a reason why they use a gimmicky bottle."
She had to admit though as she walked me down her aisles that Safeway Bob was right there isn't too much variation in wine bottles these days. One could say the same thing about distilled spirits bottles a fact I confirmed after strolling through my Virginia ABC store. And ditto beer bottles. Take the labels off the Bud Miller Coors and Molson and most everything else and you cannot tell the products apart.
To confirm my research I called Karen Freelove at the Bureau of Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco (ATF). She is chief of the labeling section in the ATF products compliance branch. When a company wants to use a new package for wine distilled spirits or beer in the U.S. it has to send her an application for certificate of label approval. That same application is used for new bottle approval. She could not find any new bottle applications from the recent past.
Do ATF regulations on bottles cramp the style of designers? There are nine standards of fill for wine from 50 milliliters to 3 liters. In terms of design standards the ATF says containers must be made and formed so as not to mislead the purchaser. The idea is that the bottle should not look like it holds more wine than it does.
Distilled spirits have to be put in any of ten bottle sizes from 50 mL to 1.75 L. There is the same prohibition against using a bottle design that "misleads the purchaser."
Freelove explains that about the only time the ATF has objected to a bottle has been in instances for example where a ceramic bottle might look like it holds 750 mL but really contains 300 mL. "We saw more ceramic bottles 15 years ago" she says. "You do not see as many these days." So the ATF gives bottles wide berth. Then why hasn't the alcohol industry learned the lesson of Vini Pescevino?
Harvey Posert spokesman for Robert Mondavi Corp. admits that the redesign of bottles for that company's four wineries was evolutionary. A slightly wider lip was added to the mouth of the bottle. Posert says that bottles for all four Mondavi wineries (RM Napa Valley Woodbridge by RM Vichon and Byron Winery) will all have the distinctive lip as of this fall.
Posert admits "When you think that the wine bottle and cork go back 250 years you have to acknowledge that not much has happened to the design. We did not want to scare off the traditional wine buyer by giving a little uniqueness to our bottles."
It is hard to tell whether Mondavi was the leader or the follower with the swollen lip. James G. Bonanno president of Francis A. Bonanno Springboro OH the importer of Italian Francesco Chianti says that his chianti bottle has had a fat lip for about 2 1/2 years.
Bonanno imports about 80 wines from ten Italian wineries. That includes grappa a distilled spirit made from the skins of grapes which Bonanno admits "is a pretty harsh drink." That may be why the bottles are attractively decorated with a ship and sometimes with floating fruit usually grapes. Grappa might be hard to sell otherwise.
Bonanno points out that it probably isn't surprising that much of the minimal bottle innovation comes from the Italians they of the Renaissance spirit. When asked why American companies are so averse to innovation he asks back "Why do Americans drink wine coolers?"
Karen Kurylo manager of packaging at Hiram Walker & Sons Inc. Southfield MI told me I was being too critical of booze bottles. "They look just as nice as the bottles that perfume and cosmetics come in very upscale." In the industry's defense she notes that people are less likely to spend $20 on a sherry cognac or even a good vodka simply because they think the bottle looks cool. She also points out that Harvey's Bristol Cream was repackaged this year in a cobalt blue bottle that is longer and more elegant than its previous incarnation. "It is quite a departure" she says.