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Alternative Formats, EcoSip Packaging
Students assemble, some geekery for your Paper 3 scrapbooks, courtesy of the team at EcoSip and The Online Wine Tasting Club, Alex Taylor and Jamie Smith.
If you take a peek at my Instagram from around a month ago, you’ll see that one of the many Alex Taylors in the UK Wine Industry invited me to a presentation on his (re)packaging1 innovation for sending out samples of wine.
Boy, did it deliver on the tech front, but also on the wider considerations around how all and any of us drink wine.
MW Study Examples: Paper 3 & Paper 4.
Alex Taylor & Jamie Smith from EcoSip and The Online Wine Tasting Club.
Ray O’Connor MW, Wine Director for Naked Wines UK.2
Ronan Sayburn MS, Head of Wine for 67 Pall Mall3 // CEO of the CMS.
Greg Lambrecht, inventor and founder of Coravin
The Wine Society, Laithwaites.
If you haven’t heard of EcoSip, we’ll start from the start.
Covid Lockdowns and Wine Tasting Parties, at Home
Remember lockdown online parties? Fuck they were dull, for me anyway. I’d rather drink on my own than awkwardly watch someone else drinking through a laptop screen at the same time.
ANYWAY, it did spark a big ole boom in people wanting to fractionalise bottles of wine into tasting packs. Why? A few reasons.
People didn’t want to spend £100+ on 6 full bottles of wine for a tasting at home. Particularly if they were to only share with one other person, while groups of their friends did the same elsewhere. A group of ten people can share a bottle for an in-person wine tasting, but 5 groups of 2 or 3 increases the cost so far, that it’s not worth the cost of opening so many full bottles of wine.
It was also a costly input for people wanting to pivot from retail to events. Having to buy and post lots of full bottles of wine is expensive to run, as well as sell. People that were having to quickly pivot in order for their businesses to survive needed to offer a more cost efficient option.
It’s a lot of wine to open for one evening. Unless you’re a wine student or a fully fledged unsustainable alcoholic, 6 bottles of wine in an evening isn’t standard practice, even between 2 or 3 people. It's not a Tuesday night activity.
The obvious option was to take one bottle of wine, and split it into smaller pouches, bottles, jam jars, whatever, to make the equivalent of 6 bottles. Around the size of one single bottle, you can fit 6 small 125ml glasses (x6 = 750ml). Alternatively, Amazon sold little 100ml glass bottles with plastic screw caps, more on these later.
The Drawbacks of Re-Bottling Wine
It makes sense doesn’t it, just decant the wine into some little bottles, and pop them in the post. Do the tasting online and then line up the next one.
There’s lots of issues. Wine is fickle, and oxygen is NOT wine’s best friends.
As soon as you open the cork or screw cap, oxygen is starting to get in. If you’re like Alex, you’ve done lots of testing to show that no matter how tight you screw the little plastic lids on, there’s going to be a lot of oxygen getting through the screw cap. Much more than a factory bottled screw cap for sure.
Why? It would be useful to talk about Oxygen Transfer Rates (OTR), here. Standardised to mg/l/y - milligrams per litre, per year of oxygen ingress. For the geeks, your also need to look at Oxygen Ingress (OIR), and Total Package Oxygen (TPO), but OTR is the easiest by way of an explanation.
Oxygen transfer from a pouch or small glass bottle with a plastic screw cap is really high. Mainly through the lid (100,000+ mg/l/y. While OTR through a standard 75cl wine bottle screw cap is very, very low (0.5 mg/l/y) give or take.
There are plastic or aluminium pouches too, the oxygen not only gets through the caps, but through the pouch it’s self. Even worse.
Oxygen transfer when re-bottling, or pouring the wines from one vessel to another is a big amount of ingress. Bottling lines can account for this loss by preparing the wine with a tiny dose of antioxidant sulphur dioxide (SO2) at bottling to protect and bind with any oxygen. Most people can’t do this on their kitchen table.
The technical innovations in wine closures are complex. Apart from a few notable exceptions, technical advances doing it yourself at home during Covid were mostly lacklustre.
Alex’s presentation last week shows a slide that re-bottled samples need to be a 7.5 x more effective protection from oxygen, as the ratio of oxygen ingress to liquid volume is so much lower.4
All of the above meant that quite often with these tastings, if the wines hasn’t been posted on the day they were re-bottled, then kept refrigerated, and tasted the next day; the accelerated OTR means that there is a big likelihood of the wines tasting like they’d been open for weeks before customers tasted them. Not ideal.
Some people did give their samples an additional squirt of something protective, inert, like Argon gas, but this doesn’t form any sort of barrier. Over time Argon assimilates into the wine just like Oxygen does.
The First EcoSip Solution
Alex & Jamie will tell you all the technical details here: EcoSip Website
Alex went to A LOT of effort to standardise calculations of OTR across multiple formats, and found that over the course of a year, a PE plastic pouch can be as high as 1,000,000 mg of oxygen per year, while a standard high quality bottle and cork is around 8mg per year.
They developed a system, through immense trial and error and number crunching, to create their pouches, benchmarked against 8mg(ish) per year in their 100ml pouches.
Remember that, per year, so the short term OIR is actually much lower because of the transfer rate to liquid ratio.
Their pouches are made from an incredibly lightweight aluminium foil sheet, that comes on a roll, and the machine they’ve engineered is a unique system where the pouch is created, filled and sealed while the sheet of aluminium is processed.
The aluminium is easily recyclable too, with an oxygen barrier layer between a thin liner layer and perforation protection outer.
They thought they’d cracked it. Most feedback from other primitive sampling systems cited ‘oxidation’ as the key issue to poor quality samplings.
During this time, lots of other professional systems were on the market, Ronan Sayburn MS at 67 Pall Mall even used a modified a fish tank filled with argon to produce a zero-oxygen environment. Similar systems appeared internationally.
Nearly all of the good ones used some way of rebottling 75cl glass into 100cl glass bottles. Ignoring the OTR issues about small, low quality plastic screw caps or stoppers; they’re much heavier and have a much higher CO2 impact than EcoSip’s lightweight cardboard and aluminium pouches.
Weirdly, everyone was still finding some wines tricky to bottle, and ended up sending out faulty samples.
Microbial Stability was the Big Breakthrough
Alex & Jamie’s big breakthrough was looking properly into microbial stability. Yeasts & bacteria, from bottle to pouch is a problem beyond OTR.
Keeping samples refrigerated can help, effectively that just slows the deterioration down. Alex had also already designed a clean room to prevent spoilage, but that’s only prevention, not a cure.
As soon as you break that seal between closure and bottle, just a few saccharomyces yeast cells in a wine with a touch of sweetness can begin to referment.
Just a few cells of Brett transferred from one bottle to the next can deteriorate wine, other microbial issues can push ahead undesired MLF, VA, or bacterial oxidation.
Issues can also occur with residual sugar, high pH, old vintages, volatile thiol aromas, low SO2 bottling… the list is pretty long when you think about it. Lots of people avoided re-bottling certain wines and certain styles.
It’s worth remembering that EcoSip is a packaging company, not a winery, they didn’t want to do any post process to the wines such as chemical additions, stabilisation, SO2 additions or such. They looked for an alternative process.
“Low temperature extended shelf life processing”
Essentially inventing a low temperature form of pasteurisation, that crucially was developed to only work with their pouches. It inhibits 99.9999999%5 of all microbes and is carried out on finished pouches. The process enables the pouches to be stored for at least six months at room temperature without any microbial issues.
The big part of testing this was with Ray O’Connor MW at Naked Wines, with Alex & Jamie they blind tasted 36 different wines, fresh bottles side-by-side pouches with their Extended Shelf Life (ESL) processing and not.
They even put the wines through accelerated shelf life testing to mimic 6+ months in pouches. The ESL pouch samples were almost impossible to spot against a standard, fresh opened 75cl version of the same wine.
Which when you think about it, it’s pretty nuts. Not adding or taking away anything to the wine that’s already incredibly well protected from oxygen. Now EcoSip can say that their pouches are microbial stable too, and have no need to reject ‘tricky’ to re-bottle wines.
Packaging Innovation and Cost Reduction
Once they’d spent a small fortune sorting all that, they set about telling people.
They’re still working with Naked Wines, and now The Wine Society, Laithwaites and a whole array of other wine marketing boards for their consumer and trade sampling requirements6.
Their costs are also very low. Like I said right up top, people don’t want to shell out for postage or lots of expensive wine.
The EcoSip pouches fit through the letterbox, they’re so small and light that you can post them for the cost of a standard letter. The cost to re-bottle into pouches is around £7.50 for a 6-sample pack, including the postage.
This is around half the cost, per 6-sample pack, of many of the other people on the market, including 67 Pall Mall.
For what it’s worth, EcoSip are now the UK exclusive partner for Coravin’s Vinitas System of fractionalizing bottles. EcoSip works at larger scale ideally, while Vinitas can do one or two bottles at a time.
EcoSip even have a different packaging formats, like advent calendars, bookshelf style presentation kits and a stacked version that can fit in the upright space of a standard wine bottle.
The stacked box is my favourite thing, send 5 x 75cl bottles and a carton of 6 x 100ml samples in one standard 6 bottle wine mailer box.
The Future of Small Format Fractionalisation
The future of fractionalised bottles is the on-trade, and single serve drinking.
A wholesaler could show their price list with two prices:
6 bottles as 6 x 75cl bottles, per case.
6 bottles as 36 x 125ml single serve pouches, per case.
There’s be maybe a £10 premium on the single serve case, but there will be zero wastage. It means that restaurants can offer their better wines by the glass or bottle.
I think they’d be best of offering this on mid-tier wines, not faster loving ‘house’ wines, but the subtle trade up lines. Albariño, Chablis, Reserva Rioja in premium smaller, premium venues.
The problem with most single serve bottles and cans is that the minimum production runs are usually massive, usually measured on 1000s of litres. Alex told me he can do as few as 100 pouches without much of an issue.
Imagine turning 24 bottles into 144 single serve pouches that you can use over the next 6 months.
Alex thinks he could do this for less than the net cost of using a Coravin system, and if the pouches have a 6 month ambient shelf life, there’s very little issue.
The other potential avenue for single serve pouches is in specialist retail, because of the innovation in shelf life, and the microbial stability, retailers could sell these on the shop shelves.
They could fractionalise a rotating selection of small format wines for retail, either as a try-before-you-buy, or simply for those customers that don’t want to drink full bottles.
Alex is potentially working on 375ml pouches using the same system as well. When you put your mind to it the possibilities are pretty limitless once you’ve got a shelf life as long as any bag-in-box or PET bottle. But with the ability to fractionalise on a small scale whenever you require.
I went to a 10 year celebration of Coravin system last year with Greg Lambrecht, and the room was marvelling at how much he’d changed the way people consume wine.
I do wonder what people will be saying about Alex and Jamie in 10 years time if everything falls into place for them.
This was the event with Greg at Coravin, written up by Patrick Schmitt for the Drinks Business.
“Coravin founder wants to revolutionise the way wine is retailed
He managed to change the way somms serve wine in restaurants, and people drink wine at home, now Coravin founder Greg Lambrecht wants to revolutionise the way wine is sold in retail.”
“Revolutionising wine tasting at home”, behind the scenes with 67 Pall Mall
This is an informative and extensive behind the scenes of the Pall Mall system that they implemented during lockdown, from June 2020. No doubt they’ve improved the system a bit since then.
It’s still lots and lots of additional glass 70ml bottles to recycle. I’m not sure if 67 are doing anywhere near as much re-bottling as they were 2 years ago.
“The decision was made to decant bottles into pre-labelled sample-sized containers to more conveniently ship across Europe. The team sourced a supplier for their miniature 7cl sample-size bottles and immediately purchased the companies complete U.K. and Italian stock. Once these bottles arrive, they enter the club downstairs, are sanitised and labelled and then sent upstairs for filling.”
We’ll get to it. But this means small bottles, pouches, glass tubes, whatever. Fractionalized is the best phrase, but it’s easier to say re-bottled.
Had to google: ‘Ray o’connor naked’ to get his job title. Risky business.
Ronan left that role in 2022 to concentrate on his position as CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Europe.
Comparing a low quality pouch to a high quality Diam Cork, and a glass bottles, 1 day in a re-packaged container can actually be the equivalent of 4 years in an unopened bottle.
“A lot of 9’s.” - Alex Taylor, November 2023.
It baffles me why the WSET school hasn’t moved over to EcoSip, as surely their students deserve the best possible pouches.