Four years after they launched their own boutique wine by going online to create a sort of virtual winery, Sunny Fraser and David Gordon are trying to break new ground in their campaign to bring fine wine to the masses.
Their strategy? A new kind of bottle that cost $2 million to develop.
Clocking in at 187 milliliters and resembling an oversized, flat-bottomed test tube, their patented bottle — which holds a generous glass of wine — is made of a delicate, seamless glass. Lighter than the typical bottling glass, it is sealed with a specially-threaded and lined Stelvin cap.
“We wanted something with integrity that could stand up to a fine wine,” Fraser explained. And, more to the point, they believed consumers would be willing to indulge more frequently in fine wine if they knew they could buy their smaller bottle, which they call The Vini, without having to uncork a more expensive, bigger bottle.
“It’s not just about us and our wine. It was the format, and how great it would be if I could just get a glass and not have to wait for a special occasion to bring out these great bottles,” she explained. “For us, it was about making fine wine more accessible.”
So far, during their “soft launch,” the couple have produced 1,000 cases containing their own wine, with enough to fill another 7,500 cases. They are selling it online, for about $35 about a 4-bottle set up to about $400 for 48 bottles, as well as in about a dozen local gourmet shops and restaurants including Joe’s Stone Crab and Joanna’s Marketplace in South Miami, and at the Eden Roc and several other hotels. They plan to expand into more hotels and into bottling for other wineries.
“We’re not trying to fit into every market. It’s not meant for a convenience store or gas station,” he said. “We’re trying to tap other markets that haven’t been tapped before. They haven’t had a solution before, and we’re trying to be that solution.”
While the wine industry may have a reputation for being stodgy and unadventurous, it has had its fair share of innovative bottling, from boxed wines launched in Australia in the 1960s to foil-capped plastic cups, cans, Tetra Pak cartons and even sippy pouches.
“Americans have always been known for great packaging and experimentation and there’s a lot of innovation in packaging going on right now,” said Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.
Take box wines. Long associated with cheaper brands, they shrugged off some of the stereotype in 2003 when Black Box introduced its line of finer wines. The boxes, which hold wine in an inner plastic bag not unlike the traditional Spanish bota bags, keep wine from oxidizing. And increasingly good boxed wines helped drinkers become what Epicurious calls more “bottle agnostic,” opening up the industry to different, often more reliable and more eco-friendly packaging.
“This is the generation that grew up on ... those fruit juices in little packs,” Horiuchi said. “Those people are of drinking age and they’re willing to buy this packaging because they drank it as a kid. There are still people who like traditional bottles, but Americans are willing to accept something different.”
Traditional 750 milliliter bottles still hold the lions share of the market, grabbing 58.5 percent of the market with sales totaling more than $650 million, according to Nielsen’s tracking of supermarket sales in 2011, the last year figures were available. But last year, 187 milliliter containers outsold 1 liter bottles and snagged sales totaling more than $14 million.
Still, smaller containers have had trouble shaking off that cheap wine reputation and being tucked into hotel mini bars and airplane drink carts where space, not quality, is the premium. And there’s a reason for that: smaller bottles age more quickly, said Jim Lapsley, an adjunct professor and chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California Davis.
“Smaller volumes have smaller mass and respond to temperature changes more quickly,” he explained in an email, and if improperly bottled, can pick up more air.
But Fraser and Gordon say their three-step bottling system solves that problem. First, they vacuum out particulates and flush out any oxygen with nitrogen gas before the bottle is filled. When the bottle is filled, nitrogen gas is simultaneously shot into the bottle to remove oxygen. A third dose of nitrogen, this time in liquid form, blows out any oxygen when the bottle is capped, they said.
“They don’t do that with airplane bottles,” Fraser said. “That’s why they only cost a couple of bucks. And then taste like a couple of bucks.”
The couple’s venture into the winemaking business is what led them to bottling. For the last four years, they have been making various wines under their Sunbox Eleven Winery brand, and say they are selling to restaurants in Miami and Las Vegas including Casa Tua and Prime 112. They currently use the Sonoma cooperative Carneros Vintners from which they pick their grapes. But while they found success selling bottles, Fraser said they had trouble convincing restaurants to sell their wine by the glass.
“It was easy for a sommelier to suggest a bottle, but by the glass was a whole different story,” Fraser said. So one day while she was sampling wine, sipping from the test tubes typically used, “I had an epiphany thinking, how great would it be if there was a larger size that would make fine wines accessible.”
Little did she realize how much trouble went into developing that little test tube.
“When you’re inventing something that’s never existed before, you take several steps forward, and then a ginormous step back,” Gordon said. “All along, it was forward and back, forward and back.”
They spent 18 months just fabricating the glass. Fraser specifically wanted the lighter weight, seamless glass because she felt it was more elegant. They partnered with an existing bottler in California, but because their bottling glass forms at a higher temperature, they needed to create their own line at the factory. They also needed intricate tooling to deal with the precise threading on the bottle.
Also, they insisted on using Stelvin, the French-designed metal cap developed in the 1960s to address cork taint and considered the pioneer in screw-cap bottling.
“Packaging is so important. The look and the feel,” Fraser said. “We call it the puppy because every time people touch it, they want to hold it. They don’t want to let it go.”
The couple also believed other wineries would be eager to use their bottle.
“We know that most wineries out there don’t have their own bottling line. It’s too expensive. So they outsource it,” Gordon said. “We looked at every way we could find for us to control a particular point along the chain, whether it’s supply line dynamics, to production to sales and distribution.”
Because they want the bottle to come to stand for fine wines, the couple don’t plan on allowing just any winery to use it. The wines “have to be vetted through our winemaking system, for quality, for price point and for integrity,” Fraser said. “It’s about quality control and going back to the format so when people try it, they know it’s high-quality wine.”
The first case stocked at Joanna’s Marketplace, priced at about $10 a bottle, sold out before it even arrived, said owner Mike Lederman. “They definitely had a fan base already,” Lederman said.
Still, some customers are confused about wine in such an untraditional bottle.
“They’re like, ‘What is this?’ They don’t even know it’s wine at first,” he said. But gradually, customers are getting to prefer its convenience.
“The bottom line is the wine’s got to be good and, with anything that comes in a cool package, if it’s not good, people won’t buy it again,” he said. “It’s going to have its little niches and areas, especially in these funky hotels in Miami Beach. It’s very Miami.”