More than an open and shut case

18 May, 2007

Green concerns have moved on the closure debate, finds Laura Clark

As the nation becomes increasingly preoccupied with green solutions , the closure debate is no longer simply about cork taint . Factor carbon foot printing into the equation

and the

debate is revived with environmental zeal.

In a recent survey commissioned by Oeneo, it was discovered that

a million natural cork closures create 3.26 tonnes of carbon emissions, compared

with

a million screwcap closures'

14.27 tonnes . When confronted with figures like that, it's hard to assess the merits of cork and screwcap based solely on wine faults. But just how much of a role do environmental factors play

in the big retailers' choice of wine closure?

"The debate isn't just about cork taint anymore

- environmental aspects have become bigger and

every element of packaging has to be looked at," says Tesco wine technologist and buyer Andy Gale.

Jenny Bond, who

until recently worked for Somerfield as technical manager for wine, agrees that it's become increasingly important to look at the entire life

cycle of a closure to assess its impact on the environment. "You have to take a more holistic view of the whole process," she says.

Retailers drive innovation

Globally, the debate about whether to cork or to cap has been largely driven by winemakers - but in the UK

the retailers

have been at the cutting edge of

closure innovation over the past 15 years. Not only are UK retailers now making decisions that have wide-reaching environmental implications, they are also driving technological innovation and directly influencing the nation's perception of different types of closures.

Retailers' involvement in closure development was the theme of this year's trade briefing sponsored by ­Oeneo at the London International Wine & Spirits Fair. Marking a massive move away from last year's

focus on post-bottling chemistry,

it explored the commercial and environmental reality of closure choice.

Chaired by wine journalist Jamie Goode, the briefing gave retailers an

opportunity to

air their experiences into the public domain and provide a reliable account of what they want from a closure. But just how have UK retailers managed to

wield such

power of veto over the winemaker's choice?

Customer

complaint

is the

main reason

retailers are so heavily involved in the closure debate, according to Bond. "If you haven't got consistency, you're not going to get people coming back," she sa id. Customers might not be aware of what the fault is, but it's easy enough for them to shop somewhere else if they don't like the taste.

Being dedicated to delivering a faultless customer service means that retailers are dictating to suppliers what wine closure they want for a particular range, Bond add ed. "If suppliers and producers are not willing to make the change, they'll lose the listing. We have to make the changes because of the levels of complaint."

Ian Rogerson, the Co-op's technical consultant, agree d: "Nothing sharpens the attention as much as being on the end of the phone to an angry customer."

Howard Winn, who has worked as Sainsbury's technologist for the past 20 years, was known by

colleagues as

Mr Plastic

when he beg an making changes to Sainsbury's closures 15 years ago. "When we started to use plastic stoppers we got a lot of letters saying things like 'it's disgraceful that

bottle of Burgundy has not got cork'.

"But I'm not selling to one customer, I'm selling to tens of millions of customers every week. It's all about trying to provide customers with something they are satisfied with," Winn sa id.

For Gale, educating the consumer so they understand the reasons behind choosing certain closures is key. "When Tesco changed to screwcap we ­communicated that the change was due to quality. That message was quite powerful and persuasive," he sa id.

The revolution gained real momentum in early 2003 when Tesco announced that half

its wine range

would feature screwcap closures by the end of 2005. More than four years on and Tesco's isn't far off 50 per cent, Gale asserts.

Through consumer education, shoppers now have higher expectations of the wines they are buying, according to Rogerson . He said: "Consumers have begun to expect a lot more from the products

they're sold. If the closure comes between that experience, it's right the retailers listen to what they have to say."

Open dialogue

Winn

said the greatest advantage for big retail chains is that "we own our own shelves so we can quickly understand where the problems lie ". And

an open

dialogue with suppliers and ­winemakers means the supermarkets can demand changes when the closure isn't up to scratch. "Smaller independents just think they're being unlucky," sa id Winn, who point ed out that it's harder for independents to assess trends when they have smaller amounts of stock.

So what's the future for the closure ­debate - will any retailer ever roll out an entirely cork-free range?

"Six years ago 8 per cent of complaints that Tesco received were about cork taint, which has now reduced to 3 per cent," according to Gale.

Perceived cork taint is still the number one complaint

Tesco receives about its wines, said

Gale, who is quick to point out that natural cork will "always have a role to play" in Tesco's range.

The industry has

made enormous strides since 1999 in driving down TCA levels from natural corks, Win n said. But the creation of the perfect closure is still a long way off . Said Winn: "I'm still concerned about the closure options available. For example, the oxygen transmission rates under screwcap, and TCA still exists in cork closure - none of them are totally perfect." Sainsbury's currently has 25 per cent of its range closed by screwcap. "We have to respond to what the consumer tells us is wrong ."

It's important to get "a happy balance between what consumers wants and what's reasonable in terms of the environment", according to Bond, who highlights the urgent need for research on the impact of closures on the environment. Perhaps one that can be funded by the retailers themselves?




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