May 15, 2009
Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, says audacity is a word he loves. That bold spirit is evident in his company’s innovative lineup of wine brands such as French Rabbit, Louis Bernard, Mommessin and Yellow Jersey, packaged in everything from Tetra Pak Prisma cartons to aluminum bottles, bag-in-box and PET.
Based in the traditional Burgundy winemaking region of France, Boisset is becoming best known for some very non-traditional thinking about the wine category. This includes organic and even biodynamic growing practices, and packaging that creates less impact on the environment and a big impact on consumer convenience. These are steps other consumer product categories have taken but the wine segment has been slow to adopt, Boisset says.
“We need to be daring and we need to make this world evolve,” he says.
The company, which has its U.S. base in Sausalito, Calif., was founded in Vougeot, France, in 1961 by Boisset’s parents, Jean-Claude and Claudine Boisset, and remains a family business. In all, it represents a collection of 22 wineries in France, the United States and Italy. The company entered the U.S. market in 1980, and in addition to importing wines, it produces DeLoach Vineyards, Lyeth Estates, Sonoma Cuvee and Oceana Estates wines stateside. While the company produces many varieties of wine, both still and sparkling, it has a particularly strong affinity for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Boisset says.
While the company enjoyed success in more traditional winemaking, Jean-Charles and his sister Nathalie, the second-generation in the business, are credited for catapulting the company into its position as wine innovators. They began by switching some of the company’s most prestigious brands into screw-cap bottles, moved on to organic and biodynamic growing methods, and then developed the broad range of alternative packages for which the company is now known.
Most of the moves began with ecological concerns, but the company realized it had opportunities to expand wine-drinking occasions and create new brands as well.
“What we did is we moved a lot of our vineyards, as well as our partners’ vineyards from regular vineyards to sustainably farmed, then from sustainably farmed to organic, and now, more and more from organic to biodynamic,” Boisset says. “That was phase one… We are very committed to that and we believe it was the essence of where we are today and why we have evolved into alternative packages later.”
The changes picked up speed, Boisset says, when he learned the “70 percent rule” of wine. Approximately 70 percent of wine is sold for less than $15 per bottle, the company says, and 70 percent of that wine is consumed within hours of purchase. In addition, it estimates that 70 percent of the cost of the wine goes toward packaging, shipping and supply chain costs. For wines that are consumed so soon after purchase, the balance seemed off.
“Basically, most of the cost is going to the packaging itself,” he says. “It’s insane we’re spending that energy, in all senses, toward that, and only 30 percent is wine.
“So we said, ‘How could we reverse this process and make sure that we invest much more in the wine and less in the packaging and the supply chain?’ So we studied packaging because that was the most obvious thing that hadn’t changed for centuries in the wine business.”
The company looked beyond the wine category to other food products and consumer packaged goods and found multiple examples of package lightweighting and new material options. Alternative packaging would reduce the weight of its products, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint, less fuel for shipping and lower freight costs.
“We said, ‘Why could we not achieve that in the wine world?’ [It] is an obvious evolution and I cannot believe that it took us so long to do it,” Boisset says.
Like many wineries, the company began with bag-in-box packaging, which it added in the mid-’90s. Its 3-liter bag-in-box holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine and stays fresh for three weeks after opening. The package has a low carbon footprint compared with more traditional packaging for an equivalent amount of wine.
In 2005, it stepped into Tetra Pak Prisma cartons, which the company says has one-tenth the carbon footprint of traditional wine bottles, is resealable, and offers a package-to-wine ratio of 4 percent packaging to 96 percent wine. Boisset created the French Rabbit brand specifically for the Tetra Pak cartons, and the brand became the first vintage-dated, appellation-specific wine to use the packaging option. It also became the first of what the company dubbed its “Innovation Brands” – upscale wines in alternative, eco-friendly packaging.
“It was so new and different, we said we’re not going to risk a historical winery or historical brand,” Boisset says. “Typically, we like to create a new brand because it has to have a different allure. We’re going after a different demographic.”
Having successfully taken a chance on a new brand, the company decided to forge ahead with alternatives for some of its more established trademarks. It added a 750-ml. aluminum bottle last year to its Mommessin Beaujolais. Like the Tetra Pak carton, the lighter-weight aluminum bottle reduced the brand’s carbon footprint and provided a shatter-proof packaging alternative for locations where glass is not preferable or not allowed.
In addition, the package stays cool longer than glass, which proved to be an educational benefit as many consumers are unaware that Beaujolais traditionally is served chilled. The company added Cooldot technology that changes color when the bottle reaches its optimum temperature.
It also created a 750-ml. PET bottle in conjunction with Constar International. The bottle incorporates MonOxbar barrier technology, which protects the wine from oxygen. Boisset says wine packaged in PET has half the carbon footprint of more traditional bottles. The companies received an Ameristar Award this spring from the Institute of Packaging Professionals for the Bouchard Aîné & Fils Beaujolais Nouveau 2008 bottle. The company also has used the PET bottle for the Tour de France-inspired Yellow Jersey wine and Bonus Passus, an AOC Côte du Rhône from its Louis Bernard winery.
Boisset’s newest offering, Fog Mountain from DeLoach Vineyards in California’s Russian River Valley, is packaged in a 1-liter PET bottle with a screw-cap. The company says the brand is the first California wine in the larger-size PET, and it is launching in conjunction with JW Marriot Resorts and Hotels.
Additionally, the company has created the on-premise DeLoach Barrel-to-Barrel program. The barrel package holds 10 liters of wine and is designed to duplicate the experience of sampling wine from a barrel at the winery. A wooden barrel on the outside, the inside of the package works much like a bag-in-box, which shrinks down as wine is poured from a small tap handle, preventing oxygen from getting in and spoiling the wine. Wine packaged in the barrel will keep for four to five months, the company says.
“It’s certainly one of the first innovations that we’ve done, or really that anybody’s done, that’s really directed at the way wine is served on-premise by the glass,” says Boisset French Rabbit and Innovation Brand Manager Patrick Egan.
“[It offers] the convenience of not having to deal with oxidized wine or broken glass behind the bar, or even having to move the bottle. It’s always there, ready for you, but you still have elegance and the service experience that people expect from a restaurant.”
Spreading the word
Boisset Family Estate’s environmental goals were the catalyst for many of its more experimental moves, but improving the convenience and experience of wine was equally important, Boisset says.
“A lot of consumers now finally are drinking wine outside of purely the dinner table when it’s someone’s birthday,” he says. “[They] are going to games, are going to the pool or drinking it outdoors with a pizza or during barbeques, tailgating … everything you can imagine. People want to take wine, not only beer.”
Consumer buying patterns have a lot to do with where Boisset decides to introduce its more innovative brands. French Rabbit, for example, is available in 15 countries. The company says a market must meet a certain consumption threshold before alternative packaging is viable.
“You need to have a basic wine culture where someone feels comfortable with wine to adopt that,” Boisset says. “When they start to feel comfortable with wine, they need to really understand why they should have [the new packaging] and why it makes sense. And third, they need to drink enough wine that they have different ways of consuming wines.”
He is quick to add that not all wines belong in alternative packages, nor at price points where those alternatives make sense. The majority of the company’s products, particularly its more expensive, traditional wines, still are sold in glass.
“Each wine has a mission, a moment to be drank and obviously a possibility to be used,” he says.
Many of the company’s undertakings require consumers to be open-minded and willing to see wine in a new way. Boisset says the company does not have a large consumer advertising budget, but focuses on trade education and media relations, and has a strong Internet presence. In addition, when it introduces one of its new packages in a given market, it chooses an environmental organization with which to partner. For French Rabbit in the United States, for example, it donated money to American Forests to plant one tree for every four bottles of French Rabbit it sold. The company promoted the effort at the retail point of sale.
“Every country that we’ve launched in, which is 15-plus countries right now, we’ve supported an environmental organization as a part of that launch to join with a core audience of people who understand what we’re talking about and also appreciate the contribution and support the mission of French Rabbit,” Egan says.
“It takes a while to do,” Boisset adds. “It’s a slow process but that’s the best one we’ve found.”
Boisset says the company’s innovations have not come without mistakes, but he is a believer in the learn-as-you-go approach.
“As you go into a path, you start to discover incredible avenues of positive features which will make your business a better place to be, and for all of the people buying our wines, a more interesting experience,” he says.
With 2009 projected to be a much more difficult year for the wine industry, Boisset says it is a perfect time to do things that are new and attention-getting.
“We see the hard time as a better way to get closer to our partners, and really, to eventually as well create new projects that change the perception of wine,” he says. “In a downturn, if we can take that time to innovate and do very unique things to come out of it better, I think it’s a perfect time.”
“We see ourselves as a leader of change,” he adds. “Whatever change will happen in the wine world, we want to be at the forefront of it.”
Boisset Family Estates is on the cutting edge of wine packaging, but President Jean-Charles Boisset says Pinot Noir is its true passion. He describes Pinot Noir as “probably the most sexy, most romantic and the most sophisticated grape on earth.”
The company has an extensive portfolio of Pinot Noirs, in both still and sparkling varieties, grown in different countries and produced by different winemakers for distinct profiles.
“The more you know Pinot Noir, the less you know Pinot Noir,” Boisset says. “It’s like human beings or life in general… That constant search for something which is unique and refined and elegant is really what I love about Pinot. You could taste 200 Pinots and you could have 200 different styles or emotions.”
JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset, a line of California wines, offers a delicate Pinot profile, with less tannins, he says. “[It is] very much on the feminine side, not as big, not as oaky,” he says.
DeLoach, also a California offering, has a stronger tannin structure, while Sonoma Cuvee falls somewhere in between, he says. On the French side, Domaine de la Vougeraie has a bigger Pinot profile, whereas Jean-Claude Boisset, named for Boisset’s father Jean-Claude, is a softer Pinot with less oak.
Taking Pinot a step further, the company combined the grape with Chardonnay to create Idol Vodka, a grape-based vodka. While Boisset sold most of its spirits portfolio this spring, it retained Idol as part of a complete grape-based lineup.
“The goal was to create a vodka with no harsh alcohol flavor or harsh mouthfeel,” Boisset says. “It’s very soft, very round, it’s very rich, it’s very opulent, and it blends marvelously with fruit.”