A New Way to Drink Wine: Trading in the Bottle for the Four-Pack Stack

The bottles you're used to yield four glasses. A California company thinks dividing them up to make a "tower of toasts" is the next big thing. And they're looking for investors.
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Stacked Wines

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Musing on a favorite pastime, James Michener once declared that "to dine in harmony with nature is one of the gentlest and loveliest things we can do," concluding that "picnics are the apex of sensible living." It's a mantra I've taken to heart, "for of this world one never sees enough." My habit is to bring a bottle of wine, uncivilized prohibitions against imbibing it outdoors be damned. Usually I take a wine key too, but being a forgetful sort, I've had occasion to force corks down the necks of bottles with objects as varied as a cheap plastic pen, splintery driftwood, a friend's lipstick container, and the curved metal protruding from a u-lock.

This lifestyle hassle puts me squarely in the target demographic of Stacked Wines, a new company that's offering a variation on the traditional wine bottle and betting that their container is going to be competitive with or surpass in popularity the box-enclosed plastic bladder, the Tetra Pak, the Wine Cube, and the PET bottle.

"A hundred years ago, beer was sold in bulk containers and poured into glasses to drink," says Matt Zimmer, who founded the company with two classmates from UC Irvine's business school. That's still the case, he notes (what better way to drink beer than on draft), but bottles and cans came along, made the product more portable, and are now preferred in many situations. "The stigma against alternative containers for wine is already fading. I don't think the one I've designed is going to win out over a traditional bottle if you're out to dinner at a fancy restaurant," he says. "But on a hike, or a picnic, or the deck of a boat? Sometimes you don't want to mess around with a corkscrew and stemware."

Vinoware is the name Stacked Wines has given to its patent-pending container. Its meant to resemble a stemless wine glass. Made of recyclable plastic, it has a shelf life of 12 to 14 months, comes stacked four to a package, and is impossible to stop playing with when someone hands you a stack because the four individually sealed servings snap apart and back together again. If you waited for your fiance to go on an afternoon run, took them onto the back deck, and threw them high in the air like a baton twirler, successfully catching them three times but fumbling on the inevitable 180-degree-turn-and-behind-the-back-hand-grab-attempt, they'd crash to the ground without breaking apart or shattering or spilling on the wood surface. And the individual seals mean that if you've got half your wine left there's no need to hunt around for the cork, only to remember that its structural integrity didn't survive your clumsy attempt at removing it*.

Then again, four equally apportioned 187 milliliter containers prevent you from slyly pouring slightly less than a full glass of wine for friends prone to debauchery, or slightly more for a significant other just before you propose. Or splitting up the wine equally among three or five people without recalling least common multiples. A group of seven would need four shrink-wrapped units of Stacked Wine, separable into 28 single serving containers, if they were strict egalitarians. Also, some people just like bottles. Or boxed wine, for that matter. Every time I've seen a consumer encounter Stacked Wine for the first time the novelty factor is enough that they're at least tempted to try it. How many will conclude it's a container they'd want to drink from regularly?

The answer depends at least partly on how well the company's two other founders do their jobs. Doug Allan, who worked at a Napa Valley winery before business school, is the man in charge of putting the right wine inside the company's unique packaging. So far Stacked Wines offers a signature Merlot and Chardonnay. It's adding a Pinot Grigio in time for summer and a Cabernet Sauvignon by fall. The price for all varietals is $14.99, a figure that reflects a tension in the business: on one hand, the company wants to avoid doing to Vinoware what Franzia did to boxed wine - in a market where anything that isn't in a traditional bottle is still viewed with suspicion, the future of their drinking vessel depends partly on establishing it in the minds of consumers as something that contains quality wine. At the same time, young people are more willing than older cohorts to try alternatives to bottles. Pricing them out of the market would be self-defeating.

In the short term, Stacked Wines has settled on trying to surpass in quality other wines that sell for the same price. The long term question looming over the enterprise: to what extent are they a wine company versus a container company? "There's definitely an opportunity with the package to put in wine of varying quality," says Allan. "One day, we might have wine in our containers on the shelves at Trader Joe's, competing in price with their bargain offerings, and at the same time be partnering with a winery to put an $18.99 bottle on the shelf at Whole Foods."

The dream scenario: a future wherein the wine aisle at the grocery store has a Stacked Wines section that includes wine from all sorts of vintners, in much the same way that the coffee company Keurig offers in its single serving containers a signature brand, Green Mountain Coffee, but also sells ground coffee beans from brands as varied as Starbucks, Newman's Own and Folgers.

Jodi Wynn, the third founder, is charged with marketing the company, and insists that although Stacked Wines aspires to offer the favorite product of people drinking wine from anything other than a bottle, they don't see themselves in a zero sum competition with other alternative containers. "I recently visited a boutique wine shop in Los Angeles that was offering a bunch of different tastings, and one of the options was a flight made up entirely of boxed wines, which got me so excited," she said. "Anytime other players in the industry put good wine in an alternative package, that helps us. And we see ourselves competing very broadly. Our product allows you to enjoy wine in places where it would otherwise be inconvenient. In that sense we're competing for consumers who've previously opted for beer in certain situations but prefer wine."

Forced to bet on whether Stacked Wines can succeed in the consumer market, I'd need to think long and hard. Musing on the hassles I've undertaken to open wine bottles without a corkscrew, I think that I enjoyed the need for enterprise, the grateful picnic companions, and even the wine stains that tend to sully one's shirt when the cork, forced down into the bottle, displaces juice that squirts out of the neck. There is also the longstanding fact that my alternative container of choice is the wineskin. I imagine partaking from one as Ernest Hemingway instructed in The Sun Also Rises: arm extended straight, head titled back, a stream of wine shooting through the air into one's mouth before the bota is shared. Put another way, I am not a representative consumer. I am nevertheless enamored of the notion that a guy with a notepad can still take a ubiquitous product and invent a tweak that could change everything. It's impossible to meet a guy like that and want anything but to raise your Vinoware and toast.

One last advantage the container has, compared to other alternative wine vessels, is how seamlessly it fits into the established distribution system: Stacked Wines come packaged in cases identical to the ones that hold wine bottles (save their lighter weight), and the shape of the stack permits them to sit on store shelves beside other wines - and to replace them in various other venues too. Even as the company sells to retailers and direct to Californians on its Web site, it's easy to imagine an alternative strategy: an attempt to sell the Stacked Wine concept to an airline and a baseball stadium and a Las Vegas resort that doesn't permit glass beside the pool. Vinoware is a plausible offering in any venue for which precisely controlled portions and lightweight plastic containers are useful. The founders of Stacked Wines think the surest path to such clients is succeeding among consumers, and taking that proof to airlines and hotels and more. Are there enough wine consumers who picnic, boat, hike and camp for their plan to work? That's one of the most pertinent questions their potential investors will ask themselves. 

Headquartered in Newport Beach, California, Stacked Wines has just done a run of 1,000 cases that are mostly available in Orange and Los Angeles counties (or statewide on its Web site). It plans to be in stores throughout California later this year, and to brave the needlessly complicated regulatory environment imposed on interstate wine sellers in 2013. After that, assuming good sales, they'll take their product nationwide so long as they've found willing investors. They'd perhaps benefit from a fourth equity partner too, if only for product sampling sessions.

*Neither napkins nor aluminum foil nor the pacifier of a friend's baby reliably reseals a bottleneck with sufficient air-tightness to prevent oxidation.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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