Monday, August 18, 2008

An out-of-the-box approach at Terrapin Station

Morris Zwick said earlier today that consumers almost unanimously have applauded the boxed wine that sets Terrapin Station Winery apart from any other producer in the region.

“There’s the rare person who just sort of snorts at boxed wine,” Zwick said, “but for the most part it’s been very positive and, especially from the public, they seem a lot more receptive to it. Particularly younger people, they love it. The issue we’ve had more is with the retail stores that kind of look at it and ‘[Ugh], boxed wine. I don’t know about whether we’ll be able to sell it, that sort of thing.’”

Currently they are selling eight wines in the unique cube, which holds a bag filled with 1.5 liters of wine, essentially two bottles worth. Zwick said that they use all of the grapes they grow on their 46-acre farm, filling in the holes with purchases from a few other producers in-state. A potential deal with a provider in California could further diversify their list before the year is out.

Buyers would recognize several of the varietals that carry the Terrapin Station wrapping, so to speak: Merlot, Shiraz and Vidal Blanc. But what they’ve torn open the most is
Traminette, a relation to that white with a bite, Gewurztraminer. “That’s been our best seller, by far,” Zwick said. “And it’s a grape that the general public isn’t that familiar with. But we sold out of it in the first five weeks. Once people had a chance to try it, they loved it. We still have people asking for it.”

Their farm is located in the proximity of Elkton in extreme northeastern Maryland, close enough to be able to drop-kick one of their boxes over the Mason-Dixon Line over I-95 as it heads toward Philly. If you don’t catch them at one of the festivals that have run Morris, his wife Janet and three kids in circles since the spring, you can find their wines at several shops in Cecil and Montgomery counties. At some point they plan to convert the early 18th century barn located on the property into a combo tasting room/gift shop/event space.

No matter how much folks like their wines, however, it’s the container that probably will leave the biggest impression. Zwick, who made a number of family sojourns to Italy as he was growing up, called the traditional glass bottles and corks “sort of an anachronism. Really, the association of that and fine wine is more fixated in the United States than anywhere else.”

Corks, in his mind, leave too much to chance. “If you’re a winemaker, you’re trying to convince somebody to buy your wine, and let’s say 6 percent of them through no fault of your own [drink a bottle where the integrity is compromised]. They just assume the wine is bad, so they’ll never go buy it again. I just feel that is incredibly self-defeating.”

Screw caps didn’t make much financial sense because of the inability to find a bottling line that they could lease. That left the boxes, which are lighter to ship and easier to store a far greater friend to the environment. “I’ve heard figures that say hundred of thousands of tons of carbon goes up in the sky in the transportation of wine from California to the East Coast, just because it’s in glass,” he said.

While there remain a few creases to iron out, they’ve been delighted with the route they’ve chosen (produced by
Scholle) and the reaction to it. Kevin Atticks, the director of the Maryland Wine Association, said recently that folks attending a festival earlier this summer were raving about concept. Zwick added that there are more compelling reasons for people in their back yard to change traditions.

“It’s got so many nice features to it,” he said. “We’re at the top of the bay and we have a lot of boaters around us. It’s perfect for boating with; the waves won’t tip it over and cause a problem. It won’t break and shatter glass everywhere. And you don’t have to guzzle down a liter and a half of wine all at once. You can drink it over a period of weeks. It’s just like a baby bottle; the bag collapses around the product. We puff nitrogen in when it’s getting filled. And so it stays in good shape, the oxygen egress is actually quite low. So all of those factors really appealed to us.”

And they’re likely not done experimenting. Zwick said he could see a day when they follow the lead of
Wolf Blass wine in Canada and offer a .750ml container made out of lightweight polyethelene terephthalate, known as PET, rather than glass. In fact, a story on the Pennsylvania Wine Association site noted that Eagle Rock Winery in Sullivan County has started to bottle its wines in the plastic bottles.

“I checked with the
Ball Corporation several years ago and they weren’t selling them yet and I couldn’t find an in-country manufacturer for the bottles,” Zwick said. “But I knew that Ball would get there eventually. They’ve done .375s [ml] for awhile, and they do the smaller bottles for the airlines and stuff like that.”

And he has no doubt that those will be as popular as the cubes have been.

“I just want to emphasize that the issue is not been with consumers,” he said. “They generally seem to like the packaging once they understand there are two bottles of wine in that box. The issue has been more with the retail chain because [at this point] they just don’t know how to deal with it.”

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