Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325

July/August 2000

Rethinking the Wine Shipper - "Your Silent Sales Force"

Carol Caldwell-Ewart

Rethinking the Wine Shipper - Your Silent Sales Force Looked at your wine shipper lately? Well, look at it now. What do you see? Plain white box? Maybe your winery name and the varietal?
Anything to tell potential customers that there’s something good inside? Anything to make them think positively about your winery? Anything to make them think they might like your Merlot with dinner? That your Chardonnay would be the one to take to that party on Saturday night? Anything to connect this box with your investment in marketing and advertising?
According to Eli Kwartler of Kwartler Associates, a marketing consultant specializing in graphic packaging in Amherst, MA, about 66% of retail purchases are made on impulse. But something has to make the consumer stop and consider your wine. A blank case certainly won’t do that.
“A graphic shipping container makes consumers stop,” Kwartler says. “It entrances them; it motivates them to pick up your product; it sells the consumer on the features and benefits of the wine inside.”

In an environment where store clerks are rarely knowledgeable about the products they sell, a graphic shipping container can tell the story of your wine. Consider how many people will see your wine’s shipping carton during its lifetime. From the container manufacturer to the trucking company, the warehouse, distributor, back of store, retail floor, consumer, moving van, and ultimately, to the recycling center — everywhere that shipper goes — it could be selling your wine.

“More and more wineries are switching to value-added graphics on their shipping cartons because they get attention,” says Charles Wertheimer, manager of Longview Fibre Company’s Oakland, CA, container sales district. “A shipping carton with high-impact graphics helps sell the wine; it is a winery’s silent salesperson.”

Fortunately, the wine industry’s growing recognition of the need for value-added graphics has coincided with a similar push from the beer and high-tech industries and with advances in the pulp and paper industry that have helped make such packaging more affordable. Longview Fibre is one of the leading producers in this relatively new trend in wine packaging.

Longview Fibre Company
Longview Fibre opened its doors in 1927 with a pulp and paper mill on the Columbia River in Longview, WA. Since then, the mill has become one of the largest in the world, with production capacity of up to 3,500 tons of paper and containerboard per day, and the company has added 16 converting plants in 11 states from coast to coast across the U.S. They manufacture corrugated and solid-fiber boxes, point-of-purchase displays, paper bags, and other paper products.

Recently, corrugated wine shippers with high-impact graphics have been an ever-increasing proportion of production at Longview Fibre’s three West Coast container plants in Oakland, CA, and Longview and Seattle, WA.

“Until seven or eight years ago, wine and beer boxes were plain and simple,” says Tom Craig, manager at the Seattle packaging plant. “But big-box/club stores and wine shops created a demand for shippers that were a sales tool. The wine industry has helped push the box industry to upgrade and refine the flexo-printing process over the last five years.”

Investing in value-added graphics technology
Longview recognized the trend and began upgrading at the mill and at its packaging plants to serve this market.

“We looked at our industry and discovered that high-end graphics are its fastest growing segment,” explains Wertheimer. “Corrugated sales demand grows every year, but slowly. We determined that we want to be a leader in the value-added part of our business.” That’s good news for wineries.

Value-added graphics require high-quality printing, with four, six, or even more colors, with varnishes to add flash and UV coating to prevent fading. When the printing on shipping cartons was basically limited to “This End Up,” issues like resolution, registration, and ink trapping weren’t important. Now, in meeting wineries’ demands for near photographic-quality printing, they are vital.

To achieve this quality (in both linerboard and corrugated boxes) and become an industry leader with its paper mill and box plants, Longview Fibre has invested more than $1 billion in equipment, time, and education in the last decade. But this effort alone wasn’t enough.

“It has been a unique thing,” says Craig. “Everybody related to the industry has had a part in getting us to this new quality level. The printing-plate manufacturers had to get better by improving their registration and quality. The inks had to get better. We all had to work together.

“At Longview, the pulp and paper mill has spent many millions of dollars annually in the last 10 years to upgrade equipment. Before that, the box linerboard (outer surface of a corrugated box) would not have allowed us to do the quality of printing required for this type of wine shipper. The paper quality, although suitable for conventional box graphics, didn’t have a smooth enough surface or density required for high-quality printing and consistent ink absorption.”

The past five years have seen dramatic upgrades at the Longview Seattle, and Oakland container plants, as well, with approximately $40 million invested in equipment to upgrade every phase of the process. The new Bobst 200s, now in Oakland and Longview, are six-color printing presses that offer the highest quality flexographic printing available, according to Oakland plant manager Don Armstrong. The Bobst 200 provides process printing and ultra-violet (UV) coating.

All three plants have also added new five-color flexo-folder-gluers. Just as their name implies, flexo-folder-gluers print, fold, and glue boxes in one pass.

Upgrades of the corrugating equipment have improved the quality of the corrugated board, while other improvements have enhanced ink application, die-cutting, and more.

“One secret to value-added graphics is ink control,” explains Armstrong. “We have computerized controls for the ink. We buy our ink in bulk and blend colors in our ink ‘kitchen,’ and we monitor the pH and viscosity of the ink to maintain consistency. We take the subjectivity out of determining ink color with light tables and spectrophotometry, so the variation from run to run is negligible.”

“We’ve done this,” adds Craig in talking about his ink kitchen in Seattle, “because wineries have so many specialty colors, certain tints and shades that they want. We also have to have the ability to keep the same color for a winery, whether the job is printed on Kraft or full-bleached paper.”

In addition, all three plants have added staff to handle the pre-press work for value-added graphics. “To do the job our customers want,” explains Armstrong, “we have to have our own graphics department — we have to control the process.” Computer-aided design of the box structure and graphics, plus computer-controlled sample tables, allow the design staff to present a complete mock-up of any container design.

More affordable printing process
Longview Fibre offers three levels of graphics: regular flexography, the traditional method of printing corrugated board; litho-laminating; and direct-print or post-print. “Almost all the wine shippers we do are direct-print,” says Armstrong, “because it is the most cost-effective and can do the job in one pass.” In direct-print, also called post-print, the printing is done after the corrugating is completed. The Bobst 200 and flexo-folder-gluer presses are used for this process.

“Industry-wide,” confirms Wertheimer, “many wineries doing value-added graphics are doing direct-print. Because of the costs associated with printing on this equipment, the size of a wine shipper and the quantities that wineries typically run, winery projects fit the post-print process very well.”
In the past, costs of value-added graphics were prohibitive due to the state of the technology. The only way to create shippers with high-quality graphics was a three-step process called preprint, where the graphics were printed on paper that was then used to make the corrugated board and then was made into boxes. For this process to be cost-effective, wineries had to order larger quantities and use entire rolls of paper, and lead-time on orders was longer.

Litho-laminating is similar to preprint but is more affordable because the high-quality graphics are printed on sheets of paper, instead of rolls, before being made into corrugated board and then into boxes. Costs are still considerably more, in most cases, than direct-print.

Direct-print makes press runs as small as 1,500 boxes affordable. Modern equipment can produce a box with only one pass through the flexo-folder-gluer. Lead times can be much shorter with any quantity.

No more washboard
Improved corrugated board is a vital component in the success and popularity of the post-print process. In the past, most wine shippers were corrugated with a C-flute. The flute is the wavy shape of the inside sheet of paper in corrugated board. A letter, like “C,” indicates the size of the flute. A C-flute is about mid-size, while an A-flute has a much wider, deeper wave, and an E-flute has a much smaller, shallower wave.
Two layers of corrugated board can be combined for a box with double-wall construction. “More than 20 combinations of flutage are possible,” says Armstrong, “to address issues of strength, caliper (thickness), crushing, and printability. A tiny flute, like E or F, makes a smooth printing surface, so there isn’t a washboard effect.” Wine shippers for value-added graphics often have double-wall construction of a B- or C-flute inside, combined with an E-flute as the outside layer of the box.

“Printing on corrugated board is so much more difficult than printing a bag or a magazine, where you have a single layer of substrate,” explains Craig. “In board with larger flutes, the places where the flutes attach to the linerboard will be harder than the spaces in between. During printing, those softer spots in the board will want to pull down and sag [producing an uneven layer of ink that’s thin in the hard spots and thick in the soft spots — that’s the washboard effect]. You can’t have that and achieve the quality of printing that is required.

“The E/B double-wall has very nearly the same caliper as C-flute, but you gain two things with the double-wall construction: a much better printing surface and a stronger box. Rather than three components of paper, you have five. The cost difference is not that significant, because we have very lightweight inner components available that allow us to hold costs down.”

Putting value-added graphics to work for you
In the past, box companies like Longview have been essentially married to the glass company next door. In the case of Longview’s Seattle plant, that’s Ball Foster. In the past, when the glass company sold the bottles, the box just came along, too, so the glass customer would have a way to get the bottles or jars home and then ship them full of wine or jam to customers.
Box companies in this scenario are third-party vendors, who have little or no contact with the glass company’s customers. But Longview finds that in the value-added graphics environment, this scenario is changing.

In many instances, Longview is still the third-party vendor, contracting with the glass company, but as printing jobs get more complicated, the winery and Longview’s graphics and structural design departments are working directly with each other.

Craig cites Beringer Wine Estates as a good example. “The winery does a Nouveau wine every year. They send us sketches of what they have in mind and ask if we foresee any problems. We’ll discuss the problems and the colors, and then when the job goes to Ball Foster, it’s a slam dunk. We’ve already resolved everything that would have given us problems or given them problems. Even though we’re third party, we have a very close relationship with them. That’s not unusual.”

In addition, more and more wineries are buying their bottles in bulk, shrink-wrapped to a pallet, and then buying their shippers directly from Longview Fibre.

Like most things, putting value-added graphics on your wine shipper is more complicated than it might first appear. That’s why the Longview, Seattle, and Oakland plants each have a graphics center. “To get the most out of the direct-print process, sometimes we need to modify the winery’s graphics to fit the process,” says Craig.

When a winery is ready to put its shippers on the marketing team with value-added graphics, explains Michael Stevenson, graphic packaging sales in Seattle, the first step is a meeting between the winery’s marketing people and Longview’s graphics people. “We’ll get a general idea of what they’re looking at, who’s going to do the design, and how much we’re going to be involved. They’ll ask us to put a bid in for our design time. We have found our charge for graphic design time is very competitive with what a design firm charges. Then we get our graphics designers together with our structural design people. They work very closely together on the structure of the box.”

The next step is determining what printing method will work best for the job. “Quantity is a big issue in this, because there are different costs associated with each of the three different processes,” says Stevenson. “Primarily it’s balancing cost and quality.”

Many factors contribute to creating that balance. Which process is chosen really depends on the nature of the job: size of the box, quantity, number of colors, and the particular image being printed. Most often the choice is direct printing, but not always.

Wine shippers are very large, as boxes with value-added graphics go. They require a large printing plate, which contributes significantly to the printing cost. “If you have a fairly small quantity to print, and it’s not going to be run again, you’ll probably be better off going with litho-laminating rather than direct printing, because tooling and printing plate costs are much lower,” Stevenson offers. “The costs per box will be higher using litho-lam, but if you’re only going to run a couple of thousand boxes one time, you’ll get higher print quality and the overall cost might even be cheaper.”

In the next step of creating a wine shipper, the Longview graphics designer and structural designer create a full-size mock-up of the box with all the graphics. They take it to the graphics team meeting. “We’ve developed this process ourselves,” says Stevenson, “and it works very well.

“The sales person, graphic designer, production people, plate makers, and the ink supplier get together and discuss the job. We talk about how production sees it running and how it’s laid out. We look for any problems, identify necessary changes. We look for potential ink trap problems, where we have three or four colors coming together in the same area. Production people will raise a lot of good questions: How is this going to print? Which colors go down first? Is this a process image, or is it spot color?”

Then Longview’s graphics designer does a new mock-up, including the changes needed to resolve the problems uncovered in the team meeting, and takes the results back to the customer. “If the customer isn’t satisfied, we go back through that loop again and again — make changes, go back to the graphics team meeting, manipulate the graphics, go back to the customer — until we get final approved art.”
The entire process can take anywhere from two weeks, if all goes smoothly, to two months. Stevenson adds, “We’ll ship your boxes two weeks from the day art work is approved.”

What’s next for Longview Fibre?
Despite the time and money invested in equipment and staffing and developing the necessary procedures, Longview isn’t finished yet. The managers report that the company is committed to utilizing the latest in printing technology in its container plants. Investments in new equipment will continue as needed to maintain the highest quality in corrugated board and printing.

Longview Fibre currently manufactures packaging for more than 200 wines at its three West Coast plants. “Providing value-added packaging for our customers, including the wine industry, is our future,” Wertheimer declares. Clearly, the company sees wine shippers as an important niche market that it intends to aggressively pursue.