Napa Valley's Humanitas releases swing-top wine bottle

Napa Valley vintner Judd Wallenbrock has uncorked an idea nearly two decades in the making for an attention-grabbing wine bottle and closure that draws on the cues of premium craft beer and soft drinks.

He came upon the idea for a swing-top closure for newly released Humanitas Wines rose of pinot noir wine 17 years ago when sleuthing a solution to 'cork taint' and lackluster screw cap designs at the time.

'I'm a tiny winery that hand-bottles and gives profits to charity, and I would like to have a unique closure to be known for,' he said.

Swing tops close the bottle with a gasket-ringed stopper of ceramic or other material held down by a clamping heavy wire basket pivoting from two bottleneck holes.

In the late 1990s, Wallenbrock was vice president of brand development for the Robert Mondavi Family of Wines and battling incidences of taint in domestic bottles as many as 5 percent of bottles and in a much higher proportion of Chilean wines. He and officials from other wineries conducted surveys with consumers on bottle closures and found half wanted them to look pleasing but also be easy to open and close.

Aluminum screw caps were the obvious solution for taint and ease of opening and closing, but the ribbed-grip look at the close of the 20th century didn't quite have the luxury look to communicate a quality brand, Wallenbrock said. Inspiration came when he was eating at the former Pot Belly Deli in south Napa near Mondavi's offices and saw imported sodas on the shelf in swing-top bottles.

Mondavi at the time was considering a joint venture with a grappa maker that used a swing-top bottle, and there also was the retro appeal of swing-topped Grolsch beers. Using some Robert Mondavi Coastal chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon he did test-bottlings in sanitized Grolsch bottles and found no quality hit after several months.

Soon thereafter in 2001 he left Mondavi and started Humanitas, now part of The Good Life Wine Collective that also includes brands Handwritten and Jessup Cellars. He tried to buy swing-top bottles for his new brand, but the cost was prohibitive in small quantities.

Since then, the closure industry has come up with a number of fixes for the mold-connected chemicals often fingered for 'tainted' wine, and cap creators have made the closures more closely resemble traditional packaging. Nevertheless, the appeal of swing tops stuck with Wallenbrock.

Two years ago, Napa-based Global Package President Erica Harrop, who had found him the original quote, said found a new source that would sell as few as 100 cases for about the same price as bottles, capsules and natural corks. The cost was about 75 cents for each bottle with neck holes for the swing pivots, about the same as for good-quality conventional bottles, and 49 cents for a swing top, Harrop said. Natural cork can be for fine wine can cost 50 cents apiece, not including a capsule.

Forty-six cases of Humanitas rose of pinot noir were hand-bottled in November and went on sale in the wine group's small industrial park tasting room in January for $30 a bottle. White plastic zip ties lock the swing down to show evidence of tampering.

A big problem with larger-scale use of swing tops in the wine business is bottling lines aren't equipped for them, and attachments would cost more than a small operation could afford, Wallenbrock said. He hopes a large producer will be inspired and pay for bottling technology that eventually will trickle down into common use.

Some local wineries are pouring wine into beer-style growlers, commonly capped with swing top s, in tasting rooms.

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