In the wine business a case of wine has long meant twelve 750ml bottles, which totals 9 litres or the equivalent: 6 double sized bottles known as magnums or 24 half bottles.
But why are there twelve bottles in a case? There doesn’t appear to be any known reason other than tradition.
Any more than 12 bottles is going to be too heavy and bulky for most people to carry. Bottled wine was originally packed in wooden cases with two rows of six, one on top of the other. These low rectangular boxes stacked well but now are seen only from more expensive wineries. Collectors value these wooden cases, which have the winery brand on the end and resellers of top wines will emphasise OWC in advertising, meaning ‘original wooden case’ with the implication the wines being sold are from one consignment, rather than being gathered together from a number of sources.
The move to cardboard boxes necessitated stacking the bottles upright since the material isn’t strong enough to support the length and, since twelve was the standard, the box was so designed. But it would be difficult to make an efficient carrier for any other number. Three rows of four bottles go easily into a compact almost square box. Eleven, ten, nine, thirteen or fourteen bottles would be difficult to pack. Eight bottles would work but then you may as well make a container for six bottles so by doubling them you are back at the traditional measure of 9 litres, 12 bottles.
Nine litres became embedded in legislation: The UK, at the time the centre of the world’s wine market, set nine litres as the limit differentiating wholesale from retail sales. Someone selling nine litres, i.e. one case, of wine was considered to be acting as a wholesaler and thus not subject to many of the regulations affecting those who retail alcohol. When UK licensing laws forbade the sale of wine on Sunday afternoons, wine outlets whose minimum sale was one case could profitably operate when retail stores had to close.
In the latter part of the 20th century health and safety considerations brought six bottle packs to the fore. They are lighter and thus easier to carry. Wine salesman soon found that by calling these 6-packs ‘cases’ in their advertising they got more interest and indeed sales from people who assumed they were getting a bargain, only to be disappointed when they found six instead of twelve bottles in their purchase.
Nowadays consumers cannot rely on the word case meaning twelve bottles and need to be wary because case means whatever someone wants it to. I have even seen packs of three bottles referred to as a case.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.