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Starting a Boxed Wine Rebellion

Wine in a box isn't a new phenomenon. I remember seeing boxed wines in family-oriented restaurants at least 30 years ago. The boxed wine back then wasn't very good and neither was the quality of the packaging, but it served a need.

These days, the technology for boxed wine is much better. The liners and spigots maintain an air-tight seal even as the box empties. And the wines don't taste of plastic. Companies like TetraPak have also developed smaller wine boxes, similar to some juice cartons, that are small and light enough to be carried in a hiker's backpack. However, for the most part, the quality of the wine one finds in boxes has not improved all that much.

Some box wine companies, such as Black Box, have been edging toward goodness. Yet, I've still not found a boxed wine that I could truly recommend. For now, the only boxes of wine I can get behind are those that hold twelve bottles.

I'm not alone in this view and the topic of a high-end, or at least very good quality, boxed wine was raised at last week's Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Tom Johnson of Louisville Juice was one of the instigators of the conversation, asking who might produce the first $80 box of wine. Eric Asimov of the New York Times offered his thoughts on boxed wines yesterday in his column.

 

There several issues that inhibit the release of a really good boxed wine. I think most fall into one of four categories:

1. Consumer perception

2. Consumer demand

3. Production issues

4. Service and usage

While boxed wine sales have been growing, those sales have been at low price points and going to consumers who are somewhat undiscriminating in selecting their wine. I'm not dissing these people and I'm sure that they have their favorite brands and blends. However, the typical boxed wine consumer is not a person who subscribes to Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast, surfs through eRobertParker or wine blogs, or spends a lot of time picking the brain of staff at premium wine shops.

Most people who consider wine more than just a refreshing beverage are still suspicious of wine under screw cap and have an even great bias against boxes. Any winery trying to produce a high-quality product and sell to their established customers will have some convincing to do.

For the reasons mentioned above, there is no particular demand for high-quality boxed wine. Current boxed wine customers don't buy luxury wines. Luxury wine drinkers aren't looking for boxes. Retailers don't want to take a chance under these circumstances and neither do restaurants.

As Tom describes today in Premium Box Wine in the Real World, getting wine into a box raises issues as well. Most U.S. wineries don't have their own bottling lines, they use bottling services that go from site to site in an 18-wheeler. Those services aren't set up for boxes. Most aren't even set up for screw cap. So, one would have to take their wine in a tanker to a mass-production facility in California's Central Valley. This eliminates the possibility of using an "Estate" moniker for the wine. Next, the production levels have to be very high to make the cost of printing the boxes low enough to actually break even on the packaging, let alone save money. Top quality wines are usually known for small production, not large. And printing one box for several wines that are differentiated by a stick-on label isn't as easy as it may seem. It would require new equipment to be made because it's extremely hard to get large labels on straight when applying them by hand.

Once you've solved all of those issues and the consumer has the wine at home (or it's in a restaurant for by-the-glass programs), other issues crop up. The box won't fit in a fancy wine fridge. It needs to sit in the regular refrigerator. So, unless you want to microwave the wine in a measuring cup or let it sit in the glass for some time, it's going to be chilled well below ideal serving temperatures for red wine. I suppose one could decant the wine and that would also aerate it, but that really negates the convenience of filling a glass quickly with the spigot.

Wine boxes aren't built for aging either. They should be good for 6-months or perhaps a year. Nobody would suggest "laying one down" for five years though, let alone fifteen. So, forget about those rich reds that need time to resolve their tannins.

With all of these troubles, what would be the motivation to produce a high-end boxed wine? One of them is environmental. Theoretically, boxed wine should have a lower carbon footprint than bottles at all stages: production, transport and recycling. Second, it might lead to higher consumption, just as 6-packs and larger container sizes have for soda pop and beer. Third, the first few companies to get past consumer objections could gain some marketing advantage over their competitors. Finally, box producers want to expand their business. Having a few showcase wines of high quality would probably help them grow their mass market business too by removing some of the stigma.

So, if the box companies, environmentalists and the odd winery want to push the super-premium boxed wine agenda what should they do?

1. The box companies need to select a few target wineries and offer the packaging at heavily subsidized prices. Cost is a big factor to smallish wineries, but the box companies could practically give the packaging away for free in the short term for a few luxury wineries without doing too much damage to the bottom line. If they took the money they spend on to-the-industry ads and gave away boxes, they might make more headway in developing the market.

2. Go with a screw cap wine. Companies who are currently successful selling premium or super-premium wines under screw cap sell to consumers who have already stepped away from cork. Moving to box will be less of a leap for them. Taking one of those wines and selling it both in box and under cap would give consumers a choice and a way to make direct comparisons to validate quality. These are also wines for which the bottle is just a container, not an important brand statement as they are for many luxury red wines.

3. Target wineries that have something to gain. While a lot of companies would like to be greener, cost savings will be a bigger motivator for going to boxes. Transport costs might be one place where a lot of money could be saved.  This would be even more true for wineries who export the majority of their wine over great distances.

4. Start by selling only to a couple of really big resellers that appeal to luxury wine drinkers looking for bargains. Think Costco and Safeway.

If I were a box company, what wineries would I target? I'd go after large producers of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The wines are very popular and sell in high volume. The whites are fresh and relatively unoaked, so they will do well coming out of the fridge. They are great by-the-glass sippers that don't require aging, ideal for the format. Many are happily purchased under screw cap. And it's a long boat ride from New Zealand.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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