In southern France, locals can buy their wines en vrac — in glass — at the neighborhood winery. They help themselves to tastes from several different tanks, each marked with contents and price. After making a choice, customers fill whatever containers they brought with them with a hose that looks exactly like the ones we use to pump gas into our cars.
This is wine at its primal best, no fuss, accessible and inexpensive. For many Europeans, wine is a staple at the table, like bread.
In this country, wine is treated more like a veal chop, special and expensive. But that may be changing.
Wine is slowly becoming part of American day-to-day life rather than a special-occasion affair. And while we aren’t yet to the point of stepping up to a hose, grass-roots acceptance is growing for “boxed wines” or “quality cask wines” as they are variously called.
According to industry data, the category of premium 3-liter boxed wines (the 5-liter and larger boxes still are used only for the jug-style wines) has grown by 29 percent over last year while dollar sales have increased more than 60 percent. The Scholle Corp., maker of virtually every boxed-wine container used in the United States, plans to sell 3 to 4 million units this year. Not bad for a category that simply didn’t exist here two years ago.
It is not uncommon to see 3-liter boxed wines selling at fine wine shops and even wine bars for $20 to $40. These are premium products, available for the equivalent of $5 to $10 a bottle, but comparable to wines that sell for $7 to $12 a bottle or more.
As acceptance and competition increases, many believe we soon will find boxes filled with even higher-quality wines. This concept may take some effort for many of us to wrap our minds around since there is a collective image of these containers holding the kind of wines that used to be sold in large glass jugs.
In Australia, the subject is no longer even news. More than 50 percent of all wine consumed in that country is from boxes and has been for years. In Sweden, it’s more than 60 percent and the wine-snooty United Kingdom is fast approaching those numbers. Even (gasp!) the French have embraced the concept.
When — inevitably — it is fully accepted here, the box revolution will dramatically change the way we buy and drink our wine. Wine will be less expensive, more accessible and less mysterious and consumption is sure to go up as it has elsewhere. This could well be the great democratization of wine that so many of us have been waiting for. It certainly will be a boon to the industry.
The advent of the premium boxed-wine category in this country perhaps is better described as an evolution than a revolution. Many factors have aligned over time to make it possible.
Wine consumption is up but so is production and wineries are feeling the urgent need to move more wine cheaply. But they also understand that quality has become the yapping dog at their heels — consumers have tasted the good stuff and they’re never going back.
Alternative packaging is becoming common as wines are being marketed in “Tetra Paks,” small glass jugs, plastic bottles and even cans complete with straws.
Then there is the fact that we have been liberated from the cork. Few of us are shocked to see a brightly colored polymer stopper, or better yet, a screw cap on a premium bottle of wine. It’s a far shorter distance from screw cap to box than from cork to box.
The bag-in-the-box system was created 40 years ago by the Scholle Corp. of Northlake, Ill., for sulfuric acid battery electrolyte disposal. It was 25 years ago that the Australians decided it might be a good idea for packaging wine and were so successful with it that they often are credited erroneously with its invention.
Here’s how it works: The inner bag is made of several layers of clear plastic film to which a spigot or tap is attached. After the bag is filled (the box is used only for stability and aesthetics) the wine is in a sterile and nearly anaerobic environment. But since the bag and the tap are not utterly impervious to oxygen, small amounts will enter the wine over time, causing the quality to eventually deteriorate. Oxygen doesn’t enter the bag through use. The bag simply collapses as it empties, so if the wine is consumed within a month or so, the last glass should be in the same condition as the first.
The Scholle folks claim they are getting closer to solving the oxygen issue, at which time wines theoretically could be kept indefinitely, which opens up entirely new possibilities for even the finest quality wines.
There are many advantages to buying wine in a box, especially price and convenience. Since the producer can save up to 80 percent of packaging costs (as well as some shipping and storing costs), he can afford to sell the wine for less. The producers of Black Box wines say the $20 price of their boxed wines would double if they were sold in glass bottles.
A 3-liter box holds an amount equivalent to four 750 ml bottles yet it takes up not much more room and weighs little more than a half-gallon carton of milk. Wine can be drunk one glass at a time over a period of weeks or months so there is no waste. The package is lightweight, portable, very durable and wildly popular with boaters and campers who don’t want to deal with glass. And perhaps best of all, no special tool is required to open it.
Presently the biggest obstacle to the category is, ironically, the box. Market penetration is slow and hard work mostly because many retailers can’t get beyond the packaging. Ryan Sproule, creator of the first and most successful American-made box wine, Black Box, notes that in order “to get over the stigma of a box wine you need to be better quality” than what the buyer expects. Consumers, however, seem to be more open-minded.
The Australian Tindindi brand went from unknown to selling nearly 12,000 cases in about three months in the Northwest market alone. Black Box went from an idea to 250,000 cases a year in just over 24 months.
“People are so willing to try it,” says Seattle native Jill Beaven, owner of the Tindindi brand that is rapidly becoming the darling of the local boxed-wine set. “I’m astounded at how well people have responded to it,” she gushes.
Dan McCarthy, co-owner of the upscale McCarthy and Schiering Wine Merchants in the Queen Ann and Ravenna neighborhoods, agrees. “The customer is ready for it,” he says of his success with wines such as Tindindi and Black Box. He does admit, however, to having “raised quite a few eyebrows” when he first stocked the wines.
A wine bar is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a bag-in-the-box wine, but Cliff Willwerth, owner of the tony Impromptu Wine Bar in Madison Park, is unapologetic about pouring Tindindi as his house wine. “We find the best wines at the best prices, so why not?” he says.
For the entire U.S. wine industry, from producers to retailers and restaurateurs, the writing is on the wall. As the Euro erodes the buying power of the dollar, boxed wines may be the only way European producers can remain competitive here. Information like that doesn’t go unnoticed by the corporate Goliaths. Drool collects at the corners of their mouths as they study the numbers. Expect the battle of the boxes to begin.
These are some of the most available 3-liter, bag-in-the-box wines. But look for several other offerings from Italy and France to hit the shelves shortly. Remember — each box holds the equivalent of four standard wine bottles.
Black Box was established barely two years ago as the first brand to offer premium California boxed wine. It now leads the category with 250,000 cases annually. Wines include: Black Box 2002 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, $20; 2001 Sonoma Merlot, $20; 2003 Monterey Chardonnay, $20.
Tindindi brand of South Australia, which was founded by Seattle native Jill Beaven and her Aussie husband, Andrew, is the current rising star of the premium boxed-wine category in the Northwest. Tindindi offers a 2001 Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) and 2004 Limestone Coast Chardonnay ($22).
Teft Cellars was the first to offer a Washington boxed wine. Teft now offers 4-liter boxes (equivalent of 5.5 bottles) of Non-Vintage Washington State Cabernet/Merlot ($22) and 2003 Washington State Chardonnay ($23).
Other boxed wines available: