A Short Course on Boxed Wine

Wine writer Jeff Lefere for Forbes wote an interesting article giving his perspection on boxed wines.

The Box Wine Short Course

Stereotypes exist for a reason. Mainly, they are rooted in some level of truthiness: However, here's a bit of stereotypical truthiness that is no longer valid. Box wines don't suck.

In fact, these days, depending on where you look in the wine aisle, much of the box wine in the U.S. is quite good. Yet, like most wine matters, this truth isn't always obvious when fighting against perception. And, popular perception holds that Franzia's ubiquitous boxed wine, long the top-selling wine in the U.S. based on volume, is rot gut swill. While I'll abstain from giving my own Franzia opinion, I will note that wine enthusiasts are missing an opportunity to find drinking value and enjoyment across a number of other box wine offerings if they let one box spoil the pallet, as it may be.

With that in mind, as a summer public service, driving to the essential truth between "perception" and "reality," here is my short course on box wine: The least you need to know to navigate the box wine options at the grocery store.

First things first: A proof point

Let's get this out of the way immediately: Few people cop to following wine scores, but they are a qualitative measure for the wine business and a guiding force in consumer purchases. So, when Wine Spectator magazine reviewed 39 box wines in the fall of 2009 and 37 of them received a score higher than their "Good" score of 80 points, it's validation for the whole box wine category. If the critics believe, generally speaking, so too should the skeptics.

A Drop of (Background) Knowledge

Who woulda thunk that the history of box wine would have some controversy about its origins? It's true. Credited by some to an Australian (Thomas Angove in the mid-1960s), the Aussies have readily accepted the box wine format, commonly referred to as a "Wine Cask" down under. Some reports indicate as much as 50% of wine at retail in Australia is sold this way.

Despite the Australian acceptance of the format, a mid-1960s invention time frame doesn't cut it for Americans who choose to claim innovative superiority. Scholle Packaging, and the company's forebear William R. Scholle, is credited domestically with inventing the bag-in-box (BiB) format in the 1950s with a design originally conceived for the safe transport of battery acid.

If you need a historical narrative tie-break, to this day Scholle is the packaging industry leader for this format and holds the trademark for "bag-in-box™."

Party Trivia

Box wine started appearing on U.S. shelves during the 1980s as a more convenient and longer-lived format to the jug wines that were predominant in the 1970s.

Alas, as wine grew in quality and luxury stature in the U.S., along with maturing wine drinkers palates, box wine didn't keep pace. Until the early part of the new millennium, most box wine brands carried generic varietal names like "Rhine" and "Blush" that had long lost favor with growing wine sophisticates. In addition, the wine wasn't vintage dated, nor did the producers state where the wine was from, something that is now de rigueur for premium wine. At best, by the 90s, box wine was notable for its convenience and its stability after opening, but not as an enjoyable quaff.

Fast forward to the early aughts and the Wine Cube, a Target store brand, and Black Box both launched in 2003 featuring premium wines that capitalized on the benefits of the format – convenient packaging and shelf-life, along with high quality varietal wine and vintage dating, re-igniting the possibility that schlepping box wine home from the store didn't require a pair of sunglasses, a downward gaze and a preconceived caveat.

Seven years later, in their decade recap, the trade magazine Brand Packaging named high-end wine in a box as one of their 10 packaging innovations of the decade joining no-gooey-mess ketchup bottles and tuna in a bag, amongst other now commonplace packaging formats.

The Value Equation

Aside from quality, box wine does solve practical problems for U.S. wine enthusiasts– it offers value (the typical 3 liter box contains the equivalent of four bottles of wine) at a price that is usually compelling even for the math challenged. And, perhaps more importantly, the wine lasts for a period of time – from four to six weeks depending on the kind of tap used while solving a real dilemma for wine drinkers who enjoy a glass in the evening, but hate dumping a bottle two days later when an unfinished bottle has gone south on the kitchen counter.

In these environmentally aware times, box wine offers another powerful advantage – it's "greener" than a bottle and reduces required resources.

Going Green

The resurgence of boxed wine coupled with an almost ubiquitous environmental awareness on the part of consumers is leading to innovation. Aside from box wine, wine packaging is undergoing a revolution in form and function.

Just several years into a trend that shows no sign of slowing down before a complete perception makeover is complete, wine can now be purchased in kegs on tap at restaurants, in canteens, in a pouch with a spigot (Astrapouch), and in containers that resemble super-sized Hi-C juice containers from lunchrooms of yore (Tetra Pak).

These all challenge the long-held belief that wine in anything other than a bottle equates to a bad wine.

A couple of tips

Alternative packaging is going upscale and while prices have been somewhat consistent across brands in the category, that is now changing with more expensive brands coming into the market. Pay heed to the "four bottles for the price of three" model that has been in place with 3 litre box wine because the AstraPouch holds two bottles and is often similarly priced.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine – new technology is coming out every year that decreases the amount of oxygen that touches wine via the tap so pay attention to the fine print on packaging because the life of the wine varies from four to six weeks and beyond based on the brand and the packaging.

Box wine isn't ageable in the classic sense of the wine word. If you buy it, start drinking it.

Recommended Brands

Pepperwood Grove (Whole Foods nationwide)

Bota Box (Grocery store)

Wine Cube (Target stores only)

Black Box (Grocery store)

Octavin Home Wine Bar (various brands from Underdog Wine Merchants)

Source: The Box Wine Short Course

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