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Will Boxed Wine Ever Make it in America?

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Whether Franzia likes it or not this is effectively their marketing campaign to millennials.
Whether Franzia likes it or not this is effectively their marketing campaign to millennials.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Although the bright idea to put wine inside and box and tap it seems like a quintessentially American thing to do—it turns out it wasn't our idea.

The Australians were actually the first to popularize the BIB (bag-in-box) phenomenon in the 1960s. Today "wine casks," as they call them down under, still make up almost half of the country's wine sales; it's only recently that bottled wine has edged boxes out of the majority.

Europe has barely hesitated in jumping on the bandwagon, and is now atop the heap when it comes to quality, with top producers like Dominique Lafon in the Macon, Jean-Marc Brocard in Chablis, and Josef Leitz in the Rheingau boxing affordable wines. It's also an emerging trend in Paris where BIB wines from smaller producers can be found in many of the city's wine shops.

But America has been slow on the BIB draw.

Boxed wine was first popularized in the U.S. in the early 80s during a period I like to call “The Age of the Wine Cooler,” a time when canned cocktails, Boone's Farm, jug wine, and salad bars were hip—the age of easy consumption for the vast majority of America, despite the fact that California was well into a wine renaissance.

The cheap boxed wines that prevailed at the time—most notably Franzia—would ultimately come to define all boxed wine as down-market swill, an image that would keep producers from attempting to market quality wines in a box until the early 2000s.

Memories of Franzia—the college campus's immortal slayer of beer, and the Sunset Blush whose bag could bag the un-baggable—still persist. It’s as if boxes of White Zinfandel were built into our subconscious at birth, equipping us with a collective self-consciousness that still plagues our perceptions of BIB wines.

Slap Bag Blues

It's not totally unfounded. Franzia is still America's boxed wine mascot, as well as the best selling table wine by volume in the world. And, believe it or not, there's still plenty of square footage on the web dedicated to lamentations about Franzia's new closures and the merits of the "Chillable Red." One such priceless example can found among a long thread of reviews on Snooth.com's Franzia page.

"This is my second request for someone to contact me regarding a problem with my purchase of Franzia Chardonne [sic] in a box. I purchase this wine all the time and my last purchase the wine bag was placed into the box upside down and backwards. It was quite a trick to serve wine to my guests! I had to cut a hole in the opposite side of the box and hold the box upside down to dispense, holding upright squirted into my eyes! Please contact me. – Joan 714 529-963*"

But as the rest of the world embraces BIB wines as practical, value-driven, and ecologically smart—a standard bottle of wine holds 750 milliliters and generates around 5 pounds of CO2 emissions; one box of wine generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters—America is beginning to come around to the idea that boxed wine isn't just for the Joans of the world.

Fancy Boxes

Consider the success of "From The Tank," a wine box by natural wine importer Jenny & Francois Selections. The red and white boxes are both Côtes-du-Rhône blends from the co-op Estezargues which, according to Jenny & Francois, is the only co-op in France to make "natural" wines. Both 3L (4 bottles) boxes retail for around $30. The primarily French wine importer Wineberry also has a line of five different boxed wines that are sourced from producers whose bottled wines they import. They come in snazzy wood boxes complete with a gel ice pack that can be inserted into the bottom of the box for mobile chilling. They range in price from $39-59—a small price to pay for the Grand Marquis of wine boxes.

Still, the major obstacle for production of boxed wine here in America is one of quality; in order to see a legitimate revolution with this sort of packaging the wine has to actually be good. Much of the high quality boxed wines produced in Europe never make it to the states, and the wines that are boxed in this country come from industrial plonk producers simply because they're the ones with the money and the access to filling machinery.

But with influential bloggers and journalists — like Tyler Coleman (Dr. Vino) and New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov — giving voice to the merits of the BIB packaging, there's an impetus for new niche businesses to emerge in support of smaller producers boxing their wines. One such example is Baux Wine, a project that supplies the filling units and packaging to small wineries that are interested in boxing their wines and markets them to a their mailing list and to retailers.

There also seems to be a direct correlation between the trendiness of wines-on-tap and the softening of BIB wine's down-market image. Many restaurants in NYC and across the U.S. are including wines on tap from some of the country's most interesting wine producers like Donkey & Goat and Red Hook Winery. This willingness from the consumer side—many of them of millennial persuasion—to forgo the ritualistic cork pull is surely, in some way, opening the door a bit wider for alternative packaging.

The Can Correlation

In a New York Times Diner's Journal blog post back in February 2010, Eric Asimov makes an apt comparison between America's boxed wine aversion and the beer lover's resistance to canned beer. Even though cans prove to be a better vessel for preserving and transporting beer, brewers avoided of the can because of the perceived notion that all canned beer was cheap, industrial junk. Sound familiar? But as craft brewers begin to put their product in cans with more creative labeling the perception slowly begins to change.

Boxed wine may have a steeper incline to climb given the subconscious resistance many Americans have developed for it. In other words, it's unclear how deep our Franzia issues go, but as it stands there's an evolution in quality and a real reason—ecologically and economically—to favor boxed wine over bottled when it comes to everyday consumption.

Boxes of Note:

· Jenny & Francois Selections From the Tank 3L [avg cost: $30] [find]
· Wineberry Box 3L [avg cost $40] [find]
· Three Thieves Bandit Pinot Grigio TetraPak 500ml [avg cost: $5] 1L [avg cost: $8] [find]
· Yellow + Blue Malbec TetraPak 1L [avg cost: $11] [find]


Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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