No More Franzia

03.15.14

Taking Boxed Wine Seriously: It’s Not Just for Hobos and Teenagers Anymore

Boxed wine has gotten a bad rap in America. But new collaborations between winemakers and innovative packaging companies have resulted in vintages that are actually pretty darn good.

Boxed wine is at a Herculean disadvantage in this country.  For millions of Americans, it represents bottom-shelf, super-market swill of college parties yore.  But better and better wines are becoming available in boxed form. The wines aren’t just passable; they’re actually good. One of the most compelling examples I’ve tasted in recent weeks is a traditionally made Tuscan Sangiovese, produced from organic grapes grown in Chianti Classico and sold by Tetra Pak for an average retail price of thirteen bucks.

Americans are the outliers in their skepticism for wines that come in boxes.  Addressing Americans’ collective aversion to bag-in-box wines, TaliaBaiocchi wrote, “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.”

First, a bit of historical context. Australians invented boxed wine in the 1960s. Down under, people endearingly call boxes of wine “goons,” and they drink them with alacrity. France is also a fan. Last year, boxed wines represented one of only two categories growing in domestic consumption. (Rosé was the other.)

From a quality perspective, all boxed wines are not created equal. Bag-in-box wines are stored in porous plastic pouches. The inherent oxygen exchange in each pouch requires the winery to add significantly more sulfur than an average bottle of wine to prevent oxidation. High levels of sulfur dioxide in wine can mute aromatics and effectively freeze a wine’s evolution. 

“We are entering a new era of boxed wines. Hopefully Americans are savvy enough to get on board.”

But selections aren't limited to just Franzia and Frog Eye anymore. Jenny & François makes an excellent Bag-In-Box rosé that they call "From the Tank"—its fresh, easy, and quaffable, and made from solely organic grapes sourced from the Southern Rhône. Wineberry, a New York distributor, is also packaging Bag-in-Box wines in partnership with wineries.

An ambitious Swiss packaging company, Tetra Pak, presents another alternative to Bag-in-Box. Wine is stored directly in their containers that are made from 75 percent paper, much of which comes from Forest Stewardship Council™ certified wood. TetraPaks is committed to fully sustainable packaging.  As of last year, even the plastic cap on many containers is made out of a degradable product derived from sugar cane.

From a purely environmental standpoint, the statistics in favor of Tetra Pak packaging are astounding. According to one of their website’s info graphics, the product to package ratio of a standard 750ml glass wine bottle to wine is 60:40. That ratio for a chicken egg is 87:13. For a one-litre Tetra Pak, it is 94:6. In addition, a one-liter Tetra Pak weighs less than a pound. That is 1/10 the weight of an average 750ml glass wine bottle. 

I had my first taste of Tetra Pak wine from a neon green package labeled “Bandit” a couple of years ago. The wine was so good that, more than once, I’ve used it in blind tasting events and served it next to one of the most well-known Pinot Grigio labels in the states.  Bandit wins by a long shot every time.  

While perusing Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, I noticed that she had come across—and been equally compelled by—Tetra Pak’s Tuscan Sangiovese. The wine, FuoriStrada, is winemaker Michael Schmeltzer’s newest project. In addition to the Sangiovese, he makes a white Fuori Strada out of organically grown Grillo, harvested from a single vineyard in Campo Reale, Sicily.

Last week, the Momofuku beverage team and I had an opportunity to taste Schmeltzer’s full line-up. We were very impressed. Schmeltzer is thoughtful, straightforward, and full of insight. One statistic he shared early in our tasting is that, in the United States, 90 percent of all wines are consumed within 24 hours of purchase. Wines in Tetra Pak can last up to two years before the paper packaging starts to disintegrate and the wine quality becomes compromised.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll begin pouring the Fuori Strada Sangiovese at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan. This wine breaks barriers in a way that prioritizes quality, price, and the environment. It’s innovative, ambitious, inexpensive, and quality driven.  In short, the wine is great.  We are entering a new era of boxed wines.  Hopefully Americans are savvy enough to get on board.