If I’m at a gathering and I see the wine I’m being served is coming from a box, I wince a little. I don’t mean to: It’s an unconscious reaction. But, it’s exactly this sort of reaction that is keeping boxed wine from achieving its potential.
Boxed wine is, in fact, quite a brilliant idea. Wine often needs a bit of oxidation to soften its tannins and smooth its flavor, but once a bottle is opened, oxidation happens at light speed, and an open bottle of wine is really only good for a few days. Even if you seal the bottle well, the increased airspace vacated by the wine that has been consumed speeds oxidation, preventing your open bottle from lasting.
On the other hand, in the case of boxed wine, the wine is usually inside a vacuum sealed bag that squooshes down as it is emptied, and the tap on the bag prevents any new air from coming in, allowing a boxed wine to last for a month, or even longer in the refrigerator. This is great! And it solves one of the biggest problems with wine. Boxed wine has the potential to be the perfect set-up for a person, or a couple of people, who want to have one glass of wine in an evening and not feel like they’re wasting the remainder of a bottle because they’re not plowing through the whole bottle before it oxidizes the next day.
The packaging materials of boxed wines are also much more affordable for winemakers (quality glass is incredibly expensive). That means that if these costs can be saved by the winemaker, they can then pass these savings on to the wine buyer. This makes it possible for boxed wine to be significantly more affordable by volume than the equivalent bottled wine. Imagine how nice it would be to belong to one the types of wine clubs run by vineyards where they send you a case of wine each month, BUT instead of receiving a case of a particular wine, you got two boxes: same volume, same quality of wine, a fraction of the cost.
There is no reason high-quality wine cannot go into a box. A box is not good packaging for a wine that needs to age, but the fact of the matter is that wine experts estimate that the vast majority of wines available (some even say 99%) are not really suitable for aging anyway.
In markets outside of the U.S. where boxed wine doesn’t have a stigma, many lovely wines we're familiar with in bottles are also available by the box. Some of our good friends in Sweden always serve nice boxed wines at parties—they just decant them first to create an elegant look!
In the U.S., boxed wine is plagued by associations with Franzia and college drinking games; when the technology first came out, cheap brands seized upon the budget vessel and filled it with contents that fully deserved the terrible reputation they gained. And the reputation has stuck.
Though better wines are appearing in boxes these days, many wine drinkers are still too skittish to give them the benefit of the doubt. I spoke to a wine consultant at one of my favorite wine stores in Minneapolis who, when I asked him about boxed wine, lowered his voice and said that “wine snobbery, for lack of a better word, is kind of to blame,” for how hard it can be to find a really delicious, memorable boxed wine.
People see packaging as a symbol of quality (we can’t help it), and boxes aren’t seen as quality. He told me that a couple of years ago, Black Box had tried putting out a couple higher-quality, more expensive boxed wines out on the market in several test states. But they hadn’t seen anywhere near the numbers they had hoped for, so they pulled these nicer boxes.
Boxed wine is a catch-22: People in the U.S. still won’t buy boxed wine because they assume it is poor quality, and because they won’t buy it, few winemakers will put higher-quality wine in a box because they know it won’t be bought. And so the wine in boxes continues to be largely un-noteworthy, and thus the buyers’ expectation that boxed wines aren’t great wines are confirmed. And so on and so forth.
Though there is not a surfeit of excellent wines available in boxes, it's, happily, not entirely a hopeless cause.
Not all brands of boxed wines are available everywhere, of course. As a more general rule for considering boxed wines, know that in boxes, wines from U.S.-based producers tend to skew extremely towards the fruit-forward side of the flavor spectrum. On the other hand, the nice, drier, more balanced boxed wines come predominantly from Europe and South America.
As the number of high-quality wine producers choosing to box their wines grows, it may finally be time to think inside the box.
Do you drink boxed wine? Are you proud or ashamed of the fact? Tell us in the comments!