Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tasting Is Believing

Here's an excellent article out of the 2005 files from Richard Kinssies at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Kinssies provides an excellent overview of the history of bag-in-box packaging as well as it's future, and the present day landscape of the premium boxed wine marketplace.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005
On Wine: Premium wines from a box? Tasting is believing

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:

Washington Hills 2003 Washington State Merlot ($20)

Washington Hills 2003 Washington State Chardonnay ($20)

English Estate 2002 Gravel Mine Pinot Noir Clark Co. WA ($81)

English Estate 2001 Clark Co. Premium Pinot Noir WA ($64)

English Estate 2003 White From Black Pinot Noir WA ($54)

Chateau des Alouettes 2002 Costier de Nimes Rouge ($20)

X Box 2003 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc ($34)

X Box 2002 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($34)

X Box 2002 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($34)

Hardys Stamp of Australia 2002 Shiraz ($17)

Hardys Stamp of Australia 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17)

Hardys Stamp of Australia 2003 Chardonnay

Banrock Station 2003 Shiraz ($17)

Banrock Station 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17)

Banrock Station 2003 Merlot ($17)

Banrock Station 2004 Chardonnay ($17)

Richard Kinssies is a freelance wine writer, an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy and director of the Seattle Wine School. He can be contacted at 206-782-0617 or

On Wine: Premium wines from a box? Tasting is believing

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Le Faux Frog Pinot Noir 3 Liter Box

This French Pinot Noir is imported by Todd Williams of Toad Hollow Vineyards and boxed under the a whimsical and eye-catching critter label.

Le Faux Frog 2004 Pinot Noir Vin de Pays d'Oc
From Toad Hollow Vineyards
Limoux, France
3 liter box
About $25.00

Todd Williams (aka "the Toadster") is quite a character. There's an interesting interview with him in Evansville, Indiana's What's Cooking. Catch it in the reprint on the Toad Hollow site. He's Robin Williams brother (half) and had a cameo in Mrs. Doubtfire.

I found this Pinot Noir available at MGM Liquor Warehouse in Minneapolis, and I am looking forward to opening the box I have set aside for Christmas dinner.

P.S. We loved it! Le Faux Frog Pinot Noir is the new favorite of the Fly by Night crew. My husband loves it, and wants me to find more. We give it four out of five stars. Lovely color, good legs, very fragrant and tasty. A significant amount of sediment. I recommend decanting, as we did each night we drank it; or at least, don't jostle the box around.

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