Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Inside the box

From Wilkes Barre Citizen's Voice, February 4, 2008:

Inside the box

When Ryan Sproule was laid off from his job as a software engineer in the early 1990s, he looked for possible business opportunities and found the answer in his empty wine glass and dwindling bank account.

He's not a winemaker, not a grape grower, and certainly not a wine snob. Even when he was employed, he found having a glass of wine or two with his wife every evening was too expensive. Box wine seemed an inexpensive solution, but those wines ranged from blah to undrinkable. Wine every night, even at $10 per bottle, adds up.

No one, he concluded, was making good boxed wine.

"Box wine had been around for 25 years and other people had the idea of putting good wine in a box before I did, but no one wanted to take the risk," he said. "There was no good reason why it wasn't being done ­- other than the stigma of the packaging."

Sproule risked it. The unemployed software engineer sold his house and trolled Napa Valley in a pickup truck with a checkbook during a grape glut just as sales of luxury wines were collapsing. Those dotcom wealthy couldn't afford those expensive wines any more than he could.

So Sproule hit up some of the top wineries and offered to buy their finished, unbottled wine - stuff they probably wouldn't be able to sell. He paid them less than $2 a gallon. He shipped the lots to a leased facility where the wine was blended, filtered, bagged, then boxed.

He used Napa wine to get attention and for shock value, he admits. Black Box wines now come from Italy, Australia, and Germany - perhaps less prestigious regions, but places where he could get a reliable flow of grapes and wine.

He picked the 3-liter box not to differentiate it from the 5-liter bulk wine, but to keep the price around $20 or $25. The size, the equivalent of four 750-mL bottles, has now become the standard for better boxed wine.

The box is what keeps the wine so cheap.

The bottle, labels and cork for a wine cost the producer about $1.50. After markups, consumers end up paying about $4.50 at the register for packaging, Sproule figures. Packaging the same amount of wine in a bag-in-a-box costs 80 percent less. Shipping is also cheaper because the box wine is lighter, stacks well, and doesn't break.

This year Black Box will ship 2,225,000 boxes.

According to market researcher AC Nielson, the 5-liter box wine drinkers aren't trading up because, it seems, they aren't too worried about quality. Buyers of wine such as Black Box are coming from bottle drinkers, yet it's not hurting bottles' sales. Instead, Sproule thinks the 3-liter box gets people to drink more wine by lowering the barrier to having a drink.

Open a bottle of wine, and there are 4.5 glasses for which you are responsible. The reason people drink so much beer is because opening a beer bottle is not a big decision - you pull one from the fridge, then another, and maybe another. The box puts wine on a similar playing field.

But the biggest challenge remains educating consumers that the quality of wine, as Sproule says, has nothing to do with the type of package it comes in. He admits that the leap to box wine is greater than the leap from corks to screw caps.

I pulled out Black Box and other players in the fast-growing segment of wine sales for a party. You won't find a profound, complex wine in a box. But these wines prove you can find a pretty good wine in a box at a darn good price.

The environmentally conscious Bota Box 2006 California Pinot Grigio has flavors of green apples, herbs and lemon with a tart finish. The box is made with recycled paper and plastic and uses cornstarch instead of chemical glues. $20. *** 1/2

From grapes grown in Italy, Black Box 2006 Veneto Pinot Grigio has a citrus and honeydew smell with lemon rind and cantaloupe finish. $20. *** 1/2

Even French wine is in a box. Pinot Evil Lîle de Beaune Pinot Noir has strawberry and cherry flavors and is pleasant and light and easy drinking. $17. ***

Bota Box 2006 California Merlot is fruit-forward, a bit green, with a short finish. $20. ***

Black Box California Merlot has blueberry and raspberry flavors with a soft, easy finish. $20. *** 1/2

The biker-themed Killer Juice Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is light, but with ripe blackberry and licorice flavors and some of the tannins and structure one would expect from better cabernet sauvignon, but just some. The name comes from an expression young winemakers use when they boast of their "killer juice." $24. *** 1/2

Just to make sure we weren't being too charitable, I pulled out a five-liter mega cheapo box wine that will remain unnamed. Proving that just because it's cheap it doesn't mean it's worth buying, this so called "reserve" merlot was over-cropped, green, backsweetened, barely drinkable wine that gave me a killer headache the next day.

The 3-liter gang proved that the wine may be in a box, but in a different league.

If you want a decent wine to serve at a Super Bowl party or one to sip causally when watching "The Office," "Grey's Anatomy" or "Lost," don't fear the 3-liter box.

As for Sproule, he teamed up with beverage giant Constellation Brands to provide marketing and distribution clout he needed to grow the brand. The company has an option to buy Black Box. While Sproule won't reveal the terms of the deal, he will likely be much better off than he would if he had been spared the ax in 1991.

Bag versus bottle

Box wines may be in a bag in the box, but they will go bad faster that wine in a glass bottle.

The three-layer bag that holds the wine, similar to those used in a baby bottle, permits some air to enter the wine, accelerating the aging (or spoiling) process.

"This confuses people," said Ryan Sproul, owner of Black Box Wines. "Box wines have a shorter shelf life than bottle wine. You can't put them down indefinitely." That's why many box wines have "use by" dates on them.

The message: Start drinking it. After opening, box wines have the edge. They will stay fresh up to four weeks in the fridge. An opened bottled wine survives a few days maximum after opening.

The Citizens Voice - Inside the box