Thanks so much for the reactions to my op-ed, “Drink Outside the Box,” in Monday’s NYT. The interest astonishingly drove it to the #1 most emailed story on nytimes.com! (And then some guy named Mikhail Gorbachev came along and knocked me off the list.) With the interest has also come reactions and I thought a post was in order to respond to some of the many important issues you raised both on the previous posting on this site as well as in the comments section on the Times’ site.
One point I’d like to underscore is that by far the majority wines in the US are consumed, oh, about an hour after purchase. There’s a joke in the wine trade that we Americans do have wine cellars–they’re called the back seat of the car.
Another important point is about freshness. Wine bottled with cork closure can be with oxidized or, worse, plagued by TCA, also known as cork taint, which afflicts annoyingly high percentage of wines–nobody knows for sure, but one bottle per case is certainly a plausible guess. Do you really want to donate eight percent of your wine budget to spoiled wines gods? For box wine, this is not an issue since there is no cork.
Finally, I’m really excited that nine out of every ten respondents in the poll say they would try good wine in a box. I think wine consumers–or a strong subset of consumers–are really ahead of the trade on this issue. With good wine, box wine’s longtime stigma can be used as a counter-culture sign of hipsters!
Okay, let’s roll with your questions and comments about recycling, aesthetics, wine picks, and more!
How is putting wine in a plastic bag with a plastic spigot more environmentally friendly than using recyclable glass?
— GG, Minnesota
This issue came up a lot, in fact, more than even the issue of aesthetics. But the trouble is that new glass is just as cheap to make from virgin materials as opposed to recycled and therefore has a low commodity value. With low levels of recycling in America, the majority of glass will end up in landfills and the plastic bag, if not recycled, will take up less landfill space. The cardboard of bag-in-box wines is recyclable. And even if the glass is not a petroleum byproduct in and of itself, it is so heavy that it requires so much carbon to be burned to transport it from the winery to the consumer. In the U.S., as I point out in the op-ed, 90% of American wine is made in California yet much of the population lives east of the Mississippi. So transportation is a huge component of the greenhouse gas emissions of a bottle of wine. With ultralight packaging, it’s wine with a little bit of packaging that’s being transported; with glass it’s often mostly glass with some wine in it.
The PCB effect of the plastic bags, inside the box and recycling the box were mentioned here. But, what about the oil it takes to make the plastic (non-renewable resource, right?) and is that plastic bag then recycleable?
— Unintended consequence, Lewisville, TX
Plastic bags are not made from plastics that have been known to leach chemicals such as BP-A. They are also likely to be recyclable.
I agree with the previous poster about the recyclability of the plastic wine bag with spigot. While it takes up less landfill space, it still can’t be (easily) recycled. And box sellers should make it easy to remove said box for recycling. –BL Dell
True, the plastic spigot is a slight minus. Perhaps one day you will be able to keep the spigot and stick it onto the next bag-in-box for the next use.
As for the bags, they are really tough, so much so that I use them for flotation in my boat, filled moderately with air (to allow for expansion in hot weather). I also use them for carrying and storing water, and as camping pillows. — Alan S., Maine
If only I were so resourceful!
Is there a taste difference between wine in plastic and wine in a bottle? –Sandy
It’s hard to make the comparison because a producer usually either puts all the production in glass bottles or all boxes. However, I did try the Cuvée de Pena three years ago when it was available in both formats. I could taste no difference blind. I was discussing this with another wine writer yesterday and he said that he went to a press tasting last year and they poured two samples of the same wine blind, one from bag-in-box and one from bottle. He said that one tasted fresh, the other tired. When it was revealed, he preferred the one from the box.
In Venice I enjoyed taking our own bottles to the wine store and having our choice of barreled wine from which to fill up! Saves on packaging and you purchase any amount you want/need. –Judith
Great thought, Judith. This really is the ideal from a carbon footprint perspective since it reduces packaging and reuses materials, such as tanks and bottles (though as a wine lover, I’d want to be sure about the freshness of the wine in the barrel). Unfortunately, it’s really not an option in the U.S. right now.
Could you please help me out with your math about the carbon footprint. what you say seems about extreme. if it’s true i’ll shout it from the mountain top with you, but i need to see the math. where/how did you calculate those numbers? –David Eifrig
The calculations are based on the carbon calculator that I developed in my research with Pablo Paster, a sustainability metrics engineer. You can see a summary of our findings here with a link to the full paper. You’ll see that we evaluated seven components of the land, vineyard, winery, packaging production and transportation, which often has the most impact on the final carbon footprint of a wine. As we stated, not all miles are created equal: air freight is worse than trucking, which in turn is worse than rail. The most efficient from a CO2e perspective is sea freight. That explains why for a wine lover in New York, a bottle of Bordeaux has a smaller carbon footprint than a bottle of the same wine trucked in from California. See more about our green line for wine.
I seriously question whether the “400,000 less cars” statistic is accurate. — Tom Hilde, Minneapolis
According to Jon Fredrikson, author of the Fredrikson Gomberg annual report on the US wine industry, Americans purchased 314 million cases of wine in 2007. I conservatively estimated each bottle to have a C02 intensity of 1.8kgs C02 emissions or 21.6kgs per case — or 6.782 million metric tons. The emissions of a box is .53 of a bottle (normalized per ounce). That would be 3.594 million tons if the switch were entirely from bottles to box (a savings of 3.188 million tons of C02). If the average American car travels 12,000 miles a year and has a rate of 20 miles per gallon it produces 12,000 pounds of CO2e or 5.4 metric tons. Divide 3.188 million tons by 5.4 tons per auto = the C02 emissions of 590,000 cars. Actually more than I stated in the article.
Carton boxes are ugly, unfriendly to taste, extremely common and all-around annoying. The ritual of uncorking a bottle, airing the wine, pouring in the exact right way has already been butchered by the insane screwcap craze. Take the bottle away, along with the pleasure of looking at how the light plays on the color of the wine (not to mention the label etc), and we’re well and truly lost. –Claudia
Well, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While I would not bring a 3L box of wine to a host (unless I were staying a long time), I think it is a beautiful thing to have a fresh, low-cost option for wine by the glass for weeknights. I have brought the succulent Yellow + Blue organic malbec in 1L TetraPak (find this wine) though to friends–it’s a great conversation piece.
* Great article on box wine, really enjoyed. We have been looking into for a few years for some of our brands, hopefully this will renew the conversation.–Susan
* We are working on a box from Friuli. I was hoping to roll out the white by next spring but it looks like we might need to accelerate the program a bit.–Jim
Excellent! So glad we might soon have more options. Beyond the picks that I mention in the article, someone else emailed about a new Cotes du Rhone 3L box that will be out this fall from the importer World Wide Wine. And something may be in the works from a Long Island winery. Let’s hope more importers and producers follow!
You are a killjoy. There are much more effective ways to reduce carbon emissions; why don’t you focus on those instead of this relatively minor problem. –wilburpup
True enough, wine consumption is but a mere canapé in our overall carbon diet. You will reduce your carbon footprint more by turning down your thermostat in the winter, taking public transportation instead of your own car, cycling to work, and eating less meat to name a few things–as well as throwing away the keys to the stretch Hummer! But the fact is that almost everything we consume has a carbon footprint so if we’re thinking about it for something like wine, hopefully we’re already thinking about the bigger things too. Also, since I’m a wine enthusiast, I’m not advocating giving up wine–why not perform your own carbon offset by doing something like giving up bottled water?
The excellent image is by Grady McFerrin and ran with the story.