Box wine: responses to your comments on Drink Outside the Box

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! (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.

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19 Responses to “Box wine: responses to your comments on Drink Outside the Box”

  1. Yes!! Tyler, I agree with you that box wine has its place. I too would hesitate to bring a box of wine to a hostess, but I do have some in my weeknight, everyday stash for myself at home. I’m also a proponent of recycling and reducing our carbon footprint. Thanks for pushing things forward with this issue.

  2. What if you buy wine to cellar? then you stick to Glass?

  3. @ Melissa – Thanks!

    @ Weston – Yes, that’s my rule of thumb.

  4. I’m with you 100% on box wine; I think the package is great. I particularly love being able to have a box open for days or weeks without oxidation, and it’s a big bonus that the format is environmentally friendly.

    For a while, my local (high-end but socially conscious) market was carrying JM Brocard’s “Jurassique,” a minerally AC Bourgogne very much in the Chablis style, and not bad at all, especially considering the price and convenience of the format. I bought it for some time as my regular house wine, in part because I liked it, in part out of principle, to support the market’s leadership in carrying the product. Their wine buyer said he was looking for a red in a similar vein, with no luck. Sadly, the market no longer carries even the white, I’m guessing because the product wasn’t moving fast enough.

    I’d love to see more quality wines in the bag-in-box format. It will take all of us to make that happen: consumers will have to demand the product and buy it when available; retailers, importers, and distributors will have to demand, carry, and showcase more quality box wines; and producers will have to show leadership by putting more good wines in box. I think we’ll get there, and articles like yours are definitely a big help. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for investing the time in responding to those comments, you’ve obviously hit upon a hot topic. I’d be interested to see if there’s an actual rise in demand for the box.

  6. Like so many others here, I am in favor of the trend toward reduced-footprint wine delivery, despite perceived aesthetic issues. (There will always be the opportunity for ceremony with a glass bottle (read: style) even if the weekly house wine favors box adoption (read: substance).

    But what I wonder is how/when/if the WSWA is going to get behind this trend, much less the small producers, who already have their hands full.

  7. I had a chance to travel to St. Tropez, France a couple of summers ago and was surprised to see that my French host and hostess stored the majority of their regional wines in boxes. This was the same trip where I discovered that not all pink wine is sweet. To this day the most delicious Roses I’ve ever had were from those boxes. This one is up there as well!HER. Though it does come in a bottle it’s also organic, environmental toss up?

  8. […] Colman (AKA Dr Vino) has been talking about boxed wine a lot this week (post1 post2), including an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday. I am very much in support of what he […]

  9. Boxed wine has potential if you make or drink common, inexpensive wine. It has to be the sort of wine you can bottle a half dozen times a year because of the short shelf life of the box. You don’t bottle when the wine is ready, you bottle when the inventory is about gone. Inevitably, despite care and good inventory control, pallets of year old boxes are sitting in a warehouse somewhere with sub quality product. Hopefully, you provide prominent visible pull dates on the product and take the wine back. A decent Sonoma or Napa Cabernet would have to bring about $100 for a 3 liter for which there is no market. And someone paying $100 just might be a little more critical of product deterioration. But for common Australian or Californian wine and the wine consumer who can stand drinking four or more consecutive bottles of the same wine it probably has some merit. Odd that bottles and corks have never presented much of a problem for me. But I like variety.

  10. This discussion is relevant to me. I am quoting UK customers for wines ex South of France and seem to re work the sums over and over again. I am trying to reduce the costs…without insulting the producers! The ‘dry goods’ costs are always the stumbling block, not the cost of the wine.
    Having spoken with various wholeslaers in the UK I would far rather offer better quality of wine and present the wine in 5 or 10 litre BiB formats (for restaurants). The sums work out…the only problem may be the snob factor and the education…it may take time, but we will get there.

  11. Tyler,

    Great job all around on this article, post and discussion. Thank you for your detailed research, reasoned approach, and head-on tackling of sometimes aggressive comments. The popularity of the article and follow-up are well-deserved.

    Personally, as a consumer, I would like to see more wine package options. I like to drink a glass of wine with dinner every night. I want it to be pleasant, drinkable, go well with food, and not break the bank. Also, because I’m only drinking one glass, I need it to keep for a few days in the fridge — a problem with bottled wine. The fact that boxed wine accomplishes this and is also potentially less expensive and more “green” makes it a great solution. I’d like to see greater variety of wines in boxes of different sizes. 3 liters is daunting, and it would get boring drinking the same wine for weeks. 1 liter and smaller would be perfect. I have to try that Yellow+Blue malbec.

    The only concern that gives me pause is the short shelf life issue raised by Morton Leslie. Does boxed wine have a shorter shelf life than bottled? Why would that be?

    I sense that this is on the verge of a tipping point. If the start-up costs of these package options are not prohibitive, wine suppliers would be wise to dip their toes in and gauge the market response.

  12. Going green is great and saving money on wine is too! My family owns a nice size winery in Illinois and we just (Literally 4 days ago)put 5 of our top selling wines in box to be the first in illinois leading the way to better recycling and staying green!

    Kori Faltz

  13. […] Box wine: responses to your comments on Drink Outside the Box Dr. Vino – Chicago,IL,USA I have brought the succulent Yellow + Blue organic Malbec in 1L TetraPak (find this wine) though to friends–it’sa great conversation piece. … […]

  14. Great thought provoking article.

    Do you know what % of carbon emissions are from the transportation of a glass bottle of wine as a portion of the overall production and transportation?

    Are any wineries addressing the production issue?
    I can picture it now, Napa Valley covered in lovely windmills.

  15. I guess I should have found this before posting my question, but I think this very thorough paper answers my question (p.13) and many more to the issue of enjoying wine with a conscience.

  16. At the liquor store where I work/manage we must average between four to six cases of box wine sales on an average day. The majority of it is the bland and insipid offerings of Almaden, Franzia and Peter Vella brands. The customers do not seem to care about the quality of the wine but rather that it is cheap, plentiful and easy to drink. I`m tired of unloading it off of the delivery truck every week and stocking the shelves with it. I will not change my attitude regarding this plonk until more and better wines ultimately make it into the various boxes and tetra packs.It does seem to be the future for much of the wine produced for immediate or near term consumption.

  17. Great posts Tyler. Some people are still missing the point though. Most focused on the Carbon Footprint issue, but I think a bigger case for box wine is storage, both in longevity and space. Sometimes my wife doesn’t want wine and I do, so when I open a bottle, I have to wonder if I’m going to want to drink it tomorrow, or if it will work with our menu the next day. How much better to just pour myself a glass or two and not worry about the rest of a bottle going to waste.

    As far as space goes, you’d be surprised how many homes I’ve seen, in a rather affluent area, that have full wine racks sitting on the kitchen counter by the window. Instead, box wine can store comfortably in a sealed cool pantry, a closet on the floor, or in the fridge, all great options to avoid compromising wine quality.

    A reader on the original post commented on the romance of opening a bottle with a cork and mastering the pour. I tend to find the romance comes from the quality of the wine, food, and company of the evening, not from the storage medium. Perhaps it can be illustrated this way: Is the romance found in the plastic food wrapper you bring home from the store, or the experience you have when you enjoy your first bite?

    Better quality wine in box is long overdue, and today’s consumer isn’t foolish enough to turn up their nose at something that has been associated with Plonk in the past, they’ll just have to be marketed to correctly. The acceptance of higher end wines sealed with twist-offs is proof that they can.

  18. […] of consumer rejection and the scathing media scrutiny. But in the US it has been estimated that boxed wine could reduce up to the equivalent of 400 000 cars’ carbon emissions. So if every winery […]

  19. No matter how good the wine being bagged gets, and no matter how good the oxygen transmission level of the component materials gets, you’ll always have some degree of “stripping”, where the sealant layer of the bag film (or, the bag liner) strips aromatics from the wine, leaving it, well, sort of “muted”

    Not making it bad, just a little “flatter” than it would have been if it were bottled…

    Agreed Bag in Box makes for a good “Value Pack” for wine, and most definitely has a place…I don’t see the packaging format as very viable for package displacements of less than 3 litres.


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