Of the many wonderful things we might think of as coming in a box—a diamond ring, a Big Mac, or a special gift from Justin Timberlake—wine is still not among them. A friend opens her refrigerator to break out a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, but instead of removing a bottle, she squeezes off a portion of wine from a 3L box perched on a shelf inside. Apologies and embarrassment ensues, as the host feels caught in a compromising position. After all, wine in a box is so…low brow.
Or is it?
A recent report in the industry magazine Vineyard and Winery Management points to bag-in-box wines as the fastest growing category among table wines nationwide. In the last quarter of 2009, for instance, while table wine sales overall grew just slightly more than 2 percent in the U.S., sales of 3L bag-in-box wines grew by nearly 23 percent. So it was just a matter of time until savvy Virginia winemakers got into the act. Out on Route 20S, Michael Shaps and Philip Stafford are preparing to launch what they say will be the state’s first bag-in-box wine product under their Virginia Wineworks label.
“It’s going to help us to be more competitive, eliminating a lot of packaging costs,” Shaps says. Specifically, he says, in the restaurant trade, Virginia Wineworks boxed wine will be able to go toe-to-toe with California wines. Naturally, by paring down packaging, boxed wines also carry a smaller carbon footprint. According to one manufacturer of the bag-in-box packaging (which, obviously, has a vested interest in positive stats), boxed wine uses 91 percent less packaging than bottled wine and has only 21 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the bottled variety.
There’s the freshness issue, too. As the inimitable wine blogger Dr. Vino pointed out in the New York Times a couple of years ago, because the bladder inside the box collapses as the wine empties out, thus eliminating oxygen, a box can keep wine drinkable for about four weeks. Anyone who’s approached a half-drunk bottle from the weekend on a Monday or Tuesday knows that most bottled wines can barely last that long. As the good doctor wrote, “boxed wine may be short on charm, but it is long on practicality.”
Yes, but what about the taste? That is often the rub, and the true source of your hostess’s shame when she’s seen using a spigot to refill your glass. Well, industry reports point to better and better wines that are getting the cardboard treatment.
And as far as Virginia Wineworks getting into a box goes, are you really worried? Remember that the winemaker is Shaps, who has distinguished himself at every price point, whether his $80-plus Shaps & Roucher-Sarrazin Burgundy, his mid-tier eponymous label made in good ol’ Virginny or the entry level selections ($14-$16 each) of Virginia Wineworks. The boxed wine, by the way, which equals four bottles in quantity, will sell for about $30. Look for it at local wine retailers in the fall.
Still, while the quality of Wineworks’ product is likely to remain constant, there is one change coming, namely the label. As previously reported, distributors sent word back to Stafford and Shaps that the burly chaps pictured by a wine barrel on the original label just weren’t cutting it with the ladies—who, after all, make the majority of wine purchases. So, it was back to the drawing board for a more delicate and streamlined label, horizontally oriented and resembling a lacy outline of a fern. Trés féminin, indeed. The only question is: How will it look on a box?