Despite the almost reflexive elevation of noses at the mention of boxed wines, one significant detail undermines these smug dismissals: the idea of putting wine in a box, or more accurately, in a bag within a box, is brilliant. The packaging solves significant problems that have dogged wine for millennia, whether it was stored in urn, amphora, barrel, stone crock or bottle.
No matter how elegant or handy those containers may be, their fixed volumes permit air to enter when wine is removed. Air attacks and degrades wine, making it imperative to drink up what remains, usually within no more than a few days.
The bag-in-a-box, to use the unlovely industry term, resolves this problem of oxidation by eliminating space for air to occupy. Wine can stay fresh for weeks once it has been opened. But while the packaging may be ingenious, what’s inside has been a problem.
Quite simply, the quality of the boxed wines sold in this country has been uniformly bad. Those in the wine trade have tried to explain this sad fact by citing an entrenched public perception of boxed wines as wretched. What’s the point of putting better wines in boxes, they said, if people won’t buy them?
Even so, the logic of placing wine in a box is so compelling that sooner or later, some producers were going to take a chance that better wines would sell this way. I have had isolated examples in the last few years of just the sort of fresh, lively, juicy wines that thrive in the bag-in-a-box environment. Did this signal that overall quality was turning a corner?
To answer the question, the wine panel recently tasted 20 wines from three-liter boxes. We tasted 12 reds and 8 whites, without regard to price or provenance. The only guideline for our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, was to seek out producers who were striving for quality. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Colin Alevras, the service manager at the Dutch, and Alexander LaPratt, the sommelier at db Bistro Moderne.
Let me backtrack for a moment. To say that consumers have rejected boxes is not strictly accurate. At the lowest echelon of quality, the realm of domestic burgundies and rhine wines, a great deal of boxed wine is sold. These boxes, largely in five-liter sizes, the equivalent of 6.67 bottles, which might sell for as little as $12, did especially well just after the economic meltdown, said Danny Brager of the Nielsen Company, which tracks sales.
But sales are relatively flat now. The biggest growth in boxed wines, Mr. Brager said, was in the three-liter, higher-priced category: that is, $20 or more. Sales last year were up 19 percent, he said, and this year through June they are up 16 percent.
So let’s get to the crucial question: How were the wines?
Without a doubt, the choices are far superior to what was available five years ago. Among the wines we liked best, we found more than a few that we’d be happy to serve as a house pour, especially among the reds. We liked the boxes brought in by two small importers who specialize in French wines: the Wineberry Boxes from Wineberry America, and From the Tank from Jenny François Selections, who focus on natural wines.
Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny François became a fan of boxed wines while living in France for 10 years. “I always thought it was a fantastic way of serving and conserving wine,” she said. “I didn’t see any disadvantages to it, except that people still have a negative image of them in the U.S.”
Since the From the Tank wines, one white and one red, were introduced in 2008, she said, they have taken off nationally. “I’m pretty bowled over by the success of it,” she said. “We were cautious at first, but we just kept selling out.”
Wineberry began with its boxes two years ago, and now sells three reds, two whites and a rosé. The Wineberry boxes are unusual in that they are made of wood rather than cardboard, which gives them heft, solidity and a certain personality the cardboard boxes lack.
“We live in the most sophisticated area in the world,” said Eric Dubourg, the founder of Wineberry, which is based in New York. “People care about what things look like. Still, the quality of the wine is the main point.”