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Betting on Boxed Wine

Boxed wines from Jenny & François Selections. | Photo by Eric Medsker.
Boxed wines from Jenny & François Selections. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

Among wine drinkers, ceremoniously popping a magnum has long been a symbol of bounty, bonhomie and a certain kind of in-the-know swagger. But as more and more premium wines have been converting to bulk formats like kegs and bag-in-box (BiB), the question looms: How soon until discerning hosts start trading big glass flagons for plastic “bagnums”?

Go ahead and snicker. Just a few years ago—when boxes were synonymous with cheap plonk designed for frat-house drinking games and suburban book-club benders—the idea would have been inconceivable. But increasingly, those assumptions have been called into question. According to the latest Nielsen figures, sales of 3-liter wine boxes climbed by nearly 14 percent in value and more than 12 percent by volume in 2015, and a recent Inc. magazine report revealed that the “premium” boxed wine category has expanded by 20 percent each year for the past decade, with close to 75 percent growth in 2015 alone. Behind the movement is a wave of influential, independent-minded winemakers and importers who are impressed by BiB’s economic and ecological positives and determined to prove that carefully made, small-scale wine doesn’t have to be destined for 750-ml. bottles.

In fact, the ubiquitious 750-ml. glass bottle is a relatively new phenomenon. When Marian Leitner-Waldman, co-founder of the buzzy new boxed-wine brand Archer Roose, began investigating the history of wine packaging, she was fascinated—and surprised—by what she learned. “If you look at the big picture, most wine was shipped in bulk until recently,” she explains. “It wasn’t until the 19th century that most wineries began bottling for themselves—and most only bottled the years that seemed the most promising for aging. After WWII, the U.S. became more interested in wine and importing on a bigger scale started, so in 1979 Congress standardized the 750-ml. glass bottle. Now that’s become this sacred cow, but it actually presents problems for consumers.”

Whether the concern is sustainability, value or practicality, the upsides are undeniable. BiB wines have roughly half the carbon footprint of their bottled brethren, and their recyclable cardboard and plastic components create approximately 80 percent less landfill waste (owing to reduced overall use of packaging for boxes, and the mixed success of glass recycling efforts). And because BiB’s airtight taps prevent oxygen from entering the chamber, box wines stay fresh for as long as 6 weeks after opening, and up to a year sealed.

A BiBoViNo store and café at Marché des Enfants Rouges in Le Marais, Paris | Photo by caleb krivoshey..
A BiBoViNo store and café in Paris | Photo by Caleb Krivoshey.

Finally, consider the price-and-convenience factor. A standard BiB container holds 3 liters—the equivalent to a double magnum, or four conventional 750-ml. bottles. Since material and shipping costs are lower, winemakers and importers of BiB wines can devote a larger percentage of their capital to the juice itself. On the retail end, these savings allow labels to offer premium wines that might sell for $20 in bottle for closer to $34 a box, a savings of 57 percent. True, the BiB format wasn’t designed for cellaring. (Boxed Barolos or cult Cabernets: probably not happening.) But that’s hardly a fatal flaw given that the overwhelming majority of the world’s wines are designed to be quaffed within 6 months of purchase.

The tradition-minded world of wine can be resistant to change, but evolution does happen. Take screw caps. When Kiwi winemakers grew frustrated with the inconsistencies of cork and launched the New Zealand Screw Cap Initiative in 2001, the move set the international wine community atwitter. But ultimately, the cap’s practical pluses prevailed. Over time, rigorous studies revealed that screw closures greatly reduce the risk of taint and spoilage associated with cork, without sacrificing a wine’s quality or aging potential. (Bonuses: They’re less expensive to produce and easier to open.) Today, approximately 20 percent of all the table wine bottles in the world don screw-top seals.

Coincidentally, the BiB concept also has roots Down Under. William R. Scholle, an American inventor, pioneered the technology in the late 1940s. The basic design is simple: A collapsible airtight plastic bladder rests inside a cardboard box, which gives the bag structure and makes the package easier to store and stack. The contents are accessed via an airtight built-in spigot—making it easy to dispense liquid. In 1965, Australian winemaker Thomas Angove patented the first bag-in-box “wine cask” and the rest, as they say, is history. By the ’90s, approximately two-thirds of the wine consumed in Australia was coming out of a box.

Early Adopters

If the Aussies were the first to embrace BiB’s potential, the rest of the world wasn’t far behind. Over the last 30 years, while the U.S. bulk-wine market remained stalled and dominated by low-cost, jug-wine behemoths, the Europeans—especially the Scandinavians—took the premium box-wine concept and ran with it. In Finland and Sweden, close to 50 percent of all wine is now sold in boxes.

Bruno Quenioux, a longtime champion of small, independent, terroir-driven wine
Bruno Quenioux curates the lineup at BiBoViNo in Paris. | Photo by Caleb Krivoshey.

In 2014, the first branch of BiBoViNo, a stylish boutique-cum-wine bar dedicated exclusively to bag-in-box offerings, debuted in Paris. Today, the franchise counts 28 locations throughout France, and it recently launched a new outpost in Tel Aviv, with the aim of adding upwards of 50 locations. BiBoViNo’s sunny, buzzing parlor is a masterpiece of branding and canny packaging. The walls are lined with identical lavender wine cubes, mostly priced between 20 and 40 euros, and adorned only with the company logo and the simple serif and block-letter labels of the venerable vineyards from whence the wines hail. The lineup is curated and brokered by Bruno Quenioux, a longtime champion of small, independent, terroir-driven wines. His list is heavy on the sort of traditional, low-intervention wines—like Jean-Paul Brun’s light, mineral Pinot Noir and Domaine du Haut-Planty’s organic Loire Valley Muscadet—that make wine drinkers on both sides of the Atlantic wax rhapsodic.

Across the channel, in East London’s hip Dalston neighborhood, Kirsty Tinkler is carrying the same torch. Tinkler, a food-industry veteran and self-confessed natural-wine enthusiast, got bitten by the boxed-wine bug when she noticed a new breed of options being poured by the glass and carafe at restaurants around town. “I saw that St. John [Fergus Henderson’s Michelin-starred gastropub] had begun pouring their own boxed wine, and that was my aha moment,” she says. “The more I researched it, I realized the format could be a brilliant way to make natural wines from smaller producers more affordable and accessible to the public—and create less of a carbon footprint.”

Intrigued by the possibilities, in the fall of 2015 Tinkler successfully launched a month-long pop-up called BIB Taproom. In 2016, she revived the concept for a longer, six-month run and is now in the process of opening a permanent shop, Weino BIB, that will combine retail sales of about 32 BiB wines with a menu of small plates and sips by the glass. While tracking down the selections can be a challenge, there’s a thrill to the hunt. “I just tried a sample of a BiB Syrah from Bulgaria and an amazing Zweigelt and Grüner Veltliner from Austria,” Tinkler says. “The conversation is definitely changing, and younger winemakers especially seem to understand that if boxes are a way to get thoughtful wine onto people’s tables while it’s fresh, that’s something to be happy about.”

Bringing It Home

Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François Selections in New York City. | Photo by Eric Medsker.
Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François Selections. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

If European consumers have been quicker than Americans to accept BiB’s potential, it may be because, especially in wine-growing regions, simple, well-made bulk wines—what we’d call “house wines”—have long been a fixture on tables. That tradition is what inspired Jenny Lefcourt, the force behind New York–based importing company Jenny & François Selections, to create one of the first premium boxed wines for the American market in 2007. “I lived in France for a long time and noticed that at wineries there, wine was sometimes set aside so that families could come fill their own jugs and buckets,” she says. “It’s so economical and ecological and makes so much sense for a wine you’re going to drink right away.”

Dubbing it “From the Tank,” in honor of its utilitarian roots, Lefcourt launched her line with an earthy, juicy Côtes du Rhône that, like the rest of the wines in her portfolio, reflects a low-intervention approach to viticulture. Since then, two more wines have joined the From the Tank family—a clean, bright Vin Blanc (Chardonnay) and a dry, lightly fruity Vin Rose (made from a blend of Syrah and Grenache), both of which are vinified in stainless tanks and aged in concrete at Domaine de la Patience in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Though Lefcourt initially worried the venture could be quixotic, given Americans’ lingering disdain for BiB wines, the response was immediately (and surprisingly) positive. “It turned out we were ahead of the curve,” she says. “When the wine first arrived, I walked into boutique wine shops that weren’t selling any box wines at all and all they could say was, ‘We’ve been waiting for this.’ ”

The timing was so spot on, in fact, that she soon had company. A few years after starting Village Wine Imports with an emphasis on traditional, terroir-driven wines, Michael Petrillo decided to try his hand at an upscale bag-in-box offering. “I don’t like bombastic wines, or wines that are high in alcohol or have a lot of wood on them,” he says. “I wanted to see if we could do box wines that were traditional but also commercially viable.”

boxed wine
Boxed wines from Archer Roose. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

Like Lefcourt, Petrillo took his cue from the easy-drinking young wines he had encountered on his travels, and he was convinced there was a market for a similar product among discerning drinkers back home. “Imagine you’re in some nondescript bistro in Paris and the waiter brings you a carafe with no name on it and it’s delicious,” Petrillo says. “You think to yourself ‘Why can’t I always drink like this?’ ”

Named “VRAC”—an abbreviation of “en vrac,” the French term for “in bulk”—Petrillo’s first box wine, also a Côtes du Rhône, hit the New York market in 2007. Beyond careful sourcing, his biggest task was initially education. “When we first introduced the bag-in-box it was a hard sell because the notion in the States was still that boxes only held shitty plonk,” he says. “We tried all sorts of tricks, like transferring the wine into decanters, to help consumers catch up to the notion that there could be wines like this that are actually good and a good value.”

Eventually, buzz started to build—and when, in 2008, he added a rosé to the lineup, that was the turning point. “The rosé has been a whole different animal,” Petrillo says. “For the last four years, we’ve seen a 50 percent growth every year. Every year we think it’s going to plateau, but it doesn’t.”

In 2008, France-focused importer Eric Dubourg also joined the fray with Wineberry boxes, moving a portion of wines he sourced in bottles into bags and solid wood “crates” crafted in Bordeaux. Dubourg’s boxes distinguished themselves from the competition with their hefty, rustic packaging and emphasis on specific varietals and domaines—as well as a price (around $40 for 3L) that reflected their serious aims. “Using a wooden box instead of cardboard was an efficiency decision as well as an aesthetic one,” Dubourg says. “The established image of box wine was not good, and if people are not attracted to a wine, they won’t buy it.”

Though all wines are sold under the Wineberry label, each winemaker Dubourg partners with—from Château Tassin in Bordeaux to Château Réal Martin in Provence—handles their own packaging, bagging and boxing, which Dubourg says allows producers to make the best wines possible, the way they are intended. “My job is to get out of the way let them do it,” he says.

Given the success these BiB importers have enjoyed, it’s surprising that more American winemakers haven’t followed their lead. Aside from a few outliers, like Washington State’s Badger Mountain Vineyard, which has been producing a pair of popular organic BiB wines called “Pure Red” and “Pure White” since 2006, domestic bag-in-box wines remain a rarity on U.S. shop shelves. (That is, premium BiB wines; California-based Franzia continues to be one of the best-selling table wines in the world.)

One practical explanation may be the logistical hurdles facing small winemakers who must convert to new materials and learn new packaging procedures. Unlike Europe, where an industry of offsite co-packers has arisen to bag wines destined for export, America has no equivalent option for outsourcing. Still, as wine drinkers become more accustomed to good wine coming in all sorts of packaging—especially social-media friendly ones, like the craze for mini cans—it’s a safe bet that quality American BiB wines won’t stay a niche market for much longer.

The Warby Parker of Wine?

Head over to Instagram and peruse the #respectthebox hashtag. Like #roseallday before it, this is more than just a hashtag: it’s a trendspotter’s rallying cry. Nestled among the 2×2 frames of pastel pedicures and striped beach towels you’ll find the doodle-bedecked boxes of Bridge Lane Wines, a young Long Island–based label that’s the fresh-faced sibling to Lieb Cellars, one of the region’s most established and acclaimed estates. Winemaker Russell Hearn, a native Australian who moved to the U.S. to make wine more than 30 years ago, helped the winery launch their bag-in-box lineup in 2014. The motivation was simple strategy, he says: “Lieb was always going to be our flagship, but looking at the market, we felt there was an opportunity to make approachable, affordable wines in alternative packaging and fill a void that other wineries weren’t taking advantage of,” he says. That hunch paid off. Seven months into 2017, more than 40 percent of Bridge Lane’s wine sales were in kegs and bags.

Archer Roose founders Marian Leitner-Waldman and David Waldman. | Photo by Michael Piazza.
Archer Roose founders Marian Leitner-Waldman and David Waldman. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

The best sellers are the rosé and Sauvignon Blanc, though the lineup has grown to include a white Merlot, a Chardonnay, and a red blend—all of which are made on site from a combination of estate-grown and locally leased fruit. “We’re sort of flying under the radar so far,” says Hearn. “To my knowledge, we’re making the only premium BiB wine on the East Coast, definitely on Long Island, and no one has copied us yet.”

If those Instagram images are any indication, Bridge Lane is especially popular with one group that may matter most to BiB’s future in the U.S.: millennials. Millennials have, by the sheer fact of their age, had less time to develop the hardwired prejudices against boxed wine that stymie some boomers and Gen Xers. And they’re thirsty. According to the Wine Market Council, millennials were responsible for 42 percent of the wine consumed in the U.S. in 2015.

Archer Roose, one of the most exciting new brands on the American BiB wine scene, is a playful, energetic response to those insights. The brainchild of entrepreneurial couple David Waldman and Marian Leitner-Waldman, the company launched in 2015 with three varietals from Chile, including a Carménère. While they’re not winemakers themselves, this was not the couple’s first foray into the wine business. Waldman helped build Pheasant’s Tears, a Georgian winery that became a leader in the natural-wine community, and lessons learned from that experience informed the new venture. “Over dinner one night, David started talked about how it drove him crazy to have to spend more on shipping and packaging than on the wine itself,” Leitner-Waldman recalls. “We started obsessing over how to cut out the middleman and bring a better product to the consumer.”

Sketching out a profile for Archer Roose wines, the couple did extensive market research, including a millenials-only blind tasting of hundreds of bottles in the $15 to $20 price range. “Our logic was that the industry is still catering to baby-boomer palates,” says Leitner-Waldman. “But people’s palates are changing.”

With the first three wines selling briskly and garnering positive reviews, the couple is focused on creative but deliberate expansion, adding a Provençal rosé to the lineup this past April and a French Chardonnay set to launch early next year. The long-term goal? A variety of formats for accesible wines, including a portfolio of BiB wines from around the world that make drinking well an everyday occurrence. Or, as Leitner-Waldman puts it, “splendory without snobbery.”


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