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Box wines have finally come of age and they make environmental sense too

By Tyler Colman

Italy’s Agriculture Ministry announced recently that some wines that receive the government’s quality assurance label may now be sold in boxes. That’s right, Italian wine is going green, and for some connoisseurs, the sky might as well be falling.

Chilean Clos box wines are a top seller in South America, including Ecuador.

But the sky isn’t falling. Wine in a box makes sense environmentally and economically. Indeed, vintners in the United States would be wise to embrace the trend that is slowly gaining acceptance worldwide.

Wine in a box has been around for more than 30 years — though with varying quality. The Australians were among the first to popularize it. And hardly a fridge in the south of France is complete without a box of rosé. In the U.S., by contrast, boxed wine has had trouble escaping a down-market image. But now that wine producers are talking about reducing their carbon footprint — that is, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the transportation of wine – selling the beverage in alternative, lighter packaging instead of heavier glass seems like the right thing to do.

More than 90 percent of North American wine production occurs on the U.S. West Coast, but because the majority of consumers live east of the Mississippi, a large part of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with wine comes from simply trucking it from the vineyard to tables on the East Coast. A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters of wine and generates about 5.2 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions when it travels from a vineyard in California to a store in New York. A 3-liter box generates about half the emissions per 750 milliliters. Switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

But here’s another reason to sell wine in a box. America has become the largest wine market in the world, overtaking Italy, and France will soon follow. (This is total consumption, not per person; the U.S. is still well behind by the latter measure.) As Americans drink more wine, they will be drinking it not only on special occasions like dates and weddings, but also on Monday nights with pizza. That’s a lot of wine — and potentially a big carbon footprint.

Although some sommeliers may scoff at wine from a plastic spigot — just as they did a screw-off caps which turned out to better than corks, it was determined — boxes are perfect for table wines that don’t need to age, which is to say, all but a relative handful of the top wines from around the world. What’s more, boxed wine is superior to glass bottle storage in resolving that age-old problem of not being able to finish a bottle in one sitting. Once open, a box preserves wine for about four weeks compared with only a day or two for a bottle. Boxed wine may be short on charm, but it is long on practicality.

Which leads to a final reason for boxed wine: It’s so much more economical. Having an affordable glass of wine may be the best way to keep our 25-year bull market for wine consumption running. It also would help keep per-glass prices of wine from rising as the dollar falls.

The main obstacle to a smaller carbon footprint for wine is the frequently abysmal quality of wine put in boxes. But that’s an easy fix: Raise the quality.

In the past few years, the boxed wine sold in America has shown some signs of improvement. There’s been wine in a stylish cardboard tube made by a top winemaker in Burgundy. There’s a good, old-vine grenache from the Pyrenees sold in a box. A succulent unoaked malbec from organically grown grapes in Argentina is now available in the United States thanks to the 1-liter TetraPak, which is also being used by three renegade Californians who have a line of wines that are sold in 250-milliliter packages – about the size of juice boxes, but without straws. And then, of course, there’s the news from Italy.

Producers everywhere need to deliver better wine in a box – and make it snappy. Perhaps they will if consumers start to demand that everyday wines that don’t need to age in a bottle be sold in a box. If you’re sorry about the change, squeeze off another well-preserved, affordable, low-carbon serving of boxed wine and mull it over.
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Tyler Colman is the author of “Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink,” and he blogs at DrVino.com. This article first appeared in the New York Times in August 2008 and has been updated.

13 thoughts on “Box wines have finally come of age and they make environmental sense too

    1. “Too bad, so sad, your Dad,” was the punch line to one of my favorite “Boys’ Life” jokes. On the other hand, the wine’s fine.

  1. I don’t care what they put it in it is the price here 2.5 to 3 times the price for South American wine.

  2. Great idea. Can’t argue with any of it. Ninety % of consumers, in a blind taste test, couldn’t tell if a decent wine came out of a box or a bottle with a fancy label.

  3. My Favorite!
    “Cardboardeaux” ! ! !
    I swear, if you pour Clos out of any fine wine bottle or do a blind taste test with it – – – – it will score just fine with your friends at your next dinner party.
    Which is probably the reason they sell 1,000 tanker truck loads of it year after year.
    It’s a nice blend.

    Do you remember Spencer Christian – the weather guy on Good Morning America about 100 years ago?
    He was an oenophile.
    And one day they did a blind taste test with him with 6 or 8 wines. He loved them all and went on about their fruit, flower, and herb aromas.
    ALL – were poured from a box.
    He was obviously stunned and humbled.

    On a recent trip to Spain I was on the Plaza Mayor of a city and peeked in to the open door of a kitchen that was pouring house wines out of 15 or 16 Litre Boxes.
    They all have a plastic bag liner attached to the spigot to not allow air to enter to prevent oxidation.

    Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.

    Clos is produced by Concha y Toro the largest producer of wines from Latin America and is one of the global leaders in its field. It is headquartered in Santiago, Chile.

  4. I have no issue with wine dispensed from the box per se. My problem is that it cannot be aerated except in the glass.

    While in the States and other countries High-quality wine can be found in boxes, here in Ecuador the varieties (including Clos) are of inferior quality.

    Why should I buy Clos when I can find very nice Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon in a bottle for 5,88$

  5. If anyone is objecting to this writer’s assumption that lighter disposable cartons are better than heavier reusable bottles (though they’re not being reused…) Ecuador is turning this Tetra-Pak cartons into strong, durable roofiing. The factory is in Quito, and they ship nationwide.

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