Philadelphia Inquirer: Wine in a box

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 25, 2008.  The article is reprinted solely for educational purposes.  It is intended to offer insight into the history of wine education in Philadelphia, and our place within that context.  Links to the original article and author are given below.

Wine in a box: Earth-friendly, and the taste is ‘actually decent’

Eco-friendly boxed wine gains in sales and taste

Author: Sandy Bauers

Many people think conservation requires hardship and sacrifice.

Me, I’ve been sitting on the front porch with my feet up, sipping wine. To be sure, growers here offer opportunities to drink locally, the varying quality notwithstanding. But my greening has led me to the new wine boxes, even though the contents may come from as far away as California and Australia.

Boxed wine emerged years ago, mostly as a convenience. You could take it on picnics and there was no bottle to break. No worries if you forgot the corkscrew. Now, liquor stores have entire shelves of boxes. And they all cheerily tout their eco-benefits: Chiefly, they’re lighter, so it doesn’t require as much fuel to transport them – before or after you drink what’s inside.

The wine – four bottles’ worth per typical box – is actually in a plastic bladder inside. You punch out a perforated hole on the side of the box to extract a tiny spigot. I took samples up to my bathroom scale. The box weighed seven pounds, four bottles weighed 12. Multiply that by the truckload!

New York wine author Tyler Colman has. It’s an extension of his earlier transportation study with sustainability expert Pablo Paster when they found that although France is farther from Philly than California, Bordeaux by boat has a smaller carbon footprint than Napa by truck. A votre sant!

Clearly, no one is going to cellar a box, and there’s something special about Brunello in a bottle. But consider that Colman figures boxed wine generates half the emissions of bottled. If 97 percent of the wines made to be consumed in a year were boxed, he says, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two million tons. Or about 400,000 cars’ worth.

It also turns out that most cardboard these days is made from recycled cardboard, while most wine bottles are made from virgin silica.
When you’ve finished the last drop, the cardboard can be recycled yet again. Indeed, cardboard is “one of the hottest commodities around right now,” says David Biddle of the Greater Philadelphia Recycling Council.

There’s not much demand for recycled glass. Still another bennie of the box: Less waste. The bladder collapses as you “pour,” so no air gets in. The wine stays fresh for weeks. Apparently, consumers are embracing the box. Some estimate it’s 50 percent of the market in northern Europe.

Colman just got back from the south of France, where “every fridge has a box of ros” come August. 

Earlier this summer, Italy’s agriculture department authorized producers to use boxes. 

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which offers 87 boxed wine products, says the category’s popularity has risen steadily and now accounts for 12 percent of regular wine sales. Nationwide, it’s 16 percent, according to an Impact Databank study published by M. Shanken Communications, the parent company of Wine Spectator.

Perhaps just one vital question remains. Saving the planet is worth toasting, but how does the stuff taste?
My diligent sampling notwithstanding, I’m no expert.

Keith Wallace is. The director of the Wine School of Philadelphia says that while the early boxed wines were “evil concoctions,” the new ones are “actually decent.” 

Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan also rates the new generation as “a little closer to decent table wine, with some of the better ones even getting a little earthy with some tannins, and a little more challenging flavors.”

Aside from the environment, I want better wine for less money. Boxes might help. Actually, Colman thinks the customers are ahead of the companies.

After getting so much lip about screw caps, some vintners can’t even imagine putting wine in a box. 

Boxed wine will no doubt lead to all sorts of goofy witticisms. Will it blow people’s corks? Is the “nose” of boxed wine a tad papery?
What I want to know is whether I’m drinking outside the box, or inside. 

Perhaps I should just take a glass out to the front porch to ponder it.

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