Wineries Learn to Think Inside the Box

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 2:55 PM

NEW YORK -- Composer-turned-writer Steph Waller considers herself something of a wine connoisseur.

But she isn't seduced by the sweet smell of cork or the curve of a narrow glass neck. Instead, the California native swoons over a glass poured straight from the box.

Waller is one of a growing group of wine drinkers turning to the box rather than the bottle. With better wine varieties now available in boxes, wineries are attempting to give the category a new identity far from the rowdy boating trips and drunken fraternity parties that gave box vino its cheap, low-quality image.

The effort seems to be slowly paying off. Box wine is now the fastest growing wine category. According to data from AC Nielsen, three liter box wine volume grew 44 percent in the past year, compared to a three percent gain in overall table wine volume.

"It's gaining tremendous acceptance by the consumer," said Ben Dollard, president of Pacific Wine Partners, a division of Constellation Brands. "It's just the tip of the iceberg."

Vintners have been doing a good deal of experimenting in the last few years. Wine now even comes in plastic bottles and cans. Although wine has been packaged in a box for some time, the new boxes aren't like the five-liter jugs of sweet, headache-inducing wines of the past. Although those are still readily available, there are now premium varieties on the market which show a bit more complexity with hints of berry, apple or oak.

Of course, the premium entries are more expensive. For example, a Chardonnay can run $20 for a box that contains the equivalent of four bottles whereas the lower quality five-liter boxes sell for between $6 and $10 for more than 6 bottles of wine. The premium boxes are still a steal, however, since one quality bottle can run anywhere from $10 to $30 or more.

Box wine manufacturers can afford to charge less for quality since the packaging materials are far less expensive. Morningstar analyst Matt Reilly said, for example, that bottling a $4 or $5 bottle of wine can cost $1 whereas a box can cost a tenth of that.

And of course, you can't beat the convenience. You can take a box of wine just about anywhere or you can leave it at home and not worry that it will go bad. Box wines typically stay fresh for as long as four weeks after they're opened because the boxes contain a vacuum-sealed bag that prevents the wine from being exposed to air.

"A box just kind of sits in the fridge and I don't have to think about it," said Waller, who is also writing a book called "Box of Wine: A Cultural Icon."

Despite the advantages, Wall Street analysts and wine industry experts say it could still take some time before Wine Spectator-reading enthusiasts _ and the grocery stores and wine shops that cater to them _ can fully embrace the box.

"People are pretty nervous with taking that leap," said Barbara Insel, managing director and wine researcher at MKF Research. "People need to feel comfortable that their friends won't make fun of them."

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