Boxed wine has a bad rap. People look down on it because it doesn’t come in a fancy bottle, and assume the contents are nasty and cheap. While that may be true for some brands, a lot of boxed wine is just as good or better than the stuff you drink with a nice dinner. Plus, it’s easy to transport, stays fresh longer, costs less, and is better for the environment.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
A couple of months ago I sat down to a fancy home-cooked dinner in a lovely house. My host asked if I’d like some wine, and when I said, “Hell yes,” she grabbed an unassuming cardboard box camouflaged on the kitchen island, deployed a spout from it, and poured me a glass. I joked that I thought all boxed wine was crappy before I took my first sip. But I immediately realised I was wrong. I’m no sommelier, but I’ve been to enough wineries and tastings in both California and France to know the difference between decent wine and concoctions so bad they shouldn’t even be cooked with. And this wine was good.
To get to the bottom of this mystery, I spoke with Tia Eshou, a sommelier in training who works for a leading wine and spirit distributor (full disclosure: She’s also a close personal friend that helps me pick out the best booze). When I asked her about boxed wines while we were sampling beers at a local brewery, she said, “Patrick, you’re drunk,” then told me she would email me later. In her email, she explained that boxes, as well as screw cap bottles, are being used more and more now for quality wines, especially those in the sub-$30 but more than $15 markets. She went on to say that while boxed wines have long been associated with poor quality, they’re just like traditional cork and bottled wines — there are good ones and there are bad ones.
The “bad”, Eshou explains, are usually the low-end brands like those that were involved with a 2015 US lawsuit for containing high levels of arsenic. These brands included Franzia, Sutter Home, Beringer, Flipflop, Fetzer, Korbel, Trapiche and Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck). But that lawsuit was eventually dismissed in the California courts, and the general consensus is that, even with the trace amounts of arsenic found in boxed wine, you’d have to drink a lot of it for it to harm you. If you’re drinking that much wine, I’d say arsenic is the least of your worries. That said, Eshou suggests you stay away from boxed wines that cost you less than $15, if you’re worried about it.
The “good” boxed wines, though, are out there. Brands like Black Box, Bandit Boxes, Bota Box and Big House are good examples of quality wines that come packed in cardboard. Well, a bag. A bag that goes in a box. Apparently they’re called BIBs (bag-in-box). But why go for the BIB stuff when there are shelves of traditionally bottled wines in every grocery store? For one, you get more wine for less — about four bottles worth in one box. This isn’t because the wine is of lower quality, but rather because boxed wines don’t have the same overhead when it comes to packaging, materials and shipping. The traditional bottling process is costly, and requires glass, corks and foils. Those materials are heavy, making bottles more costly to ship. Plus, boxes are easy to carry, easy to stack, and take up less space when shipping.
Eshou points out that a decent 750ml bottle of wine that runs you $20 to $25 will give you about five glasses of wine. A decent boxed brand will give you about 20 glasses of equal quality wine — and yes, the good ones pass the taste test — for the same price. That’s four times the wine! If you’re thinking, “Oh, that’s too much, I’ll never be able to go through all that before it goes bad,” one, you’re a liar, and two, you don’t have to worry about it anyway. Boxed wine can last up to eight weeks after opening, and will last even longer if refrigerated. An open bottle of wine lasts about a week tops before it goes sour.
Also, boxed wine is better for the environment. Cardboard requires a lot less energy to produce than glass, and both the cardboard and the plastic bags the wine is stored in are recyclable. Furthermore, their light weight makes transport easier, so shipments leave less of a carbon footprint in the long run. And because boxed wine stays fresh longer, you’re less likely to waste half-finished bottles that went sour before you could finish. So, if you’re in the market for an environmentally conscious drink, boxed wine is the way to go.
The only downside is that boxed wine has an expiration date. As in, boxed wine will go bad sitting on your shelf even if you haven’t opened it. The plastic bags found in most boxed wine are made of polyethylene — which is BPA-free, in case you were wondering — and are far more porous than traditional bottles. You need to consume a boxed wine within six to eight months if you want it to taste good. Still, unless you’re a wealthy collector or sommelier, you might as well give the box a shot. The perks greatly outweigh the downsides. Besides, it’s not like you can really tell the difference anyway.