What we've learned about making box wine, six months and three colors later
August 17, 2022
Back in February, I published a blog that created a bit of a stir. In it, I made the case that boxes of wine (the cardboard kind normally found on grocery store shelves, not the wooden kind found in fancy cellars) deserved another look from higher-end producers. It had become stigmatized in the market, the container for what people assumed would be cheap plonk. But I asserted that there were compelling reasons to shift certain wines into boxes, most notably that it offered advantages in preservation (it can last weeks in your fridge after being opened), storage space (glass bottles are bulky, and the packaging needed to cushion them takes up yet more space), and portability (a full 3L bag-in-box weighs seven pounds while the same volume in bottles weighs eleven). Plus, and probably most importantly, because glass bottles are heavy and require lots of energy to melt and mold, a 3L wine bag-in-box offers an 84% carbon footprint reduction vs. the four glass bottles that would contain the same wine.
The blog got 54 comments, more than any other we've ever published. It spurred stories in Wine Searcher, Forbes, and even the Robb Report. I was invited to speak about the decision at the WiVi tradeshow and on the XChateau Podcast. More recently, the New York Times published an article in which wine columnist Eric Asimov pointed to our experiments with the wine boxes as a productive step forward for wine producers grappling with the environmental impact of our default package. The initial batch of 324 boxes of our Patelin de Tablas Rosé sold out four hours after we announced their release in an email to our wine club and mailing list. We made more (522 boxes) of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc in June, and despite releasing them in a much less shipping-friendly season sold them out in less than a month. This week, we put our first red into box, the 2021 Patelin de Tablas. We're planning to release it soon, and I expect it to go fast.
The response from our customers has been amazing. I was hoping that we'd sell out of the Patelin Rosé boxes in a month, so being out in four hours was definitely above my wildest aspirations. And the feedback we've seen from customers either directly or online has been terrific. But I've been most gratified to hear from so many other producers who are also looking to explore this lower-carbon package and want to know what we've learned. A few have even jumped in and done it, including Kobayashi Winery, who released their high-end Roussanne/Marsanne blend in a $195 box.
In the spirit of using the blog to answer the questions I get every day, here's a quick summary of what we've learned after six months:
- The public is more open than they've ever been to alternative packaging. This first hurdle, which I assumed would be the biggest one, turned out to be no big deal. Granted, we have a direct relationship with the customers on our mailing list and in our wine club. But so do other wineries. And based on the number of people who let me know that this was their first-ever purchase of a boxed wine, we weren't dealing with people who were already converts to the package. That's amazing. And it's not just boxes. Writers as on platforms as diverse and distinguished as JancisRobinson.com, SommTV, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wine Enthusiast have recently published pieces in support of lighter-weight, lower-waste wine containers like boxes, cans, kegs, and bottles made from paper, resin, and plastic.
- The wholesale market is likely to be slower to adjust. When I published that February blog, I heard from a few independent retailers around the country asking if they could buy some of these boxes. We didn't make enough this first go-around to sell them in the wholesale market, but I put out some feelers with our wholesalers for next year. Although there were a few exceptions, the responses I got were not generally enthusiastic. Most boiled down to some version of, "You want people to spend how much for your box of wine? That won't work with our current box wine outlets." And I get this. A quick search on the shelves at our local Albertsons revealed a decent array of box wines... all selling for between $20 and $35. Doing the math, that translates to between $5 and $8.75 per 750ml. Our Patelin boxes, priced at $95, work out to $23.75 per 750ml bottle. I submit that this is still a great value -- bottles of Patelin sell for $28, after all -- but I could easily imagine the sticker shock of a grocery store customer wondering what this outlier was doing on a shelf at triple the price of the next-most-expensive box. If someone knows and trusts Tablas Creek already, great. That's easy to overcome. But are those people looking in the box wine section of their local retail store? Perhaps not. However, I still think that there is a market for high-end box wines in wholesale. It's just not at the traditional grocery and retail chain outlets. The sweet spot, I think, would be to market this to smaller, independent retailers who talk to their customers and would be excited to share the advantages of boxes. And to hip restaurants who don't have keg systems to pour wine by the glass. After all, the preservation and waste-reduction advantages offered by boxes could prove incredibly valuable at a restaurant level. No more pouring out the oxidized ends of bottles after two days. No more bins full of empty glass.
- The infrastructure to support small producers packaging in bag-in-box has a long way to come... but it could happen fast. There is a supply network that allows small- to medium-size wineries to operate with reasonable economies of scale. These include brokers who consolidate the offerings of vendors of bottles, capsules, labels and corks; mobile bottling lines that allow a winery to bottle a few weeks a year without having to invest in a line that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; and warehouses who ship wine for hundreds of wineries and can negotiate on reasonable footing with common carriers like UPS and FedEx. All those pieces still need to be developed for boxes of wine. We had one off-the-shelf option (thank you AstraPouch!) on the open market for sourcing our boxes and the bags that go inside. That's fine; you don't need to make millions of boxes to contract with a printer to make your own. We're leaning toward doing so for future runs. But if you were wondering why for this year we used the plain craft cardboard box with our label stuck onto it, well, that was the only option available. For the filling, we had a similarly restricted set of options. There are no mobile boxing lines in California. There is one in Oregon, but the minimum commitment to have them drive all the way down here was in the tens of thousands of boxes. There is a custom boxing line in the Central Valley at which you can rent space if you can bring your wine and materials to them, but their minimums were similarly high. So we were left with renting (and eventually buying) a semi-automated bag filler from Torr Industries and building all the boxes ourselves. That's time consuming (see below) and not very scalable. Finally, on the shipping end, we work with the largest fulfillment house in California to ship our wine to our consumers. They didn't have a package for boxes because they'd never done it before. We had to do a bunch of trial and error, and still aren't 100% satisfied with where we ended up. What's more, neither FedEx nor UPS have approved shipping boxes for wine in box, which means they won't take any responsibility that the product arrives intact.
- It's time consuming doing the box construction and filling yourself. As I mentioned in the last point, because of the lack of availability and prohibitively high minimum quantities for automated box-filling lines, we had to set up a little assembly line and do it ourselves. You can see the process in the pictures at the beginning of the piece. Someone has to attach the bag to the filler, start the fill, then when it's done detach it and repeat. Meanwhile, someone else has to be assembling and taping the top of the boxes, while yet another person puts a bag into that half-assembled box and then closes and tapes up the bottom. Finally, someone has to carefully stick on the label, then put the box into its "master" case box that holds six of the finished 3L packages. Each stage takes time, on average 30 seconds to fill, 20 seconds to assemble the top of the box, 24 seconds to put the bag into the box and tape up the bottom, and 16 seconds to stick on each label. That's 90 seconds per box of labor. To make 400 boxes, as we did Monday, it takes 10 hours of work time, not counting the time it takes to set up and calibrate the machine, unpack the shipments of materials, or close up finished master cases and prepare them for transport. For our cellar team of four, making 400 3L boxes was an afternoon's work. That's a lot slower than bottling using a mobile bottling line. How much slower? We normally can bottle 2000 cases in a full day of work. The 400 3L boxes is equivalent to 133 9L cases. So if we'd done a full day, we might have finished the equivalent of 275 cases... less than 15% of the volume we could have put into bottles in that same time. That's a huge disincentive to scale up a boxed wine program.
- The package itself is even better than we'd thought. For all the challenges, we're believers in the package. We're now roughly six months out from our first batch of boxes, and the wine is still showing beautifully when we open a new box, indistinguishable from a newly-opened screwcapped bottle. We've tried the wine after having it be open two months and four months in a fridge, and it showed fresh and pure. We'll keep testing and will know more after a year, but as far as the integrity of the wine in the box, we've been happy.
So, where does this leave us? Not all that far from where we began. We think the package is good for the wine and now have confirmation that consumers are willing to give it a try even at a higher price. We have learned that the infrastructure to support smaller producers who want to move to bag-in-box is limited. We have learned that there are lots of other wineries out there who are interested, but that many are stymied by the lack of infrastructure. And we know that the wine press is focused like never before on bigger picture questions on the sustainability of wine and the containers it comes in.
All this together seems to me like it will result in changes coming sooner than later that will make it accessible for smaller wineries to offer boxes of their wine to customers. After all, it's a business opportunity, as well as a chance to help move the wine world to a lower-carbon future. Now we wait.