Drinking Outside the Box

Jeffery Lindenmuth - June 2006

Having finally convinced diners that the anticlimactic twist of a screw cap can be the overture to a fabulous bottle of wine, some restaurants are tackling the next packaging public relations challenge: quality wine tapped from a gigantic juice box.

Bag-in-box packaging is a marvel of postwar American invention, created in Chicago in 1947 by William R. Scholle as a solution to packaging sulfuric acid for dry charge batteries. With a bit of Yankee ingenuity, Scholle's bag-in-box became commonplace in professional kitchens as a package for foods ranging from liquid eggs to ketchup. It was adopted for dairy products in the 1950s, soda fountain syrup in the 1970s, and bulk orange juice in the 1980s. The first wine was packaged in 1971, but for all its faults the cork and bottle have proven a tough adversary.

Sadly, most Americans still associate the cardboard cubes with cheap pink wine and ready-made sangria, not the sort of stuff they'd prefer to be seen sipping in a fine restaurant. Bag-in-box wine sales in the U.S. have grown by 6 percent over the past 10 years but still account for only about 18 percent of total wine sales by volume. In contrast, the package currently accounts for about 50 percent of wine sales by volume in Australia (where the container goes by the more romantic moniker "cask") and holds similar market share in several European nations. In France, you can spot boxes of wine stacked high in Paris supermarkets and small town marchés alike.

In a bold move by which they aspire to raise the prestige of the package in America, chef Daniel Boulud and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Boulud's The Dinex Group, along with vigneron Dominique Lafon, recently introduced a Mâcon-Villages Chardonnay bag-in-box wine (actually a bag-in-tube) called DTOUR. "We found that the cylinder was very attractive and about the same height as a bottle of water or wine, so it fits in the refrigerator. It's very presentable, a little retro, and has a sleek look—a true pièce de conversation," says Boulud.

Not content to stay at home hidden behind the orange juice, DTOUR appears on the wine list at DB Bistro Moderne, where it is served by the carafe (about two and a half glasses) for $17. "At DB Bistro Moderne, DTOUR is proudly on display. It's ideal for on-premise because of its ability to stay fresh. I've tasted it after it had been open for six weeks, and there's no change at all," says Johnnes. The wine remains fresh because within the box a "metallized film" bag collapses as the wine is consumed, preventing any air from ever contacting the remaining wine. Along with packaging in sizes of one-, three-, and five-liters, Scholle also sells and leases filling equipment that works with a winery's existing bottling line.

Johnnes says that consumers also reap savings with box wine. In his opinion, DTOUR, which retails at $37 for three liters, or less than $10 per 750-milliliter bottle, compares favorably in price to many bottled wines costing as much as $14 each. DTOUR has even slipped past the velvet rope at Boulud's more prestigious restaurant, Daniel. "For me, it is about sharing the fact that I'm a great chef who does great things, but I also like to do more casual and accessible things," says Boulud.

At Bluepointe restaurant in Atlanta, general manager Stevenson Rosslow recently adopted Black Box Wines from Constellation Brands for his house pours, offering the California-made Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon for $6 per glass. "We try to stay on the crest and a step ahead of everybody else. We have lots of wine with screw cap closures, and people used to think they were second-class wines, but that's not the case. And this box wine is not a second-class wine either," says Rosslow. The bar staff at Bluepointe also appreciates the small "footprint" of Black Box: the three-liter box takes up about as much space as a magnum. And the days of corked wine and spoilage waste are over, thanks to these house wines.

Traditionally, Bluepointe poured by-the-glass wines tableside, so some service concessions have been made with the addition of Black Box. "You can't easily bring the box to the table, so we pour those particular wines at the service bar. But we're certainly not ashamed of them. And we've found that the consumer, at that price point, is somewhat less concerned about the presentation," says Rosslow. Sold on the practicality and profitability of his move, Rosslow is looking forward to box wines for which he might command $9 or $10 per glass.

At Avec in Chicago, Eduard Seitan, partner and wine buyer, displays his passion for Cuvée de Peña France Profonde 2003 by stacking the three-liter boxes several high on the bar. "I had to fight for months with the bartender to put the wine on display instead of underneath the bar. We have to help people understand that the box is OK and put it out in plain view," says Seitan, who sells the wine mostly by the carafe ($10) but occasionally by the full box ($89). "I used to offer the same wine from the bottle, and it's absolutely identical in taste, whether from bottle or box. And the box makes sense because, one, it's about 30 percent less expensive and, two, once you open a bottle, it's not as fresh the next day. This type of wine is better the fresher it is," he says.

A conceptually similar package created in Sweden in 1951 by Tetra Pak holds many of the same advantages of bag-in-box and according to Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset America, suits his environmental bent perfectly. Boisset chose one-liter Tetra Prisma Aseptic Cartons, a kind of packaging he dubbed the "epod," for the introduction of his French Rabbit varietal wines from Languedoc-Roussillon. The wines, which wholesale for less than $7 per one-liter box, were initially launched in Canada when Bob Peter, president and chief operating officer of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, challenged winemakers to use more environmentally friendly packaging; they have since gone global.

Boisset, who also uses bag-in-box, chose Tetra Pak for French Rabbit on the basis of its superior recyclability, its convenient, one-liter size, and its resealability, with a screw cap instead of a plastic tap. "The bottom line is that both have huge advantages over glass," says Boisset. "We've been putting wine in glass bottles since the 17th century and have done very little to improve that package. I think the new generation is ready for this."

While so far only about 20 percent of French Rabbit sales are on-premise, Boisset sees an opportunity to boost that figure. Among the epod's advantages and attractions, he points out, is that it can be chilled in the refrigerator in just 10 minutes (compared with 30 minutes for a bottle), takes up 33 percent less space than a bottle, and, perhaps the most alluring, offers restaurateurs quality wine at a cost of less than $1 per glass. Besides, he says, just one empty glass bottle occupies the same space as 70 flattened empty epods.

Boisset hopes that restaurants that have been ardent supporters of organic and sustainable farming will similarly embrace the commitment to a reduction in the kind of waste associated with creating, shipping, and recycling glass. "It's one thing to say you use organic farms and organic ingredients, but it's another to have the guts to persuade consumers to take the next step," he says. "The solution to the service aspect may be to bring back the carafe, but at the same time why not show the package the same way we list organic ingredients on a menu? Let people know they've done something positive for the environment."

French Rabbit will soon be joined by French Rabbit Reserve wines bearing the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée designations for the Rhône Valley and Beaujolais (about $15 retail) as well as a California cousin under the name Pop Star.

John Mautone, co-owner of Dylan Prime in New York City, sees all the advantages of box wine for his restaurant. If only his customers were as easily convinced. "We sold a boxed Pinot Noir, but the visual made it a tough sell. We wanted to be very up-front, and we were pouring it at the bar. The idea is phenomenal, and certain people are very into it. But then you have people who are paying $100 per person for dinner, and they're not buying it," he says.

Even Boisset says he won't be putting his De Loach Vineyards wine into anything remotely resembling a milk carton, but he remains hopeful that consumers will ultimately set aside their packaging prejudices when it comes to wines like French Rabbit. "Winemakers, chefs, all of us, live for Mother Nature. We want to make a high-quality product while respecting the earth, and this is one way to do it. I'm hoping for a day when many more people will take this step."