Food & Drink

Drinkers look inside the box

NEW YORK — When Jennifer Rudd's husband, Josh, came home from the wine shop three years ago toting a small rectangular box under his arm, Rudd was skeptical.

"I thought, Are you crazy? It can't be good. It's coming out of a box," said the wine enthusiast, 31. Rudd shuddered at the thought of economy-size boxes of Franzia, pinkish wines that could, God forbid, be stored in the fridge.

Recently, the long-maligned screw caps and plastic corks overcame their lowbrow reputations. Now boxed wine appears to be following suit. In 2008, sales of boxed wine increased 31 percent, according to the Nielsen Co., significantly outpacing overall wine sales, which slowed.

Traditionally the vintage of college parties, boxed wine has been gaining cachet among upper-income wine lovers. "It was very good," Rudd recalled with surprise in a phone call from her home in North Richland Hills, Texas. These days, unless she's with company, boxed wine is all Rudd drinks.

In fact, boxed wine's biggest consumers are upper-income, white households, specifically those earning $70,000 to $100,000 a year, according to the Nielsen numbers. Those who drink it even prefer boxed wine over bottled.

So how did boxed wine shed its downmarket reputation to forge its way into an industry that prides itself on refinery and sophistication?

First, don't call it boxed wine. "Cask wine" is the product's new nomenclature, which savvy marketers say is meant to reflect its improved taste and quality.

Recently, Corbett Canyon 3L Premium Cask Merlot won best in its class at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Competition, America's largest wine judging event, even beating bottled wines. The box, which holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine, retails for a suggested price of $10.

That 3-liter size is also key. The packaging of cask wines has been downsized from its traditional 5 liters — more appropriate for parties (or lushes) — to a petite, price-conscious volume.

Those 5-liter boxes "are difficult to market because it's difficult to break through people that are looking for real value wines," said Jon Fredrikson, a wine industry consultant who works with wineries and suppliers. "The threshold of $18 to $22 is a lot to spring for if you're looking for bargains."

Though one might assume that a surge in sales of boxed wine are a result of a flagging economy, the trend actually began as early as 2003, when Black Box and Corbett Canyon, two of the best-selling boxed wines, debuted in the wine market as the bag-in-box incarnation. Its eco-friendly packaging (resulting in 85 percent less landfill waste) appeals to green-conscious consumers.

Because it's sealed off from the air, wine in a box also has longer shelf life, once opened, than bottled wine. The six-week freshness factor makes it convenient for those like Roger Dooley, an Internet marketer from Mishawaka, Ind., to drink a glass a day to keep the doctor away. Dooley has become such a fan that, a few years ago, he even slaked the thirst of an entire Christmas party's worth of guests with a selection of boxed wines, no bottles in sight. "Everyone seemed to enjoy it and have a good time," he said.

Despite cask wine's remarkable growth, it might be a while before bottles are completely upstaged. Only 1 percent of households are buying premium boxed wine. "The key thing that boxed wines have to overcome in this country," Dooley said, is the impression "that they're cheap and not very good."

Another downside for wine in a cardboard box, dispensed through a spout, is that it lacks the association that bottled wine has with romance, says Paul Kalemkiarian, president of the original Wine of the Month Club. "Popping a cork is romantic."

For some wine lovers, just the thought of boxed wine leaves a bad taste on their palates. Boxed wine "is about as low as wine can get," said Bob Moody, president of the Sommelier Society. "It has absolutely no prestige whatsoever.

"No restaurants would ever have a boxed wine. Boxed wine, boxed food, boxed anything just doesn't work for a restaurant."

Biancha Richards, who ventured to serve boxed wine at her wine bar in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., last November, was impressed with the packaging and said it received a warm reception. But she's keeping it off the menu. "There's not a general solid interest for me to keep it around," she said. Whether cask or box, wine in anything but a slender glass bottle might have a way to go before it makes a splash. "It can sort of be the butt of jokes," Richards said.

"If you're drinking wine for the alcohol content, boxed wine is a good option," Kalemkiarian said.

Recently, he had a customer inquire about a boxed wine-of-the-month club. When Kalemkiarian followed up with a phone call, he found that he'd become the butt of a joke. The caller was only kidding.

Fredrikson, the wine consultant, finds the snobbery sophomoric.

"It shouldn't be put on a pedestal; it should be a down-to-earth beverage that people enjoy," he said. "The more you know about wine, the more you recognize that wine shouldn't be treated like that."