The San Juan Daily Star
10 boxed wines that are really good, seriously
By Eric Asimov
For many reasons, boxed wines make an enormous amount of sense. The bag-in-box method is a great way to package easygoing wines that are not intended for aging. Still, the category faces stubborn resistance among both consumers and producers.
Why? It’s sort of a chicken-and-the-egg situation: Consumers have equated boxes with bad wine because for so long, with scattered exceptions, only bad wine was sold in boxes in the United States. And producers wouldn’t put better wines in boxes because they are aware of the fierce stigma.
To everybody’s benefit, these entrenched attitudes seem to have softened in the last few years, primarily because of the climate crisis.
Motivated by the ecological advantages of bag-in-box packaging, a growing number of producers and merchants are opting to box good wine intended for immediate consumption rather than use glass bottles.
It’s now widely understood that wine bottles are a significant environmental problem. Their production and transport makes up the biggest proportion of the wine industry’s carbon footprint, and sadly, in the United States, at least, a low percentage of glass is recycled.
The industry has experimented with reusable, returnable glass bottles, but consumers did not return them, regardless of the incentives offered. As a result, many environmentally minded producers see bag-in-box packages as a good intermediate step toward a time when consumers will accept the wisdom of reusable bottles.
An open box of wine lasts longer. When you uncork a bottle and pour out a drink, air fills the empty space in the bottle, causing the wine to slowly deteriorate. Depending on the age and quality of the wine, an open bottle may stay good for a day or two, or maybe up to a week.
But when you tap and pour a bag-in-box, the plastic liner shrinks around the remaining wine, keeping air out. Wine can stay fresh for a month or so. In addition, the standard unit for boxed wine is three liters, the equivalent of four bottles, so the amount of waste is proportionately less.
Bag-in-box is not appropriate for all wines. Unlike bottles, which are impervious to air, bag-in-box is permeable, so it’s not good for wines intended for aging more than a year or so. But for those intended for early consumption — the vast majority of wines produced — boxes are great.
As with any wine, it’s best to store them in a cool place. Put a box of white wine in the fridge and pour a cool glass anytime. Reds can be kept anywhere that’s convenient.
While the food-grade plastic used inside the box is not recyclable, the benefits of boxes, advocates say, still outweigh the drawbacks.
“If we are looking at the fact that it’s a larger format, and the fact that it’s one bit of packaging versus four bottles of wine, and it’s 75% recycled cardboard, waste is reduced significantly,” said Melissa Monti Saunders, CEO of Communal Brands, an importer and distributor that offers four boxed wines in its portfolio.
Saunders believes that ultimately the world will need to shift to returnable, reusable bottles. But she also believes that consumers are not yet ready to accept them. Communal Brands has been selling boxes since 2016.
“The carbon footprint is about a tenth of the emissions for the production of four single-use bottles, not even taking into consideration weight and transport,” she said. “No way around it, boxes are significantly better for the planet, even with a plastic liner.”
Megan Glaab, who owns Ryme Cellars in Sonoma County, California, with her husband, Ryan, released a boxed wine in 2020, during the pandemic, almost as a joke. Ryme packaged the wine, a 2019 organic vermentino, as a sort of back-to-school kit for adults who might be daunted by the prospect of remote schooling and working from home.
“We got the most incredible reaction, with customers writing us and asking us to do it again,” she said. Ryme did, with three more wines in boxes, and they sold out in a matter of weeks.
The key to changing consumer perceptions of boxed wines is to fill them with good wine. Ryme did that, as has Tablas Creek, a California producer in Paso Robles, and Bedrock Wine Co. in California.
Even charging upward of $70 for a box, more than twice as much as many other boxed wines, did not deter Glaab’s customers.
For years, the only boxed wines that I’ve felt good about recommending came from two importers: Jenny & François’ From the Tank boxes, and Wineberry America’s Wineberry Boxes. Both offer a series of unpretentious, good wines from various regions in France. Slowly but surely, they are now being joined by a host of other good boxed wines.
I recently shopped for boxed wines in retail stores in the New York area. They weren’t easy to find, although I could have had my fill of Bota Boxes, Black Boxes, Franzia and Barefoot on Tap, the sort of mass-produced boxes that have not won the genre friends among quality-minded consumers.
But I did find 10 boxes that I feel confident in recommending. And with good boxes like these, perhaps we will see more in the near future.
“People are seeing market interest in boxes, so they want to get in on it,” Saunders said. “The more quality boxes on the market, the more it becomes legitimized.”
Here are the 10 boxes. I’ve listed them in order of preference, but they’re all good.
10 boxed wines to try
Ryme Cellars Mendocino Fox Hill Vineyard Sangiovese-Friulano 2020, 12.3%, $72
Would you pay $72 for a boxed wine? Perhaps you would if it were as good as this blend. It’s juicy and vivacious, a rare American sangiovese that is not over-the-top fruity or sweet. At 85% sangiovese and 15% friulano, it’s an homage to the days when white grapes (more likely malvasia or trebbiano than friulano) were blended into Chianti to create a fragrant, easygoing wine. This wine is certainly fragrant, but also has enough structure to stand up to grilled beef dishes, chili con carne or red sauce pastas. As for the cost? Three liters at $72 equates to $18 a bottle. Not bad for wine made from organically farmed Mendocino grapes.
Neleman Valencia Good Wine Book Red 2020, 13.5%, $29
This makes no bones about its purpose, or at least, its marketing strategy: “Good Wine to Save the World.” I don’t know if it will, but it sure is good. It’s bright and fresh, full of red fruit flavors but not sweet or cloying, and its lively acidity makes it deliciously refreshing. It’s ablend of tempranillo and monastrell, as mourvèdre is known in Spain, all organically grown. Chill ever so lightly and you are in for a pleasant treat and a great value. (Sounder Imports, Staten Island, New York.)
Schplïnk! Austria Grüner Veltliner 2021, 12.5%, $29
Saunders of Communal Brands believes boxes are a good intermediate step before, inevitably, we will turn to reusable wine bottles. Schplïnk is an excellent example of the sort of unpretentious wines that benefit from this packaging. It’s pure and delightful, with the herbal, grassy qualities that can make grüner veltliner so pleasant and refreshing. The grapes come from eastern Austria and are grown organically by Norbert Bauer, a longtime family estate. (Communal Brands, New York)
Hérisson Côteaux Bourguignons Vin Rouge 2021, 13%, $39
This light-bodied blend of pinot noir and gamay from the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, another Communal Brands box, is an ideal thirst-quenching red. It’s fresh, lightly fruity, deliciously refreshing and it goes down easy. You don’t need to ponder its intricacies. It’s just the thing for any gathering of friends, or for when you just want a glass. Give it a light chill and serve with anything. (Communal Brands)
From the Tank Vin de France Rosé NV, 13%, $30
Jenny & François Selections was one of the first American importers of natural wines, and an early proponent of boxes. This rosé uses wine from one of the importer’s producers, Domaine de la Patience in southern France. It’s a blend of grenache and cinsault, and is a wonderful choice for parties, barbecues or any sort of outdoor gathering where you want something fresh, lively and resonant. This is an easy-drinking wine, but chances are you’ll pause a moment in the festivities to say, “Wow, this is good.” (Jenny & François Selections, New York)
Sandy Giovese Italy Vino Rosso NV, 12%, $30
Here is an archetypal boxed wine: juicy, simple and fresh, made for drinking, not thinking. It comes from Italy, from a winery based in Le Marche, although it’s not clear where the grapes were grown. It’s mostly made from sangiovese, with 15% trebbiano, a white grape, added to lighten it up. The website says they are grown organically, but the box says merely that the farmers are “earth friendly,” whatever that means. Wine lovers may be frustrated by the lack of transparency. Those who care only about how it tastes will enjoy it. (Sandy Wines/Massanois Imports, New York)
Wineberry Château Moulin de la Roquille Bordeaux Côtes de France 2018, 14%, $47
For years, Wineberry America, an importer that specializes in Bordeaux, has offered its wooden Wineberry Boxes, filled with a wide variety of simple but delicious French wines that are generally good values. This one, from the region’s eastern reaches, is old-school Bordeaux, medium-bodied, modestly structured and not overwhelmingly fruity. It’s easy-drinking with charcuterie or burgers. (Wineberry America, Valley Cottage, N.Y.)
Caspri & Co Rosso Toscano Rosso No. 3 NV, 13.5%, $42
Caspri & Co, in Italy, is focused on good values and environmentally sensitive packaging. This boxed Tuscan red qualifies on both counts. It’s a blend of 80% sangiovese, 10% canaiolo (a traditional grape for blending with sangiovese) and 10% merlot, from two different vintages, all grown organically. It’s juicy yet structured and medium-bodied. My only objection is that the bitter chocolate of the merlot feels a bit out of place in the blend. But it’s still very good. (Field Blend Selections, New York)
Cedric Vin de France Malbec 2020, 14%, $39
Cedric, another box from Communal Brands, comes from the Cahors area of southwestern France, where malbec has been the leading red grape for centuries. This wine, made from organically grown grapes, is structured and lightly fruity, yet herbal as well, with light, stony flavors. It’s different from an Argentine malbec, and not as sweet or fruity as many inexpensive Mendoza wines can be, yet it will go equally well with a skirt steak. (Communal Brands)
Powers Washington State Chardonnay NV, 13%, $21
This crisp, tangy, citrus-scented chardonnay comes primarily from Columbia Valley grapes purchased by Powers, along with a healthy helping of its own estate chardonnay, grown organically. It’s a blend of vintages, not a bad thing, especially in a wine this cheap. Do the math — four bottles for $21 is roughly $5.25 a bottle. For that price, it’s hard to imagine a better deal.