In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss alternative packaging for wine. Can bag-in-box wine — a product that has inspired a longtime drinking game — and boxed wine reign supreme over bottled options?
Tune in to learn more about alternative wine packaging and products.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the Friday episode of the “VinePair Podcast.”
Z: Adam, you are ready to start the weekend. I can tell.
A: I’m super ready. I’m just like, let’s go.
Z: Three espresso shots. VinePair is ready, folks.
A: We only have two weeks left, right? Two and a half weeks, and we’re done. We’re not turning off the site or anything. We’re just going to all work from home, as we have been, but trying to make it a little bit chiller. I’m ready, man. You know how last year, when it was New Year’s Eve and we all thought that Covid was over and we’re like, “yay, 2020 is done.” And now it’s 2021.
Z: Little did we know…
A: Question, is anyone watching “The Great?”
Z: No, but my wife is.
J: What is it called?
A: “The Great.” It’s a great show.
Z: I don’t understand how you people have time to watch TV shows. I guess you don’t have children.
A: I mean, it’s cool, man. Let me live my life. Sorry for you. But yeah, it’s a great show. I highly recommend it. It’s all about Catherine the Great. Very much fictionalized, it says “a somewhat true story.” It’s based on a play. It’s really good. I highly recommend it.
Z: Do they drink a lot in that show?
A: Oh, all the time. There’s a lot of food and drink.
J: Like brandy? What do they drink?
A: It’s weird in that obviously, they’re trying to somewhat have it based on historical facts. But it’s also modern in terms of the way they talk about food and the way they talk about wine.
J: So they have White Claw?
Z: That Champagne is definitely true to fact.
A: You have to have a lot of Champagne if you’re the empress and the emperor of Russia. Anyway, we’re talking about alternative packaging today, not TV. Alternative packaging is one of these things that’s had buzz since we started VinePair. Everyone’s like, “alternative packaging is going to be the future and everyone’s going to love alternative packaging.” It still has this weird bias, whether it’s in a box or if it’s in a bag or a can. People still think of it as cheap, even though it continues to explode. So I don’t know. Zach, what is your opinion? Do you drink boxed wine?
Z: Here’s where I do not practice what I preach. The answer to that is no, but more because I own a lot of wine in bottles already.
A: Sure, that’s why…
Z: In preparing for this episode, I was thinking about this a lot, and I have a central thesis that I would love to get both of your thoughts on. One of the things that have been an obstacle to alternative packaging in addition to what you expressed, is that there has long been this obsession in some circles with this idea of wine being a changing liquid. Wine being variable, that bottle variation can be annoying but is also something to cherish about wine. These alternative packaging methods largely do away with that. You are getting something that is sealed away, usually in an oxygen-free environment to keep it shelf-stable and preserved. And therefore, it isn’t going to change in that vessel over any period of time that we care to consume it. That, I think, is actually something that explains why a certain set of the wine-drinking public and professionals have turned their nose up at it. But it also explains why it’s so popular because it’s incredibly predictable. All of us have had an experience of opening a bottle of wine, and it just doesn’t taste right, whether it’s corked or whether it’s turned, whether it’s just not as good as we remember. There are benefits to alternative packaging: they’re lighter, they’re much more environmentally friendly in terms of both the material and how they’re shipped around the world, but also they’re way more predictable. For so many people who drink, that predictability is a huge selling point and something that I don’t think I’ve given enough credence to in thinking about this in the past.
J: That’s a really good point. We talked about this with bulk wine and things like that. For fine wine people, there’s a certain expectation and you have a collection and expect it to be in heavy glass bottles. But I think there’s a huge portion of wine consumers who enjoy that consistency that you’re talking about, Zach.
A: They love the consistency, and they drink wine in a way that is different from the fine wine public, who thinks about food pairings and bottles. This is a consumer that likes wine and wants to have a glass of wine at the end of work while watching TV. In a lot of those regards, alternative packaging is very good for that. You can have a wine that is really consistent, that you enjoy, that you can drink at different times throughout the week and not worry about it. Alternative packaging, especially boxed wine, has always been something that I’ve been shocked hasn’t exploded here as much. It allows people who may be single, or may have a partner that doesn’t drink or doesn’t enjoy wine, to also have a really delicious glass of wine throughout the week without having to feel like they’re wasting a bottle. That’s something that is really great about boxed wine. It also has the ability to be a consistent form of wine for people who like wine at bars and at concerts and things like that that you don’t have right now. I can’t tell you how many dive bars I’ve gone to where I see someone or a bottle with the cork halfway out on the back bar. You know it’s warm and know that’s going to be a bad experience. Whereas if it was in a box, it would be like the bottle had just been opened. Given the amount of really quality wine that’s going into boxes nowadays, how do we get everyone over that hump? How do we start explaining to the general consumer that boxed wines are really good? There are wine cans that are really good. I think canned wine is getting a lot further right now than boxed wine.
Z: What we’ve seen in canned wine over the last few years with a variety of different brands is that people are really putting higher quality wine into cans. They’re getting responses. They’re getting placements in some of those locations that you described. Not just dive bars, but hotel mini-bars and all these kinds of places where people might want a certain level of quality, but a full 750 bottle with a cork in it doesn’t really make sense. For two reasons, cans have had an easier time. One is that a can, as we’ve seen with craft beer for years, can be a visually striking vessel for a liquid, even if it’s not a traditional one for wine. You can do all kinds of cool graphic design. I know you interviewed one of the founders of Nomadica. Their cans are awesome and the wine inside is quite good as well. But even people who haven’t gone quite to that extent, the cans can be striking. No one has gone that route yet for bag-in-boxes, at least that I’ve seen. It’s an opportunity to do something cool that would stand out at a grocery store or even in a wine shop. The other part of it is that the size of a bag-in-box is always going to be a little bit of a challenge for certain people. As much as I get what you are saying, Adam, about it being good for a couple who doesn’t drink too much. That second night of a wine sometimes is not as good, depending on the wine itself. The problem with the bag-in-box, unless you’re buying a few of them, is that you are kind of committing yourself to drinking the same wine over and over again. For some people, that’s a huge selling point. They know what they like, and they want to have it. Other people might want to have a different drink, wine, or cocktail throughout the week. There, the problem is size. They’re usually at least three liters of wine. That’s four bottles of wine. What we’re tasting in a little bit, mine is five liters. I have no idea what to do with five liters of it. That’s a challenge that the bag-in-box in particular faces, which is that the volume of liquid is high. So someone has to really want to drink all of that. That may just be a challenge that they have a harder time getting through than cans.
A: For the bag in box, the opportunity lies with parties.
J: That’s where a lot of us had our first experiences with a bag-in-box, right?
A: Did you play Slap the Bag?
J: Maybe I played Slap the Bag. The one time that I ever had a specific brand of boxed wine was slapping the bag at some ultimate frisbee party. They were like, “you have to slap the bag,” and I was like “excuse me?”
A: Why are we slapping the bag? It doesn’t break, that’s the whole point.
J: Oh, that’s so stupid.
A: Why else are we doing it? It’s very funny.
J: So I think there is a huge opportunity out there for boxed wine, but I think it has a really steep hill to climb to get there.
A: We’ll discuss why we think it has a steep hill in a second. But I do wonder if the way for boxed wine is some of these cans like Nomadica to go into box format. I’m very surprised that Underwood hasn’t done that. It was one of the first big brands, and instead of going from can to box, they went from can to bottle. I get why they did that; it’s all of the baggage we’re saying exists for a different kind of wine consumer. But for the people who love their cans, I can’t imagine them saying, “let’s do it.” That being said, we’re saying all of these things about there being bias. Yet, the wine we’re about to try is one of the most successful wine brands in America. And that’s Franzia.
J: The most popular domestic wine in the United States.
A: Crazy. What I think is really interesting is that the brand is not only the most popular, but is also responsible for the biases that most people in America have about bag-in-box. It is Franzia, it’s no other brand. There are brands coming out of a lot of other wineries that are amazing. But Franzia is who has created the bias, whether you love it or not. And that is the brand I would assume you played Slap the Bag with.
J: I’m guessing. It was out of the box, though.
A: It had to have been. When was the last time either of you had Franzia?
J: This one party!
A: What about you, Zach?
Z: I’m pretty sure the last time I had Franzia, I was still in high school. So it’s been 20 years.
A: I think the same for me. I remember having a glass of it or a few glasses of it at a friend’s house. We had a party, and my friends would say, “my parents would never notice; it’s in a box.” That’s the first time I had it, and I definitely had it to slap the bag at a party in college. What box do you have, Zach?
Z: I have the refreshing white. No more information given than that, which is what we would expect from the brand. I also want to shout out a thing here that appeals to me, which is that Franzia is owned by a company called the Wine Group, which is appropriately nondescript in terms of figuring out what goes into it.
A: Yeah, we have the Chablis. It is definitely not Chablis.
Z: It does not come from a small commune in France?
A: This is definitely a wine brand that’s able to get grandfathered in before there were all of the trade agreements that we would not have our wines named after protected areas in Europe. And so that’s how they get away with it. While you were talking, I looked up “what is in this Chablis?” There is no information, I have no idea what grapes went into this. It could literally be anything.
Z: I just went to my local grocery store and grabbed the first box that was standing there. It’s not a vintage wine, but if I went back in a year and bought the new box, do you think the blend that goes into it is meaningfully different? Or do you think it’s pretty consistent?
A: I think it’s insanely consistent. I think this thing is f*cking engineered.
Z: That’s a good point. But just in terms of the base wine that goes into it, I think it could be just about anything. I assume they’re just using whatever is available. These five liters of wine cost me $16.
A: Yours was $16, and ours was $20.99.
Z: Well, that’s New York prices.
A: $4 more.
Z: We have to try it. I’ve been staring at it long enough. To point out also, mine is almost indistinguishable from the water that’s in the glass next to it. Visually, there is no color to this wine, so that’s an interesting note.
A: It’s not a wine aroma.
J: I’ve got some perfume here.
A: But I can’t tell you what it is.
J: Keith is here, too. He’s tasting with us.
Z: Mine smells and tastes like canned pears. It’s not unpleasant. If you took the syrup that was in canned pears and fermented it, I’m guessing this is what you would get.
J: It’s quite sweet.
A: Yeah, it’s very sweet.
Z: Which is what one typically associated with Chablis.
A: What do you think, Keith?
J: When was the last time you had Franzia?
Keith Beavers: I don’t know. I actually don’t have a memory of drinking Franzia. I drank a ton of wine in the ’90s illegally, so I’m sure Franzia was part of that. I don’t think it’s terrible. It’s just a homogenous, amalgamated bulk wine. There’s some Riesling in there, probably some Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Ugni Blanc. There’s probably some blends that Fred buys. Fred buys anything in bulk. He goes and looks for bankrupt vineyards and wineries and buys the bulk from the bankrupt. That’s how he makes his wine. This wine is for consistency. This wine is not for us to sit and contemplate and talk. It’s called Chablis. It’s funny because people in America know how to pronounce Chablis because of Franzia. Which is really, really interesting. This is a very cheap, bulky, high production, no complexity, easy-drinking, lean, sweet wine with a bitter finish. And that’s totally fine.
J: Do you get why it’s the most popular wine?
K: I do. We are Americans, we have a sweet tooth. We’ve had a sweet tooth since after Prohibition. The Gallo brothers made sweet red wine that went to Al Capone in Chicago, in New York, and places like that. So in the speakeasies, we drank cheap, sweet red wine if we even drank wine. So this is basically America’s palate here in glass. We are a young country, and we also have a generation that grew up on this. If you grew up on this, this is what you drank. My mom did the bills and drank a bottle of Woodbridge. That’s what she did. She wasn’t in it for the wines, she was in it to numb the bills. And that’s what this wine is for. I’ve never played Slap the Bag, though.
A: No, you haven’t.
K: I never went to college. What is it like? How do you slap the bag? I would have broken the bag.
J: Zach, how’s your refreshing white?
Z: It’s fine. I don’t totally disagree with Keith’s characterization, although I think one thing I would say is that it’s definitely the style of wine that was once popular in the United States. It obviously remains popular in terms of sales. A lot of that is because there are these brands that still exist that meet the demand that is still there for this style of wine, both in terms of its consistency and its price point. Let’s be clear, part of the reason why they sell so much Franzia is because it’s inexpensive. It’s not going to compete against that price point if you’re putting wine in the bottle, let alone trying to make it from varieties that people recognize or from a place people have heard of. That’s just the reality of it. I do want to come back to something we were talking about before, about whether bag-in-box has a future with better wine. More wine of place, in some sense, than this. When I was shopping for this at the grocery store, you see a range of wines in bag-in-box that maybe top out at $25 like a southern French rosé. $25 for three liters or five liters is not a lot of money. But I just wonder if someone would balk at $60 for a three liter bag-in-box. That’s still equivalent to $15 a bottle. So it’s not like it’s going to be super premium wine. You’re not going to be buying a classified growth Bordeaux bag-in-box anytime soon. I do think that there is a lot of wine that’s put out there that’s bottled that could very well fit in this format. But it’s obstacle might be that it’s going to be sitting there next to the Franzia and will suffer by that association, even if it is clearly differently priced.
A: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends on where, right? So I think you have a good point when we’re talking about a grocery store. You’re going to get marketed where you get marketed, and in the grocery store, you’re going to get put in this section with all the other bag-in-box wines. Why are you going to be the $50 or $60 bag-in-box against the $16 or $20 ones? In specialty wine stores across the country, it’s a very different story, because they’re not stocking those bag-in-boxes and they are trying to stock the wineries of the world that are trying to do the higher-end bag-in-box. And there, you have a really good shot because you also have the ability for the wine merchant to hand sell and explain that these five liters are actually the value at the value of a $20 bottle of wine, but you’re able to get this for a reduced price because you’re buying it without all of the packaging. The savvy consumer who’s already shopping at that kind of wine store will buy it. Does that mean you will ever be as big as Franzia? F*ck no. If you’re listening to this podcast and you have a dream to be as big as Franzia and you have a deck out to a bunch of investors right now, and you’re saying that you’re going to do that with premium wine, you should just put the deck away. Because you won’t. That’s a very different market you’re going to be competing in. But if you’re talking to investors about creating a premium boxed wine brand that will have a decent return, that’s a very different idea.
K: It’s always going to be that way, too.
Z: If you’re out there making interesting wine that you put in alternative packaging, let us know. I would love to try some. I’d love to hear about it. It’s always exciting to see what people are willing to do to push the boundaries because wine has been a very static industry in a lot of ways. Not just in terms of format, but also in terms of what goes into the bottle or the can or the box or whatever. And it’s always fun to see people willing to take chances.
K: We’re about to jump into this next week with a boxed wine tasting.
A: It’s going to be great.
J: Happy Friday.
A: Happy Friday, everybody.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.