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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores the science and history behind boxed wine. Also known as bag-in-box, these products are on the market for a great value and are easy to use — and drink. But where did boxed wine originate, how did it become so popular, and what are the best ways to drink it?
Tune in to learn more.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m probably showing my age here. But podcasting in general, I get these major “Pump Up the Volume” vibes, like Mark Hunter.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 6 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. How are you doing? It’s wine, it’s in a bag, and it’s a little cardboard box. We have to talk about this. It’s part of our lives. It’s who we are. Well, kind of. Let’s get into it.
Wow, wine lovers, Here we are. We are at the boxed wine episode. Am I sounding too dramatic? The thing is, I’m excited to talk about boxed wine. I had a retail shop, and I sold boxed wine. It’s like a rollercoaster ride with people trying to figure it out like, “What, I thought boxed wine was one thing and now it’s this, and I can’t understand. Can you please explain what’s going on with boxed wine and what I should be thinking about with boxed wine?” You should be thinking about whatever you want to think about boxed wine. But I want to give you a little bit of history, a little bit of science, maybe, and just some fun facts about this thing called boxed wine. Once you have all the information, maybe it’ll help you in the future, making your own decisions out there in the boxed wine world. Because man, they’re out there. And they’re getting more and more plentiful on our market. So we got to talk about it. They’re not going anywhere.
For those of you who don’t know, or are just familiar with the term, let me describe to you what a boxed wine is. It’s also sometimes called bag-in-box. In Australia, they call it goon or chateau cardboard. We’ll get into that. Essentially a boxed wine is — and it’s pretty simple — a collapsible plastic bag filled with wine that has a tap attached to the plastic bag. That plastic bag rests inside a cardboard container. The wine is drawn out of the bag by the actual tap, and what that does is it allows the wine to come out but will not allow air to get in. So there’s no ingress of oxygen when you’re pouring yourself, or tapping yourself, a glass of wine. And the bag is set into the box in a way that the tap is at the bottom, and the bottom of the box has a little perforated hole you can pop out and drag out, so it’s easy to access. So it’s pretty cool. When you draw wine off the tap, no oxygen is getting inside the bag. And because of that, the bag itself has to have a barrier for oxygen as well. We don’t want oxygen seeping into the bag. We have a tap that’s used to not get oxygen in the bag.
For these, there are two types. You have a silver-colored bag and you’ll have a clear bag. If you see a silver-colored bag, what you’re looking at is a bag that’s protecting the wine from oxygen by a thin layer of aluminum or aluminum-coated polyester. That thin layer of aluminum is between two layers of what’s called high-density polyethylene, which is basically just plastic bottles and bags you get at the supermarket, and plastic film. It’s also good for recycling because it takes a long time for this particular kind of bag to break down, which reduces the number of gasses that are constantly going into the air from this product. It breaks down slower, releases slower and smaller amounts over time, so it’s better for the environment. If you see a clear bag, what you’re looking at is a bag that has an oxygen barrier or an O2 barrier. That’s made up of something that’s called polyvinyl alcohol. I know it sounds weird. It’s alcohol? And I thought it was weird, so I had to look it up. And it’s still weird, but it’s really cool. This material is the same material that’s found in eye drops and contact lenses. That’s wild. It’s also recyclable.
These bags are designed to hold between one and a half to four bottles’ worth of wine. So 3 to 4 liters of wine. I mean, that’s awesome. You have a big bag in a box full of wine. And the thing is, these wines that are put into these bags are not expensive. They are less expensive wines. You’re getting the more casual drinking style of wine with a bag-in-box, because it’s going to be in that bag. It can last four to six weeks, really. After four to six weeks, it starts to deteriorate because there is some oxygen getting in, just not a lot. It’s not like a light switch. It’s just going to start to deteriorate over time. Honestly, if you still have a boxed wine after four to six weeks in your fridge, the best thing to do with it is to start cooking with it. You can actually cook with boxed wine from the minute you tap it. The wines that are going into these, as I said, are less expensive. But being less expensive is not a bad thing. It means these are young, vibrant, fresh, easy-drinking wines that don’t need to age. And they are young enough that they will benefit from being in a bag that is protected by layers of plastic so that oxygen doesn’t break it down because they’re so susceptible or vulnerable to that.
There’s the obvious thing I have to say about this: Wine-in-box is very environmentally friendly. An environmental impact study from Scandinavia in 2010 found that bag-in-box leaves only between 12 and 29 percent of the carbon footprint of bottled wine. So, that’s good news. Also, the materials that are used to make bag-in-boxed wine are much less expensive than glass. Also, the manufacturing of glass uses more natural resources than the manufacturing of bag-in-box. Now, I’m not taking away anything from glass here. I’m just giving you some stats and some figures here. Obviously, glass bottles are going nowhere. But in 2014, almost 20 percent of all wine sold in retail in the United States was in a box. So boxed wine has an impact on our drinking culture. It is part of what we do. It’s part of who we are. Where did it come from?
The concept of putting wine in a bag and utilizing what they called the “airless flow principle,” which is not allowing any oxygen to get into the bag after you pour a glass of wine, was conceived in Australia. What we see today on our market, on our shelves, is kind of an American thing. Are you confused? Let me explain. In the United States in the 1950s, the Sholle family developed and patented a bag-in-box system with a tap to transport battery acid safely. Put a pin in that. Around this time in South Australia, in the McLaren Vale Adelaide area, there was a winery called Angove Family Winemakers. The third-generation winemaker and head of this winery, Thomas Angove, had an idea. Now, I’m not sure what kind of winemaking practices were standard at the time in this part of Australia, but Thomas Angove was mad at glass. In an interview with his son, he said that his dad was upset at the fragility of glass. And also, he thought that wine was more susceptible to going bad in glass bottles. Which, of course, is true. I’m imagining this is because, at the time in Australia, the amount of distance a wine had to travel to a market was long. Maybe the glass, the fragility, and the vulnerability of a cork were such that it prompted Thomas Angove to say, “Well, why don’t we just put wine in a plastic bag?” But in a really cool Australian accent.
He was inspired by the shepherds he would see around who were drinking wine from their goatskin sacks or flasks. So in 1965, Thomas Angove, of Angove Family Winemakers, designed the first bag-in-box. But at the time it didn’t have a tap like we have today. And also, according to his son, his dad wasn’t the first one to put liquid in the bag. But he was the first one to focus on the concept of the airless flowing principle, meaning when you pour a little bit of wine out of a plastic bag, it doesn’t oxidize the wine. Even though they didn’t have a tap back in the day, they had a certain peg or a paperclip or a way of closing it. Even though it was rudimentary, it became very popular and people saw the potential for it. It became so popular that Penfolds, one of the most famous wineries in all of Australia and the world, came together with a well-known Melbourne wine merchant. They began to develop a tap system for these plastic bags. And in 1968, Penfolds released its first, what they called, cask wine, which became a standard term for this kind of wine in Australia. What’s interesting about it is it wasn’t really a bag-in-box, it was a bag in a tin. I’m assuming it had a tap, but I’m not really sure.
Because Penfolds was collaborating on this technology, they probably did. I just have not been able to find an image of it anywhere, and I kind of want to see an image of this. I want to see a bag of wine with a tap or without a tap, in a tin, from back in the day from Penfolds. So if anybody has an image of that, hit me up on my DMs @vinepairkeith on Instagram. I gotta see it. But this is how it all began. In the ‘70s, Australian winemakers got wind of this idea that was patented in the United States for carrying battery acid. That box-bag tap system became the standard way of presenting bag-in-boxed wine in Australia. And here we are with the bag-in-boxed wine technology that was kind of American and kind of Australian; mostly Australian and a little bit American.
But either way, what a boxed wine is, is just a nice, easy-drinking casual wine you can get from a tap. If it’s white, you keep it in the fridge. If it’s red, you keep it on the counter. Or if it’s red, keep it in the fridge if you want it chilled. I don’t know; whatever you want to do. But that’s what boxed wine is for. We in the United States and in Australia have these ideas about boxed wine. Because they’re so affordable, they’re so easy to party with. You bring it to the party, you bring it to the beach, you bring it to the picnic, you bring it to the rooftop, you bring it to the porch. That’s what this wine is for. It’s fun, engaging, awesome, communal fun drinking. There’s Tim McKirdy, senior staff writer at VinePair, as well as the host of VinePair’s “Cocktail College” podcast, and Katie Brown, who’s also part of the editorial team of VinePair, as well as co-producer of “Going Out with Jake Cornell,” our other VinePair podcast. The three of us got together and we tasted, I think, 30 or more of the boxed wines in the market and came up with our favorites and put them on a list. You should definitely check that out on vinepair.com.
I believe bag-in-box became very popular again because of the organic movement that came out of California in the ’90s. When I had my wine shop, the bag-in-box game was big. Once the organic movement hit, everybody was doing bag-in-boxes. The thing people were doing is, now there was a competition of who could put the best wine in a box and sell it on a retail shelf. There’s a lot of competition out there, and there’s a lot of different kinds of wine in boxes. You never know what you’re going to get, but there’s stuff from all around the world. There’s bag-in-box from France, Spain, United States, Italy, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, you name it. There are bag-in-box wines everywhere, because the majority of the wine that we drink on a daily basis, wine lovers, are ones that are ready for right now. And bag-in-box are wines that are ready for right now. There are companies that sell wine in a bag-in-box, but they also sell that same wine in a bottle, because that’s the kind of wine it is. It’s fun, enjoyable, young, and easy-drinking. And the best part is, they’re pretty inexpensive, guys. The most expensive boxed wine I’ve ever seen is $40, and that’s really a lot. You’re talking between $20 and $25 or less, and you’re getting at most four bottles of wine. So that’s pretty awesome.
So I feel like I’m rambling here now because I keep on saying things over and over again. I wanted to give you guys a sense of what this is because, as I said, it’s not going anywhere. It’s part of our drinking culture. It’s who we are, and they’re fun. And I gotta be honest, when I had my wine shop, I always had a boxed wine in my fridge. I always had a boxed wine on my counter, always. Whether I was drinking it or cooking with it, it was always there. The last thing I’ll say about boxed wine is, the looks you’re going to get when you walk into the party with the big box of wine, you’re going to get high fives. Let’s talk next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.