Year’s end means it’s time for our annual vinous navel-gazing about developments of the past year and crystal-ball prognostications about trends for the next. (A professor once assigned an article in which he referred to such retrospective introspection with the Greek word omphaloskepsis, sending all his students lunging for our Oxford English Dictionaries. Ever since, I’ve tried to work the word into anything I write, but I’ll refrain just this once.)
You won’t see headlines about this, but out of more than 250 wines I’ve recommended on these pages in 2021, five have been in 3-liter box formats. For me, this indicates a growing trend of better quality wines in alternative packaging. Three — a tempranillo and a garnacha called Independent, and a monastrell labeled as Estancia del Silencio — were from Spain. There was a barbera from Italy named simply Fred (there’s probably a story there). And last week, I recommended a cabernet sauvignon-païs blend from Chile called GEA by Root 1. All were priced around $25 to $35 per box, equivalent to $6.25 or $8.75 for a standard 750-milliliter bottle.
So I was intrigued last month to see on social media news of a limited release of something called Really Good Boxed Wine. It was 2019 pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County, priced at $65. At first blush that sounds ridiculous, but it amounts to $16.25 a bottle, a very fair (even cheap) price for a decent Russian River Valley pinot noir. I placed an order, and good thing I did. By the time my box arrived a few days later, the website had sold out.
The wine, advertised as produced by Ketcham Vineyard, was quite good, with the dark berry and cherry flavors typical of Russian River pinot noir. The brand is the brainchild of Jake Whitman, a former consumer products brand manager with Proctor & Gamble and a few tech companies in San Francisco.
“I like the convenience of boxes,” Whitman told me. “The wine stays fresh for six weeks after opening, so I don’t have to finish it in one or two sittings. And I wanted a weekend wine that I could drink on Tuesday.”
Is a $65 boxed wine commercially viable? A 3-liter box holds the equivalent of four bottles but costs about the same as two. “If you’re used to spending $30 for a bottle to enjoy on the weekend, here’s the same wine at $15 for you to enjoy all week,” Whitman explained. “And if you typically spend $15 on a bottle, here’s a wine worth twice as much you can get for the same price.”
Really Good Boxed Wine sold 200 boxes of the pinot noir in a test run in Ohio last August, and an additional 300 in a nationwide trial in November. Whitman will offer 2,500 boxes of a 2019 cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles in January, and he has two wines from 2021 in the pipeline to be released early next year. He was cagey about those, but I suspect a white and a rosé.
Whitman is his own only full-time employee, with a small cadre helping him with website development as well as sourcing wines and grapes. The wines, all certified sustainable, are being made at Healdsburg Custom Crush winery in Sonoma County. They will be sold online, with delivery to 39 states and the District of Columbia. Whitman said he hopes to expand his portfolio to include wines from the Pacific Northwest and Europe.
The box format also has environmental and commercial advantages. A box of wine weighs about the same as two bottles, so packaging and shipping costs are lower. You can throw the empty box in your paper recycling bin, and while the bag that held the wine generally cannot go into municipal recycling, it can be added to plastic bag recycling at your grocery store, Whitman said. “Even if you throw the bag in the trash, it’s a 50 percent reduction in carbon footprint over a typical bottle,” he added.
Better availability of good wine — even really good wine — in boxes comes as wine producers and consumers are increasingly wary of the environmental impact of glass. Studies vary, but bottle manufacturing accounts for about a third of the wine industry’s carbon emissions. Add transportation — empty bottles shipped to wineries and full ones shipped to market — and glass’s contribution is roughly half, or even more.
No one is calling for elimination of the bottle — glass is still considered the ideal format for aging wine. But most wine today is not aged. Consumer surveys tell us more than 90 percent of wine sold in the United States is consumed within a few days of purchase. That makes the package less important and allows us to consider other factors, such as convenience, economy and the environment.
Here’s the rub: Wineries are reluctant to put wine in boxes because consumers regard boxed wine as inferior. And with good reason. Most of it is. If we want better wine in boxes, we need to demand it. And buy it when we find it.