Recently, Melissa and I offered to bring wine to a casual birthday party. She texted me from The Spanish Table: She had bought a wine we had tasted before, Alandra's simple, fruity, friendly red table wine, but she had bought it in a box. (She also bought the white wine from the same producer.) She thought it would be funny if we, the wine people, brought boxed wine.
It surprises people when I say it, but I'm not bothered by boxed wine. I'm not talking about Franzia products, though. I'm talking about decent wine that happens to come in a box instead of a bottle.
But I felt some trepidation about showing up to a party of food lovers with boxed wine, when only about one-third of the guests knew us well enough to get the joke. It takes a reasonable amount of wine knowledge to understand the benefits of boxed wine.
One of the main ones, especially for the casual drinker, is that you can pour yourself a glass or two and not worry about the rest of the wine. Pull two glasses from a bottle, and you've just added a massive amount of oxygen to the wine that won't go away, though you can combat the effects. Get yourself some wine from a box's spigot, however, and the plastic liner inside collapses in on itself, keeping oxygen out and maintaining the wine's freshness.
It's not a perfect seal; plastic is more permeable than glass. A 1997 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry looked at different containers for wine, and found that oxygen enters a boxed wine much more quickly than it does a sealed bottle. Starting at the 6-month mark, a "bag in box" wine gets about 1 g/mL of oxygen in the liquid for every 4 months; glass bottles have barely changed their oxygen levels after two years. In other words, buy new boxes of young wine and don't cellar them.
The guests who knew us saw the box, shrugged their shoulders, and said, "If you brought it, it must be good." But I noticed some arched eyebrows among the other guests. Or I thought I did. Perhaps my self-conscious mind added bogeymen where none existed. Years after I've become comfortable with my wine knowledge, I guess I can still feel a twinge of worry about how strangers might judge me by my wine choices.
The host didn't judge, of course. She even offered a bon mot on the subject when she saw the little cartons: "Oh yeah, I know; boxes are the new screw caps."
It's true that boxes today, just like screw caps a decade ago, have a public relations problem. A few years ago, the arched eyebrows I imagined I saw at the party would have been on my own face. Boxes are common enough in Europe for everyday wines, but here they are too closely linked to cheap wine that seems closer to syrup than to fermented grapes.
As society gets more green-focused, however, boxed wine may become the darling of the sustainable food set. Consider the fuel it takes to shuttle wine about. A bottle's worth of wine, 750 ml, weighs about 750 g by itself. An average wine bottle weighs in the neighborhood of 500 g. The box we brought contained 3,000 ml of wine, and the box added 190 g. In other words, 40 percent of the weight of shipping bottled wine is the bottle while only about 7 percent of the weight of boxed wine is the box.
And bottles are inefficient space fillers. If a bottle was a rectangular prism, it would occupy about 1,500 cubic centimeters for 750 cubic centimeters of liquid. But since bottles don't pack tightly, probably one-third of that is wasted space. Our box's dimensions were about 3,500 cubic centimeters to hold 3,000 cubic centimeters of liquid, and you can, of course, pack boxes right up against each other. You can get a little less than twice the volume of boxed wine in the same space you would need for bottles.
Not that glass is evil. Far from it. The McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook makes the startling observation that "One 12-ounce glass bottle, melted down and reformed, yields one 12-ounce bottle without any loss of quality." Glass is, the book says, "one of the few manufactured goods that is 100% recyclable." But producing a bottle requires an oven kept between 2,600 F and 2,900 F, a full order of magnitude above temperatures used in paper production. The industry has come up with a lot of tricks for making their processes more energy efficient, but that's still a lot of fuel.
But for a casual party featuring pizza and snacks, or a house wine to drink with dinner, bottles may not be the best choice. At least, that's what I'll say the next time I hear the slight sniff of a wine-loving guest.