Boxed wine and snobbish notions

VINTAGE POINT

Quality flows - but not from bottle

VintagePoint

January 07, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Ryan Sproule wants American wine consumers to think outside the bottle.

The 41-year-old president and founder of Black Box Wines is betting that the fiercely snobbish U.S. wine market is ready to take a new look at an old technology: the bag in a box.

Boxed wines long have been associated with volume and low price rather than quality, but Sproule is looking to change that image with a new line of upscale wines that can persuade consumers that good things come in rectangular packages.

In doing so, the former software consultant is challenging traditional notions of wine sophistication.

"It takes a certain amount of confidence to drink wine out of a box," he said.

Confidence is one thing Sproule doesn't lack. He's got strong arguments on his side and some good products to show off. The first release from Black Box is a 2002 Napa Valley chardonnay. It comes in a classy-looking 3-liter box to distinguish it from the 5-liter boxes employed by more traditional bag-in-a-box producers.

It's a good wine, not spectacular but clearly competitive with bottled California chardonnays in the $12-to-$15 range. It costs $25 a box for the equivalent of four standard-sized bottles. That works out to $6.25 a bottle.

You can go to your local wine shop and look for a bottle of Napa Valley chardonnay at that price, but your search will be in vain. Double it to $12.50 and you'll be hard-pressed to find a bottle.

Sproule said the savings on packaging and transportation are enormous and that he's simply passing along those savings to the consumer.

Black Box is marketing its boxed wines in association with Pacific Wine Partners, which is importing boxed versions of two established Australian brands, Hardy's and Banrock Station, at about $16 for 3 liters. (In Australia, where wine snobs get fed to the dingos, bag-in-box wines are wildly popular.)

Bag-in-box technology offers other advantages that have been overshadowed by the down-market image of the best-known boxed-wine brands. For one thing, thanks to their oxygen-free environment, the wines last.

As I write, I'm tasting a 2002 Hardy's Shiraz from Southeastern Australia, a well-made, fruity red wine that compares well with bottled wines in the $8-to-$12 range. It's been a month since the box was first tapped, and if there's been any fading of the aromas or flavor, I can't detect it.

Sproule believes there are many consumers who enjoy fine wine but frequently forgo it because they don't want to open a full bottle that will go bad within days. He said a likely consumer of his wines would be a single professional woman in her 30s who enjoys a glass or two with dinner.

The idea for Black Box Wines arose out of his experiences in Europe, Sproule says. When he was there, he said, he found many well-made wines sold in boxes. But when he returned to the United States, he found no boxed wines that he would choose to drink.

Sproule said he founded Black Box in June and shortly after was acquired by Pacific, a larger firm with the resources to distribute the wine.

In addition to the Napa chardonnay, Black Box is offering a 2000 Sonoma County merlot. In the plans are a chardonnay from Monterey County and a cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles. The regional appellations distinguish the wines from traditional boxed wines, most of which carry a generic California label.

Sproule said Black Box doesn't own vineyards but purchases wine on the bulk market from established wineries that can't sell all their wine under their own labels. The Napa chardonnay, he said, is Black Box's blend of wine from two wineries.

Black Box, he said, will not be limited to California but will offer wines from other wine-growing regions of the globe. He said he's considering New Zealand for chardonnay and Australia's Barossa Valley for shiraz.

"We're not really tied to any specific appellation," said Sproule, a Canadian citizen who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jennifer Marples, publicist for Pacific Wine Partners, said the initial reaction of wine distributors to the idea of upscale boxed wine was, "Give me a break."

Since then, Sproule said, the trade has warmed up to the idea. He said about 85 percent of the reaction he's getting is positive, with 15 percent still resolutely opposed to the concept of boxed wine.

Boxed wine has another especially timely advantage that may account for the market's receptiveness. Because there's no cork, there's no possibility of picking up the cork taint - an increasing concern among wine producers and savvy consumers.

Persistent problems with contaminated natural corks are spurring wineries to look to a variety of alternatives - including screw tops. Sproule said the growing acceptance of screw tops is helping open the way for consumers to consider boxed wines.

"It's helped soften perceptions," he said. "I'm quite happy to see success in the screw-top area. The consumer is more open-minded than some of the wine marketers."

Sproule does not expect to have an open field for long. He said many of California's large, high-quality wineries are beginning to consider bag-in-a-box in a new light.

"All of the major players, like Beringer and Mondavi, are looking at this now," he said.

It seems clear to me that Sproule is on the right track. The most important consideration in choosing wine is how it tastes in the glass - not the package by which it got there.

Traditionalists can console themselves that bottled wines will still be around for a long time - though more and better will use screw tops.

It's a new century, though. Consumers can expect to see significant changes in how wine is marketed and packaged. True sophistication will show itself in an openness to new ideas rather than a blind adherence to old ways.

Bet on the box.

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