Boxed wine was born in mid-'60s Australia as a cost-effective way for wineries to package their less expensive offerings, but many Americans under the age of 35 got their introductions in the mid-aughts. It was then, presumably in a frat house basement, possibly somewhere in the middle of the country, that someone first pulled the polyethylene bladder out of a cardboard box of Franzia, put the opened spout to their mouth, and gave the bag an open-palmed whack.
It was the slap heard 'round the world, and the meme rushed into our lexicon. By 2005, Urban Dictionary published its first entry for "slap the bag." In it, the author described the steps above, and expanded with notes about "passing [the wine] around, partaking of its sweet nectar as you simultaneously hold, pour, and slap the bag." The following year, entries appeared for slapbag and slappybag, by then the catchall nouns for the faddish shebang. (Australians, the product’s original creators, got around to writing their own entry for "slap the goon" in 2010, substituting the word bag for a bastardization of flagon, a Medieval word for a large drinking vessel.
And so it was that a generation of consumers came to associate boxed wine with cheap fun, or something like the dirt cheap beer found at tailgates across the nation. Sure, it got the job done, but there wasn't more to it than novelty and affordability. It was hardly something you’d pour into a stemmed glass to enjoy alongside a fancy meal.
That's changed in recent years, however, as more wineries have begun significantly elevating their boxed offerings, debuting varietals more closely associated with the classiness of a cellar than the grunginess of a basement — fraternity or otherwise. And as the quality of the wine itself has improved, boxed wine has other traits that have proved especially attractive to customers — especially those younger, millennial customers who'd seen boxes in action before.
Today American wineries are espousing the benefits of the box by marketing all of its time-tested benefits — affordability, portability, and sustainability — but also a new one: premium quality.
"Over the past five years, there's been a renaissance for wine packaged in the box," says Cal Dennison, the senior director of winemaking for Vin Vault, a brand owned by E. & J. Gallo Winery. "The quality and convenience of wine in these packages is revolutionary. Great wines served in a technically advanced package are now providing more choices for premium wines than ever before."
In a word, familiarity. One reason boxed wine failed to catch on for much of the 20th century in America — despite being popular throughout Europe — was because most Americans were unaccustomed to the concept of table wine. While Europeans were familiar with affordable, all-purpose wine to be served with meals each night of the week, Americans associated wine in general with special occasions, or fanciness. Bottles were only purchased after careful study, and higher prices were assumed to reflect a wine’s quality. That same logic, when flipped, worked against affordable options, and none were more affordable than what came in boxes.
Over time, however, the American wine market blossomed, and our thirst for affordable wines in particular exploded. For a large number of young adults, it's common to drink a glass or two of wine most nights of the week. And in this everyday calculation, attributes like taste and affordability are on nearly equal footing.
Winemakers have noticed. One industry survey noted that as of this year, 54 percent of consumers would be open to "using casual boxed wine as their 'go-to' in the fridge." Expect that number to grow.
Good for Wineries, Customers, and the Environment
From a winery’s perspective, boxed wine makes a lot of business sense. In addition to reduced packaging costs — glass vs. cardboard — boxes of wine can be more closely and lightly packed together than bottles within shipping containers, and so transportation becomes more efficient. This enables them to sell more at a time: a three-liter box contains the equivalent of four 750 mL bottles of wine.
Some of these savings are passed on to customers in the form of lower purchase prices, and many wineries are targeting the $20 range for their products, which is a particularly great deal. But boxed wine’s appeal isn’t strictly economic, and wineries are also advertising the prolonged shelf life of boxed wine. Whereas bottled wine should be consumed within a few days after opening, boxed wine can retain its freshness for up to one month, so long as it’s refrigerated. (This despite the fact that the wine that’s bottled is typically made exactly the same way as the wine destined for sealed plastic bags.) There's also no risk of cork taint. And as part of their marketing to millennials in particular, many wineries are promoting the sustainability of boxed wine’s cardboard packaging as something that plays an important role in reducing their carbon footprints.
Try Some for Yourself
Although some boxed wines can be purchased for upwards of $40, the four listed below are priced at or below $20. These four wines display the two best traits of modern boxed wine: value and quality.
Vin Vault Cabernet Sauvignon (3L — Under $20)
Historically, bag-in-box wines have been aggressively fruit-driven and sweet, so it’s a pleasant surprise to taste only the faintest notes of spiced cherry in this dry, medium-bodied Cab. Very drinkable, and great for pairing with meals.
Bota Box Merlot (3L — Under $20)
Medium-bodied and very mild for a Merlot, this one finishes with just the slightest hint of vanilla.
Black Box Sauvignon Blanc (3L — Around $25)
This crisp Chilean wine matches just the right amount of acidity with a refreshing peach finish.
Naked Grape Pinot Grigio (3L — Under $20)
Well-balanced wine featuring flavors of peach and green apple, but its lightness and crispness prevent it from being too fruity. Very, very drinkable.