The next time you're packing for a picnic, perhaps you'll buy a box of wine instead of a six-pack of beer. That's what vintners are betting on with an array of packaging that costs and weighs less than the traditional glass bottle. These containers also don't require a corkscrew to open and may keep leftovers fresher longer. Purists may cringe when offered wine from a plastic pouch, paperboard box, or (gasp!) aluminum can, but experts say taste doesn't suffer and in some cases might improve.
Winemakers have a good deal of experience with not-in-a-bottle wines. "Nontraditional vessels are huge in other parts of the world," says Joshua Wesson, co-founder and wine director of Best Cellars, a chain of eight wine shops in New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and Virginia. "They're an an irresistible force making its way to the U.S." Indeed, more than half of the wine sold in Australia and Scandinavia is not in a glass bottle.
The most popular alternative wine packaging abroad is plastic bags contained within a cardboard box. So-called bag-in-box, or cask, wine has been available in the U.S. since the 1980s but has generally been low-quality jug wine, according to Lynn Dornblaser, who follows the wine industry for Mintel International Group, a Chicago market researcher. "But now you can find pretty decent stuff," she says, such as Black Box Merlot ($25 for 3 liters) and Gravel Mine Pinot Noir ($65 to $100 for 3 liters), which have been praised by wine critics.
Cask wine is less expensive than the same wine in a bottle because of cheaper materials and lower shipping costs. For example, a 3-liter cask of Shiraz from Hardy's Stamp of Australia costs around $14, while the equivalent amount of the same exact wine packaged in four standard 750-milliliter bottles runs $24. Better-engineered spigots prevent air from entering the bag when you fill your glass -- the bag deflates like a balloon -- so the wine stays fresh. Exposed to air, the contents of an open bottle oxidize rapidly and take on a stale flavor within hours. But opened cask wine stays good for six to eight weeks (with or without refrigeration). It will keep for a year unopened.
Wine is also available in aseptic paperboard containers akin to juice boxes. Three Thieves offers one-liter boxes of its Bandit Cabernet ($8) and imported Italian Bianco ($6). You can also find handy 500-ml cartons of Almaden Sangria, Vendange Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay -- all for $4. The aseptic containers have screw caps and a year-long shelf life, but once opened the wine will last as long as it would in an open glass bottle.
You can even find wine in cans. Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery offers single-serving pink aluminum cans of its sparkling Sofia Blanc de Blancs for $5. "No one would mistake any of these for fine wine, but they aren't bad," says Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly. "It's really all about convenience."
To find out whether the kind of container makes a difference, BusinessWeek (MHP ) conducted an informal blind taste test. Of eight drinkers, five preferred the wine from the bag-in-box, one preferred the same wine from the bottle, and two couldn't tell the difference. Two tasters also couldn't tell whether identical wines were aseptically packaged or bottled. But the others preferred glass to aseptic. No one had a strong preference for either the can or bottle versions of the sparkling wine. Our conclusion: The idea of wine in something other than a bottle may be harder to swallow than the wine itself.
By Kate Murphy