Breaking Box — Upscale Wine Market Ready for Cardboard Cabernet?

American wines have secured a spot on the world stage — as noted by NBC News, it’s been 40 years since the “Judgment of Paris” which saw new-breed California wineries triumph over established French classics. American winemakers haven’t stopped innovating and are now spearheading a move to boxed wines on an even playing field with the best in the business. But are consumers and wine experts ready for upscale boxes of Cabernet and Merlot?

The Cardboard Conundrum

Boxed wines got their start in Australia more than 50 years ago thanks to winemaker Penfolds. The company developed a cardboard box and plastic bladder system which both dramatically lowered production costs and came with the added benefit of keeping wine fresh much longer — what could possibly go wrong?

Problems started once producers realized that they could corner an even more cost-effective corner of the market by pairing the low-price container production with their least expensive wines. The result? Decades of truly awful blends at rock-bottom prices.

Changing the Game

According to Marketwatch Magazine a number of brands are now looking to conquer the high-value wine market. At the lower end of the scale are table wines like Franzia which shipped 23 million cases last year. Brands like The Naked Grape, Black Box and Bota Box have also seen marked success, although it’s worth noting that — at least for the moment — $20 seems to be the ceiling for a 3-liter box. Nonetheless, these wines are a marked departure from their lower-priced progenitors and there’s a good chance that “ultra premium” boxed wine isn’t out of reach.

Sanitary Service

If boxed wine makers really want to compete with established bottle brands, however, they need to do more than simply improve the quality of what’s inside the bag; wineries also need to ensure that tier offerings meet — and exceed — all sanitary standards. First up is wine barrel maintenance. With the exception of brands like The Naked Grape, most wines are still aged in oak barrels. As noted by Wines and Vines, there’s now renewed interest in steam-cleaning barrels rather than using traditional hot-water soaks — and just like the evolution of boxed wine there’s also a trend away from wet steam to dry steam options which use less water, offer improved portability and leave behind virtually no moisture.

There’s also a case to be made for dry steam cleaning solutions and the equipment necessary to manufacture plastic bladders and cardboard boxes. Production lines require regular maintenance to prevent the build-up of dust and debris, but if moisture is left behind the result could be ruined boxes or contaminated bladders. Dry vapor steam cleaning systems not only get tap water hot enough to kill any bacteria in its way — up to 360 degrees Fahrenheit — but the dry steam expands when it contacts a cold production surface to explosively loosen dust, dirt and grime.

Boxed wines are making a comeback and they’re a cut above original offerings. Conquering the market, however, means going beyond the box to ensure every aspect of production and packaging meets the high standards of wine snobs and sociable consumers alike.

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