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Rise of California North Coast ultrapremium boxed wine

Boxed wine and Napa Valley may not be the first pairing one might expect, but at one address there the spigot has been opening for other-than-glass consumer packaging.

One87 Wine & Cocktails is ramping up production at its American Canyon plant on two brands that if sold in standard 750-milliliter bottles would retail for well over $20 each.

Right now, they are but a tiny drop in the ocean of mostly much-lower-priced U.S. wine shipped in this bag-in-box format.

But these higher-end ventures are testing consumer taste for quality, convenience and even environmental sensitivity over traditional visual cues of ultrapremium wine in a glass bottle.

“Growth in screwcaps and canned wine was the inspiration for this,” said Jake Whitman, whose Real Good Boxed Wine is finished in Healdsburg and packaged at One87. “Consumers have become more accepting of something different from glass bottles. But we’re not trying to replace glass bottles.”

In 2000, Napa Valley winery PlumpJack turned heads among luxury producers when it started spinning down aluminum caps on half the bottles of its 1997 vintage reserve cabernet sauvignon. For PlumpJack, the concern was over “cork taint.” That mold-caused off odor and flavor in wine has become less of a headline issue since major cork suppliers introduced ever more exacting quality-control systems and processes in the years following.

Then in 2008 came Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Sofia sparkling wine in single-serving aluminum cans, and the past several years has seen jump in the number of brands under pull-tabs into the hundreds. During that time, U.S. sales of wine in cans have grown at double-digit rates. Convenience and less breakability have been selling points for wine in aluminum cans, and environmental aspects such as lower weight and higher recyclability are being touted more frequently.

Convenience in a multi-glass format also has been a selling point of boxed wine. Though devices and products have been on the market for years to help protect uncorked wine from too much oxygen exposure, a bag in the box has the benefit of little air contact with each pour via a spigot, keeping wine fresh for several weeks.

But boxed wine since the 1980s had been associated with lower-end wine. That started changing nearly two decades ago when Napa-based Delicato Family Wines rolled out BotaBox and Constellation Brands introduced Black Box.

Sarah Puil, CEO and founder of Boxt, discusses wine sales at North Bay Business Journal’s 22nd annual Wine Industry Conference on Tuesday. (Loren Hansen Photography)
Sarah Puil, CEO and founder of Boxt, discusses wine sales at North Bay Business Journal’s 22nd annual Wine Industry Conference on Tuesday. (Loren Hansen Photography)
Boxt ultrapremium boxed wine taste profile No. 5 is described as "big," "bold" and "smooth" and is made in Napa from Mt. Veeder appellation grapes. The 3-liter boxes retail for $89 a la carte or $74 by subscription. (courtesy of Boxt)
Boxt ultrapremium boxed wine taste profile No. 5 is described as "big," "bold" and "smooth" and is made in Napa from Mt. Veeder appellation grapes. The 3-liter boxes retail for $89 a la carte or $74 by subscription. (courtesy of Boxt)

Then in 2019, Texas entrepreneur Sarah Puil launched the Boxt wine club, centered on monthly shipments of Napa-made wine based on consumer taste preferences more than traditional wine cues.

Each 3-liter wine bladder with spigot is packed in a wood box. The boxes come in eight varietal and blend options, retailing for $89 by themselves or $74 as part of a monthly subscription. That’s equivalent to $22.25 or $18.50 per standard bottle.

Those bladders are now being filled at One87. And Boxt is planning to roll out in coming months refillable pouches to put in the wooden boxes, according to Puil.

Early this year Tablas Creek Winery in California’s Paso Robles region test-released 3-liter boxes with of its Patelin de Tablas rose wine, which normally retails for $28 a bottle. But with much less packaging cost, the winery offered it to club members for $95, instead of $112. The 100 cases of the wine, transferred into 300 boxes, sold in four hours.

Cincinnati resident Jake Whitman released his first Really Good Boxed Wine run, produced at Healdsburg Custom Crush with grapes from Ketcham Estate winery in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, in August 2021. Now the bags in the boxes are filled at One87 Wine & Cocktails in Napa Valley. The 3-liter boxes retail for $65, or over $16 a bottle. Here he poses with 2019 cabernet sauvignon and 2021 sauvignon blanc boxed wines. (courtesy of Really Good Boxed Wine)
Cincinnati resident Jake Whitman released his first Really Good Boxed Wine run, produced at Healdsburg Custom Crush with grapes from Ketcham Estate winery in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, in August 2021. Now the bags in the boxes are filled at One87 Wine & Cocktails in Napa Valley. The 3-liter boxes retail for $65, or over $16 a bottle. Here he poses with 2019 cabernet sauvignon and 2021 sauvignon blanc boxed wines. (courtesy of Really Good Boxed Wine)

Real Good Boxed Wine, right now a direct-to-consumer venture, had a similar experience.

Whitman, a Cincinnati resident who used to live in San Francisco and frequent Wine Country, has known the family behind Ketcham Estate winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley for years. He secured a winegrower license at Healdsburg Custom Crush and retained Ketcham winemaker Tami Collins. The first test release was blended from 2020 Ketcham Vineyard pinot noir wine in the barrel, and 2,000 bottles worth were hand-filled into 500 3-liter boxes.

The wine received an endorsement from master sommelier Andy Meyers. The first release last August sold out in five days, and the second release in November went in four days.

The boxes are moving into wider availability, so filling of the 2,000 boxes per release had to move to One87 and order fulfillment to WineShipping in Windsor. The boxes retail for $65 each, or $16.25 a bottle. Whitman said he wants to offer wine that could sell for $30 at a discount because of the less-expensive packaging.

Collins has made wine that was to be transferred into bullet kegs for draft by-the-glass programs at restaurants and bars, but crafting a wine for bag in box was uncharted territory, she said.

“We’re trying to make it in a fresh and ready-to-drink style,” Collins said. “Hopefully, now one is trying to age it.”

That’s because like screwcaps, the plastic bladder in the box doesn’t have the measured transfer of oxygen of cork that allows fine wines to mature in the cellar. So wines that go under caps or in boxes or cans have to be what the winemaker intends the consumer to enjoy.

“Not many have a great wine cellar. I have a dark closet at home,” Collins said. “Ninety percent of what is purchased at the wine shop or store is consumed in 24 hours.”

One87 owner Bill Hamilton said that in addition to Boxt and Really Good Boxed Wine he is currently working with more than a half dozen others exploring fine wine in that format.

“Generally, it’s a new era. People are getting into it because John Q. Consumer is more accepting of it because it’s better wine,” Hamilton said.

He opened the 65,000-square-foot facility seven years ago after landing an exclusive North American license to fill and package 187-milliliter, single serving PET plastic wine containers for French company OneGlassWine.

That business has expanded into a wide array of alternative wine and beverage alcohol packaging. That includes 250- to 750-milliliter aluminum bottles, including the Gaze brand of wine-based cocktails by Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates.

Gearing up for production now are 250-milliliter plastic pouches for Wine Connoisseur. The San Francisco startup is making a device reminiscent of a Keurig coffee machine that will warm or chill the wine to the proper temperature then dispense it into a glass. The company lined up One87 to be the exclusive filler of wines from 30 companies.

Another extension of bag-in-box concept doesn’t involve a box at all. One87 has been working with Rochester, New York-based AstraPouch on filling free-standing pouches, which are made of sturdier plastic and are printed with the product label.

And One87 just signed an agreement to start filling the 100- and 200-milliliter PET plastic cylinders for Dutch company Tubes, which has contracts to supply single serving beverages to airlines like KLM and wine samples for noted reviewer Robert Parker.

Part of the surge in business has come with the pandemic, Hamilton said.

“COVID did us a favor,” he said. “Direct-to-consumer and alternative formats have become popular. We feed the take-out-cocktail market quite well.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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