With the promise of access to exclusive bottlings and swanky events, private wine clubs are popping up all over the place nowadays. What you might not expect, however, is that one of the most difficult to get into sells its wine in bags and boxes, rather than bottles.
“Unfortunately it’s waiting list only,” says Oliver Lea of the Bag-in-Box Wine Company. Lea won’t disclose membership numbers but is happy to divulge that there are 2,000 people queuing up to join. Naturally, when he says “unfortunately” he means the very opposite: a burgeoning waiting list is a nice problem to have.
A start-up, launched in 2018 by four siblings and a Master of Wine, BIB Wine Co’s list features just 12 wines so far, including a Fleurie, an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, a Spanish Tempranillo and Garnacha, and a Bacchus from English winery Three Choirs. All are chosen according to their “respect for the land” and use a “low-intervention” approach. “All of our wines are low in chemical inputs and are made using sustainable and traditional methods,” trumpets the website. Anyone can buy the BIB Wine Co’s wines through its website; joining the club gets you discounts and special offers.
In common with so many other companies, Covid-19 has transformed BIB Wine Co’s business. “Interest shot up during lockdown,” Lea says. “In one month we sold more than in the previous six months, including Christmas.”
Now we’re at the crux of a set of circumstances that has put packaging at the very centre of public consciousness. The pandemic has turned us all into online shoppers, and there is a massive increase in environmental awareness.
Questions have always been asked about the viability of glass as a packaging material, and such questions have become more urgent. Glass is heavy (it accounts for 60% of the weight of a 12-bottle case) and even recycling it uses a great deal of energy, as it has to be melted down. It’s estimated that a pallet of bag-in-box wines holds 80% more wine but weighs a third less than the equivalent volume of wine in glass bottles.
Alternatives to the 75cl bottle have been around for decades, but recently there has been a flurry of launches of radical new ways of packaging wine and spirits. The Frugal bottle, a wine bottle made from 94% recycled paper with a food-grade liner, was launched earlier this year; in 2021 Johnnie Walker will be put into the world’s first bottle made entirely from sustainably sourced wood, its maker Diageo has announced; and Champagne Ruinart is also in on the act, with its “second skin” plastic-free packaging that it says provides a 60% reduction in its carbon footprint.
It’s bag-in-box (or “cask” as its Australian inventors call it) that is getting winemakers most excited, however. BIB has been around for generations – more than half the wine sold in Sweden comes in a box, the US, Norway and Germany are big importers, and there’s even an international bag-in-box wine competition held annually in Toulouse. In existence since 2015, it has some 300 entries this year – and the quality of wine is, apparently, getting better and better.
It’s bag-in-box that is getting winemakers most excited
It’s arguably in France, as wine commentator Robert Joseph reports in trade magazine Meininger’s Wine Business International, that the most interesting changes are taking place. Bag-in-box has grown its market share of supermarket wine sales from less than 10 percent in 2004 to nearly 40 percent in 2017. Joseph notes the extraordinary success too of the BiBoViNo chain, which has some 40 top-quality wines from around France in stylish mauve BIB packaging, sold online and in 21 shops and bars in France, Switzerland and the Caribbean. At the top end, BiBoViNo lists wines from Pomerol, Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Crozes-Hermitage, all sold in two-litre boxes.
“It’s now about premiumisation,” says the BIB Wine Company’s Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, who selects the wines – the list includes his own Roussillon joint venture, Domaine of the Bee. “We’re seeing fewer of the five-litre packs of French vin de pays that was the classic bag-in-box.”
At a conference last week on the future of fine wine organised by the ARENI organisation, Ryan Pennington of Washington State’s Ste Michelle Wine Estates said, “We are re-examining our assumptions that luxury equals a 750ml bottle.” He said that bag-in-box has seen “an acceleration in the US since lockdown,” adding that “younger and more affluent consumers are quite happy to drink wine at higher price points out of cans.”
We are re-examining our assumptions that luxury equals a 750ml bottle
One fine dining restaurant with its foot firmly on the bag-in-box accelerator is St John in London’s Farringdon. The only Michelin-starred restaurant to do so, St John has been selling three-litre bag-in-box wines since at least 2014 – a red, rosé and white from the little-known appellation St Guilhem Le Désert in Languedoc’s Pic St Loup.
Victoria Sharples, St John’s head of wine, who oversees the blending of the boxes, says there is very little resistance from customers who might have reservations about bag-in-box. “It’s great to see people’s surprise and a pleasure to see them convert.”
Expansion of the range is firmly in Sharples’ plan. “As attitudes continue to evolve, I see no reason to not be putting more wines into BIB, especially where they are wines to be consumed over the next 12 months. Looking at our current range, Picpoul, claret and Mâcon are good candidates.”
She stresses there are no such plans at the moment but it’s something she would like to see happen over time. “The next 12 months are going to be really exciting to see what can be achieved.”
BIB Wine Company has a further eight wines coming, including a Turkish cuvée. “There’s a lot more to be done in Europe. We are looking at Hungary, and I’d love to have a Greek white,” Lea says. The club is also taking on a wine buyer to work alongside Howard-Sneyd. “We want to increase our capacity to find and buy wines. We’re pursuing fairly aggressive growth.”
That includes opening a bag-in-box wine bar, a plan which has been put on the backburner in the pandemic. Earlier this year the group had crowdfunded £200,000 and were looking for a central London premises with the intention of opening in May.
It will still happen, Lea says, though he admits to some relief that the bar didn’t open just before lockdown. “We can give all our attention to the online business for the time being. That’s where the growth is.”