Drinking Inside the Box

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Drinking Inside the Box

illustrations by Emily Edgar

“People are gonna be like, ‘they put their wine in a fucking box?!’”. This is the sort of thing Melissa Saunders lives for: high-quality wine in sustainable packaging, for the masses. Changing wine drinkers’ opinions on how wine should be packaged is the Sisyphean “rock that I’m trying to push uphill.” Newly-christened Master of Wine and founder of Communal Brands, her import and distribution company, Saunders is on a crusade to seek less—a lot less. Of what? The packaging standards that both consumers of wine and industry elitists have grown accustomed to. “It’s a big topic. I mean, it requires a big shift in mindset and behavior on so many levels.” She’s right. The romance of the bottle is hard not to fetishize, whether it’s heavy with thick glass-encased grower Champagne, plump with cork, or dripping with wax and sitting in wicker, long after the buzz has gone. Bottle is wine. Wine is bottle. But is it? Saunders is here to ready you for the (biodegradable) cardboard revolution.

 “I’ve always had a personal commitment to just living in a particular way,” Saunders reveals, “I try to live a sustainable life.” It is this philosophy that brought Saunders to her role as owner of Communal Brands, founded in 2009. After falling in love with wine during a semester abroad in Italy, staying in Florence for grad school, returning to her native New York to practice law, and eventually becoming the east coast account manager for the Judgement of Paris victors, Chateau Montelena, Communal represents the confluence of having a conscious and a passion. She prides herself on working with small producers who subscribe to sustainability practices from grape to glass: responsible farming, low-intervention viniculture, and packaging that thinks outside the box—or, actually, in it. “[For] everything in Communal Brands, we’re exclusively working with packaging I can get behind. Because of the minimal impact, whatever it is, whether it’s bag-in-box or my little bagnums that I do. I haven’t ventured into cans yet, I have mixed feelings about them.” Saunders explains. 

Of all the alternative packaging options, Saunders has narrowed her focus to boxed wine. Yes, boxed. Here’s her sales pitch:

“I just feel like it’s like duh. If you’re going to have your everyday wine, it’s going to be better quality. It’s going to be less material, and it’s good for a month from when you tap it.” Moreover, “bag-in-box” (the very literal nickname for boxed wine) “has the lowest carbon footprint,” Saunders soundly purports. 

The current market is flooded with natural wine because of the enthusiasm from oenophiles on both sides of the distribution line, especially on the coasts. Native yeast, biodynamic, zero/zero, all these buzzwords are bandied about by consumers and professionals alike. But what about what’s outside the bottle? Saunders took it upon herself to answer that question, which turned into her research paper that eventually won her the title of Master of Wine. Her paper, Could the environmental impact of wine packaging affect purchasing of retail wine buyers in New York City?, not only galvanized her career but her morals and business model. 

What did she find? The green cause and its subsequent new style of packaging could change the minds of New York buyers—but not in numbers big enough to start a trend… yet. For as many bike-riding composters in Brooklyn and erudite, foodie liberals there are in Manhattan, she found, “the fact that New York isn’t really ready for it shows me how far away everything else is.” Saunders even found pushback within The Institute of Masters of Wine (the institution that awards the Master of Wine honors). She hones in on the disconnect, “I had to push for my paper because they did not like that I wasn’t writing about something a bit more refined, you know—and I wrote about box wine. There’s that idea that something like that doesn’t fit in, because it’s [not] our history and our tradition. But we’re not going to have any more history if we don’t pay attention to this.”

She looks to European countries as trendsetters in decreasing carbon footprint and how to manage overall carbon measurements. Saunders wryly observes, “the U.S. is not a leader when it comes to stuff like this.” She found inspiration in countries like Sweden, where “60% of their inventory is bag-in-box”, as opposed to the United States, where our market share is less than 10%, according to Saunders’ own research for Porto Protocol, an industry leader in the green initiative. 

But bag-in-box has its drawbacks. 

The bag in question refers to the plastic bladder, which contains the actual wine. Though cardboard is highly recyclable, this plastic counterpart is not. Saunders counters, “everything is trade-offs because there is no one perfect solution.” She further explains, “if you had to choose the fact that this bladder is being diverted to landfill, versus bottles being diverted to landfill, when you look at all the other benefits with packaging, and transport, it’s over 50% of the impact on the environment.” But it’s better than glass. “The fact that you have to throw away the little bag, it’s not great. It’s plastic, and everyone demonizes plastic.” These are the trade-offs that sting. Her research further uncovers that, “switching to a wine in a box for 97% of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.” Saunders cements the issue, “forward-thinking producers that have a lot of notoriety understand that we are an agricultural-based industry and that if we don’t make a shift, we’re going to be screwed.”

Here’s another buzzword, stigma. Changing the market’s perception of boxed wine is arguably the most daunting challenge for Saunders. Even for the most environmentally responsible drinkers, Franzia and its low-quality ilk remain a flashbulb memory. “It’s been a journey because the majority of wines in that format are cheap and crappy.” This is where her zeal for education and design comes into play. “First of all, people buy with their eyes. So, it’s just a disassociation with anything that looks like anything that they would have a negative stigma about.” Thankfully, Saunders has aided in elevating the chic factor of boxed wine. Her Hérisson (hedgehog in French) line consistently sells out, and a new Italian Sangiovese brandishing a swishy, line-drawn fox is sheer shelf-level eye candy. But sadly, those hits remain anomalies because of the most human of emotions, fear and shame. “Most wine consumers admittedly don’t know what they’re buying, or they are very intimidated. They don’t want to come across like they just don’t know that they can get the same level of quality in this other format,” Saunders admits. “So, it is going to be an education exercise. And I think it’s also going to be a pretty heavy marketing exercise that this is acceptable.” In this case, it’s not shallow to love a label. It’s therapeutic.

Saunders’ mission is indeed a heady one. How does one balance tradition with habit with responsibility, all under the guise of progress and simplification? There’s a trickle-down effect, starting with people like Saunders and her producers down to the retailers themselves. “I would say [for] small businesses in general [that] I think they need to be open about their commitment and then be able to demonstrate actions that line up with what it is that they’re saying,” she reinforces. This ethos funnels straight to the wine drinker. “The positive experience that they can have, by drinking this delicious wine—that’s half the price that it would be if it were in a bottle” is an added financial perk, she explains, “because when you strip out the four bottles, the labels the capsule, the weight, and shipping, that gets passed off to the consumer, and you also are, you know, [making] less waste.”  

The longevity of the bag-in-box packaging, from assembly to sipping it for up to 30 days, is key. Using these boxed wines leads to a legacy in recyclability and an acknowledgment from the consumer that the wine—spoiler alert—tastes no different. The packaging also creates a fun, new serving ritual, which is arguably easier than popping an oft unrecycled cork. The beauty of the box is that “it’s not a single-serve thing,” Saunders remarks. Nor is it serving a single person. When you tap that little box, you’re doing a service for all of us.