Italy Relents On Boxed Wine

Italy has said it will now allow wine in a box. Ray Isle, deputy wine editor for Food and Wine Magazine, says the change came when Italians realized they couldn't compete in the global market without changing traditional restrictions on regional wines.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And from China to Italy now, and from food to wine. Italy is finally signed on to the global trend toward wine in a box. That's right. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry has authorized producers to package some wines in non-glass containers. Ray Isle is deputy wine editor for Food & Wine magazine. He joins us from New York. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. RAY ISLE (Deputy Wine Editor, Food & Wine Magazine): Well, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: It sounds like this is a long debate in Italy. What finally changed their mind?

Mr. ISLE: Well, many things are a long debate in Italy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ISLE: What finally changed their minds, I think, was the realization that they weren't going to be able to compete in a global market - which is what wine has become - without changing some of these traditional restrictions they have on regional wines. Because boxed wine is without any question a wave of the future. I mean, its percentage of the wine market keeps increasing with every passing year.

What's interesting is that the real shift has been towards higher-end boxed wine, towards - and this is exactly what this Italian decision represents. What you won't see are wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Chianti Classico, which are the - truly the most famous Italian wines. You will see wines like Rosso Conero, Dolcetto d'Alba, Rosso di Montalcino, wonderful wines, just not the absolute premier top of the heap.

BLOCK: What are the numbers here? How much of the demand is there now?

Mr. ISLE: Well, there's a tremendous demand for boxed wine. You know, in some markets, like in Northern Europe, let's say, where Italy does sell a lot of wine, you know, it maybe 50 percent of the market. In the U.S., I forget where it is exactly, but I think it's in the sort of 9 to 12 percent at this point, and growing rapidly. And one thing, you know, one reason that boxes are immensely popular with wine producers is that they're much cheaper than bottles. It's about, you know, a factor of 10 to 1 in terms of packaging cost.

BLOCK: Is there no downside, no weird aftertaste from that bag, Ray?

Mr. ISLE: Well, you wouldn't want to do it for wine that you're going to age over time. You would eventually - I can only assume - get some kind of chemical interaction between the polyethylene bags that's inside the box and the wine itself. So, definitely, you wouldn't want to put your First Growth Bordeaux in a bag inside a box. But for, you know, a kind of wonderful, you know, juicy, friendly Dolcetto d'Alba, why not? And what you're also going to start seeing are tetra packs, which are like juice boxes.

BLOCK: Totally Italian.

Mr. ISLE: Yeah. It's a slippery slope once you start on this box thing. You know, you'll find your wine in all sorts of containers, like I had an aluminum tube full of wine the other day at work, a sort of interesting twist.

BLOCK: What are these tetra packs like?

Mr. ISLE: Tetra packs - I mean, if you think of a juice box and then expand it to one liter size. It's similar to a box of wine, except that it doesn't have the plastic bag inside. So it's really like a - it's almost like a milk carton of wine. They're very, you know, eco-friendly. They're recyclable. They have, you know, much lesser carbon footprint. You can flatten them out once you're done with them.

And the virtue that a box has over a tetra pack is that inside that plastic bag, there's no air. And when you open the spigot and pour yourself a glass of wine, the bag shrinks down as the wine goes out and there's never any air. The wine actually lasts quite a bit longer than something like a bottle or a tetra pack. You can have, you know, open your box of Rosso di Montalcino and three weeks later, it'll still be good.

BLOCK: No straw on that tetra pack?

Mr. ISLE: Believe it or not, I think I did see an Australian tetra pack wine that did have a straw come with it.

BLOCK: (Unintelligible) Australian.

Mr. ISLE: You know, there's - Australians, whatever the trend is, they're going to be out way in front of it.

BLOCK: Well, Ray Isle, thanks so much.

Mr. ISLE: Thanks for having me. Thanks very much.

BLOCK: Ray Isle is deputy wine editor for Food & Wine magazine.

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