WASHINGTON – Some of the hottest-selling wines don’t come in a bottle – they come in a box.

Winemakers have been getting creative with packaging – swapping corks for screwcaps or putting premium varieties like Syrah and Pinot Grigio in boxes – and sales figures show it’s working.

Though just a part of the burgeoning wine industry, sales of premium-priced, 3-liter boxes are increasing faster than any other segment, according to marketing information company ACNielsen.

Jon Fredrikson, an industry consultant based in the San Francisco Bay area, said boxed wines appeal to the growing number of Americans drinking wine more regularly. They want something that doesn’t need uncorking and will last longer than just a few days.

“The advantage of boxed wines is just one of extreme convenience,” Fredrikson said. “Once they’re open, it’s just so easy to draw a nice glass of wine. It’s ideal for working couples, people that are kind of passing in the night.”

Boxes are really bags in boxes with spigots that keep air out. That keeps the wine from oxidizing. Fredrikson did his own taste test to see how the box measured up.

“It drove my wife crazy. I left a box in the refrigerator for about five months. I honestly didn’t notice any deterioration in taste or quality,” he said.

The amount inside is also a good value. A 3-liter box contains the equivalent of four bottles of wine, and the cost translates to around $4 to $5 a bottle for quality wine. A box should keep for at least four weeks after opening.

According to ACNielsen, sales of 3-liter boxes rose 77 percent over the past year to nearly $31 million. The most expensive category, boxes costing $16 or more, saw the most dramatic growth, rising 537 percent to nearly $9 million in sales. ACNielsen records its sales data from supermarket point-of-sale purchases.

Overall wine sales grew about 9 percent to $3.9 billion since last year.

Boxed wine actually has been around for years. But traditionally, it was low-brow stuff that the wine bottle crowd wouldn’t touch.

Not anymore. Now, 90 percent of sales of 3-liter boxes are by people switching some of their buying from bottles. The rest are starting to buy more wine or trying it for the first time, according to ACNielsen. Those figures come from a set of 125,000 households that use in-home scanners from the company to record their purchases.

“There’s a whole group of consumers who are comfortable with purchasing wine that’s not in a traditional bottle,” said Danny Brager, vice president of ACNielsen’s alcohol beverage team. “I believe it’s got some staying power. In some other countries, the segment we’re talking about is much larger than in the U.S.”

In particular, the popularity of screwcap wines has helped boxes overcome their old stigma, said vintner Ryan Sproule, who started Black Box Wines in 2003 and has collected a half-dozen medals for his wines.

“That’s helped us quite a bit – if people can make the mental leap from cork to screwcap, making the leap to a box is a little easier,” Sproule said. “If you asked anyone four years ago about screwcap wine, they’d go, “Oh, I’d never drink that.”‘

Black Box wines aren’t even available in bottles; Sproule figured there was just no room in the market for another bottled wine.

Sproule said he has a cult following of boaters and campers who like the portability of boxes and can toss an empty box on the campfire to burn.

New brands introduced in the past two years make up more than half of boxed wine sales. The top-selling varieties in boxed wine are Chardonnay and Merlot, followed by the more traditional boxed varieties, White Zinfandel and blush. The biggest growth in the past year has been in Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The success so far, and news of a big, good-quality crop of wine grapes in California, have analysts predicting that boxed wine will keep growing.

Still, Fredrikson acknowledges, the box has a lot of baggage. The old standard 5-liter box that sells for $5.99 contains inexpensive blends that are nowhere near as good, he said.

“Some people think, “Oh, it’s in a box, it can’t be good,”‘ he said. “They don’t understand. This is an upscale, premium box.”

On the Net:

ACNielsen: http://www.acnielsen.com

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