Why Don't More People (Especially Environmentalists) Drink Bag-In-Box Wine?

CC BY 2.0. Bota Box wine/ Lloyd Alter

Perhaps our perceptions are predicated on the packaging.

From an environmental point of view, bag-in-box wine is almost a no-brainer. As we noted in TreeHugger almost a decade ago, it uses far less packaging, takes up far less space, and costs far less to ship with far less of a carbon footprint. It often costs less, and the fancy multi-layered plastic bag shrinks as the wine is poured, so it stays fresh for weeks. Other than refilling your bottles like they do in France, there's probably nothing greener.

We tried it years ago but were not impressed with the quality of the wine. However, on a recent visit to the liquor store, I noticed the Bota Box containing California cabernet sauvignon and decided to give it a try.

The Bota Box puts its environmental credentials right up front: “Our eco packaging locks in a great taste for a month or more by keeping out light and air.” The cardboard is made from unbleached certified paper, printed with VOC-free ink, bonded with cornstarch instead of glue, and 100 percent recyclable. The bag and spout are “Category 7 recyclables.”

Now that last sentence is a bit disingenuous. Category 7 is “other” -- the stuff that doesn’t fit any other category. In fact, the bags are a very sophisticated system, made of a "co-extruded ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) technology -- a five-layer co-extrusion with EVOH sandwiched between two layers of polypropylene." It has to be separated from the valve and probably is not recyclable at all. But as I noted earlier, it will probably make a damn fine sandwich bag. Others have used the bags to store water. Or like other Category 7 plastics, it might end up in plastic lumber.

me in my boat

Off to the recycling center with lots of wine bottles/ Carol Kleinfeldt/CC BY 2.0

Where I spend the summer, boxed wine makes a lot of sense. I have to bring everything over in a little outboard motorboat and then donate the empties (that's what's in the bow of the boat in the photo, each has a 25 cent deposit) to the local Lion’s Club because there is no convenient bottle return location. For me, bag-in-box wine should be the obvious choice.

But this past weekend we had guests and not a few bottles of wine around, and everyone avoided the Bota Box when they had a choice. The wine isn’t bad; it got a good rating in reviews and Wine Enthusiast gave it a best buy rating.

I think it is the packaging; we are used to bottles, and assume that bag-in-box is going to be cheaper and lower quality, and that affects our perception of its taste.

Coincidentally, Robin Shreeves describes a study that concluded that people decide on the quality of wine on the basis of price, not taste.

Researchers from the INSEAD Business School and the University of Bonn in Germany gave wine to 15 men and 15 women in a controlled setting. Participants were put in a brain scanner and were given one milliliter of wine through a tube. Before they were given the wine, they were told the price. Then they were given that same wine again, but they were told the wine had a different price. Each time they were asked to rate how good they thought it was. The subjects said the higher-priced wine tasted better than the cheaper one, even though they were the same wine.

Shreeves notes that there are other factors that affect our perception of wine; if you are having a good time with friends, you think, "This is a pretty good wine." She continues:

Then there's what's written on the label. Another study showed that descriptions on a bottle can "alter consumer emotions, increase their wine liking and encourage them to pay more for a bottle." If there are a lot of positive sensory descriptors or a lovely history of the winery on the back label, people tend to think more of the wine.
label description on bota box

Flowery description of wine on Bota Box / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The poor Bota Box fails on all of these things; it does have a paragraph on the box describing the wine, but is mostly marketed on the eco credentials and the practicality. And given the choice, we all picked the wine from bottles over the wine in the box.

It has been ever thus; even after all these years of trying to promote green products and green building, even in my own house, choices still come down to emotions, perceptions and sex appeal. I should know better.