At the onset of the pandemic, when shutdowns and furloughs first loomed, consumers went looking for inexpensive wines they could buy in bulk. Enter: boxed wines. Even wine enthusiasts who previously had eschewed them started scarfing up boxed wines. And they haven't stopped, largely because they liked what they found.
In the 15-week period ending June 13, boxed wine sales had jumped 36% compared with the same period last year. Sales remained strong during the slower summer buying season, and continue to outpace previous numbers as winter beckons.
"We have seen an astronomical rise in boxed-wine sales," said Anissa Gurstel, wine buyer for the Lunds & Byerlys chain. "[Boxed wines] are very 'of the moment.' "
How are they an ideal fit for 'the moment'? Let us count the ways.
First, in tough economic times, comes the bargain factor. A 3-liter box contains the same amount of wine as four bottles, so even at $20 (which some cite as the top threshold), that's just $5 per bottle.
Boxed wines also last for up to a month, in contrast to a bottle that, once opened, has a very limited shelf life. So consumers can have one glass on a given night and not worry about preserving what's left.
That makes them enormously convenient not only for those who live alone, but also in households where one prefers red wine and the other likes white (or doesn't drink at all).
With so many customers generally stuck at home, even upscale wine shops such as North Loop have seen a boxed boom.
"Oh, completely, exclamation point, double underline," said North Loop owner Lisa Impagliazzo of the boxed-wine spike. "At first, it was panic buying, 'I need to stock up.' Now they're very comfortable with it. They feel like it's just like buying by the glass. It has gotten people to change how they buy wine. [Boxed wine] doesn't have a stigma anymore."
North Loop feeds the demand — and plays to current stay-at-home scenarios — with free delivery from its Minneapolis Warehouse District location to all over the metro. Other outlets also have seen an upsurge in deliveries.
Another pattern: "People are coming in less often, maximizing their outings," Gurstel said, adding that fewer clients are "coming in every couple of days and getting a bottle for dinner."
Of course, getting people to sample something once is one thing; prompting them to come back for more is another matter entirely. That's where the upticks in quality have forged a rare pandemic story with a happy ending.
"The proof," Gurstel said, "is in the pudding, in the repeat sales."
These improvements started a few years ago, said Haskell's wine director Mitch Spencer. "The quality for domestic ones has definitely gone up," he said. In recent years, imported boxed wines such as Shania and Viña 425 helped spawn a more competitive market.
With improved growing and winemaking techniques worldwide, fermented grape juice from overseas also is finding its way into U.S. products. While Bota Box wines still are sourced from California, Black Box is getting some of its products from other countries: cabernet sauvignon from Chile, chardonnay from Australia and malbec from Argentina. A worldwide grape glut in recent years also has helped the "big boys" find better juice.
Those longtime mainstays still dominate sales — "they couldn't make Bota Box fast enough this summer," Spencer said — but recent converts might be more inclined to try something like Provisions wines from Washington than, say, Franzia.
And the imports are here to stay. Three years ago, savvy Spanish producer Juan Gil expanded its line of Shania boxes, adding sangria and cabernet sauvignon to its monastrell, garnacha blanco and rosé options. An additional boon: Unlike 750-milliliter bottles, the larger pouches are not subject to the tariffs levied late last year on wines from France and Spain.
These and other boxed wines are succeeding with more than just the traditional audience.
"There's an established boxed-wine customer, a mom looking to simplify things," said Guy Willenbacher, Midwest regional manager for Juan Gil importer Blue Ventures Wine Marketing. "Now there's also a new consumer. For the first time in my 25 years we can market to people when they turn 21."
That could help explain a trend noted by USA Today: "Instead of being a badge of poor taste, boxed wine even has become a popular quarantine prop for Instagram photos."
Generations Y and Z differ from their predecessors, Willenbacher said. "First and foremost they do not want to drink what Mom and Dad drink, and boxed wine provides a lot of the things they're looking for: portability, affordability, and they are slightly better for the environment."
The latter factors helped keep boxed-wine sales high during the recent summer, a time when all wine shopping tends to drop off.
"We had people buying [boxes] for the boat and taking them camping, so they don't have to worry about glass breaking," Spencer said.
The summer did bring unexpected but smallish challenges, said Lunds & Byerlys' Gurstel — shipping holdups at ports and even a cardboard shortage — but she still has been able to find 75 boxed offerings to spread around her stores. She said she expects "to see the same sales and buying pattern at least through early spring."
Spencer agreed as he looked back and forward.
"People were home through May, and there was a stock-up factor because people thought liquor stores were going to close," he said. "Then in the summer they realized that wasn't going to happen.
"Now, as things cool down and restaurant patios shut down and options become more limited, we could be right back where we were in March and April."
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.